You don’t have to be a master at crafts to try out the centuries-old Japanese art of kumihimo. That’s what instructor Charles Dodge told a class on April 27 at the downtown branch of the Olathe Public Library.
Kumihimo is a method of Japanese braiding traditionally used to make cords. About 15 years ago, Dodge took a class in kumihimo as part of an event with the Society for Creative Anachronism. Since then, he’s also learned Japanese loop braiding, which is a bit more involved.
“It’s something we haven’t offered before,” said Amy Eiben, adult programming librarian. “Our patrons tend to respond pretty well to craft- and art-oriented programs, so we thought it would be really neat to try and offer this, since we had someone familiar with the art.”
Dodge said he likes that it’s easy to improvise once you know the basics.
“Whether it’s the kumihimo or the loop braiding, you can take a known pattern and change just a few colors or the placement of colors and create a whole new braid,” he said. “You can change things and experiment with things. There’s no wrong way to do it if you’re just playing.”
Saturday afternoon, it took most of the class time for participants to set up an eight-strand round cord braid. Those taking the class had to measure and cut lengths of embroidery floss, then wind eight bobbins with the floss.
Next came the kumihimo disk, a round piece of foam with 32 notches on it. To set that up, you knot all your colors together, use a clothespin to weight it down and drop that through a hole in the middle of the disk.
After that, the braiders were able to get in a rhythm, moving the strands methodically from the top to the bottom of the disk — and vice versa — before rotating the disk and starting it over again.
“I like it. It’s a lot like macramé. It’s something I can do at home to keep my mind and my hands busy,” said Olathe resident Andrea Robinson, who came to the class.
Once it’s all set up, the kumihimo disk looks almost like a jellyfish, with the round disk at the top and the eight bobbins of working floss dangling below.
An advantage of kumihimo is that you can put a project down at any point to pick up later. That was good news for the braiders Saturday, because after the set up, they didn’t have time to get too far on their braids but were able to take them home to work.
“The end result looks really neat. It’s really amazing, and you wouldn’t think – or I wouldn’t think – that it would be as simple as it is,” Eiben said.
Although the braids were new to the class, they stretch back many centuries in Japan.
“I had no idea what it was. It just sounded interesting and exotic,” said Olathe resident Courtney Tyrrell, who participated in the class.
Dodge said that kumihimo was the traditional art form for making things like laces for armor and clothing ties.
“Japanese braiding, whether it’s loop braiding or kumihimo, has been a central part of Japanese life for over 10,000 years,” he said.
He hopes to teach more Japanese braiding classes to the community in the future.