The Silk Standard
Just as gold is the standard for many monetary systems, silk is the standard for kumihimo or Japanese braiding. For many fiber enthusiasts, silk is a precious commodity, every bit as valuable as gold. In Japan, silk is commonly sold to kumihimo braiders in pre-measured amounts. This amount is divided into a number of working ends or elements. The pre-measured amount of silk is used for braiding an obijime, the cord which secures the popular style of obi, the otaiko musubi.
Because the silk obijime is the standard for cord making in Japan, it is interesting to use the silk standard for adapting other braiding materials. Even in Japan there are variations in this "standard". Looking at various Japanese kumihimo books, I have seen the following variations:
length of pre-measured elements varies from 2.4 meters to 2.65 meters to 2.7 meters
weight of a package of silk varies from 42 grams to 45 grams
finished length of obijime (with 35% take-up) varies from 1.44 meters to 1.5 meters
number of ends in an 8 tama element varies from 80 to 90 individual strands of silk
I chose a package of silk purchased at the Adachi Braiding Studio in Kyoto, Japan as the silk standard. The length of the pre-measured elements is 274 centimeters, (108" or 3 yards). The package of silk weighs 42 grams, and there are 720 individual ends of silk in the entire package. If I were making an 8 tama cord, I would use 90 ends per element. For a 16 tama cord I would use 45 ends, and for a 24 tama cord I would use 30 ends. Each cord would use the entire amount of 720 ends.
To adapt other materials to this silk standard, I used a counterbalance gram scale. On one side of the scale, I placed an element from an 8 tama bag of silk. I knew three things about this element: it had 90 ends of silk in it, it was three yards long, and it weighed a little more than 5 grams. For the material I was going to compare to this element, I had two known values: it had to be three yards in length and it had to weigh a little more than five grams. I began measuring out three yard lengths of the new material and placing these ends on my scale. When the two sides of the scale came into balance, I counted the number of individual strands in the new fiber -- this became the "silk standard" for the new material.
If you have a counterbalance weight, but don't have access to silk, use one skein of DMC Perle Cotton 5. It weighs a fraction more than 5 grams, exactly the same weight as one element from an 8 tama bag of silk. When wound into 3 yard warp, one skein of DMC Perle cotton yields exactly 9 working ends per braiding element (versus 90 for silk!).