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Kumihimo Tradition

Michael Hattori from Kumihimo Braiders International Facebook posting on March 16, 2016

In the spirit of honoring and teaching this community about the Japanese tradition of kumihimo, I am re-posting a response I wrote to another braider here who was going to share an unpublished braid pattern which he was given by another braider, but without having asked permission first; and not as an admonishment, but rather as valuable information for all.

The gist of it is: if you find a braid in Japanese book or on a website that does not have instructions, there is usually a reason for it; most often, it is a braid that is specific to a particular school, a "trademark" braid, if you will, that may be considered proprietary and as such, not to be shared publicly. This is a foreign concept to most outside of Japan, where this kind of thing is taken very seriously, to the point (as stated below) that a written non-disclosure agreement must be signed before one may begin a course of instruction. This may seem harsh or ridiculous, but it is not unfounded.

This stems from the fact that kumihimo used to be, until very recently, purely guild-based, and these guilds fiercely protected their "secret" braids since they were what made that particular school's or guild's braids more attractive. This went to the point that even within the guilds, the braiders would hide their braids from each other! Younger apprentices were never "taught" anything, but had to glean what they could purely by watching.

I am in the process of translating two books on kumihimo that were written in the 1970s by master braiders who were in their 80s and 90s and talk about how difficult it was as an apprentice. There are some great interviews with these people (all men... women were the mainstay braiders, but could not head a guild) and when I've finished, I will post some of the translations here - they are truly revelatory!!

So, here is the original post to the person who had an unpublished braid pattern, and any comments are welcome:

To explain: many people are not aware that in Japan, when you study with a particular school of kumihimo, more often than not you must agree to never share unpublished braids, or braids that are particular to that school. One of our KBI members attended the Hakubi School, where she was made to sign a real "non-disclosure" agreement. This is something the Japanese take quite seriously. The man from whom you got the pattern for the Kikyo braid, has studied with a Japanese teacher for more than 20 years. Unless he gave you explicit permission to share the instructions publicly, then please assume that it is not OK unless you ask.

Along the same lines, there are braids, like the Dômyô Chûsonji braid in my box photograph, which have taken me months and years to figure out on my own; because of this great effort, I am not necessarily willing to just give out that information.

When you become a very advanced braider, you reach a point where there is nothing left except braids for which there are no instructions and the fun of braiding lies in the challenge of unraveling the puzzle of how to make those braids.

I do not know what your level of expertise is with kumihimo; if you are a beginner ( which to me means you have been braiding less than a year or two), I would suggest buying Makiko Tada's book on marudai braids, and Jacqui Carey's books, "Japanese Braiding: The Art of Kumihimo," and "Creative Kumihimo." Both are available on Amazon, and you can get Makiko's book from BraidersHand.

Once you have these, you should systematically go through every braid in those books and learn them well. When you reach that point you will be an intermediate level braider. And, when you look at a marudai braid, chances are you will immediately understand how it is made, or at least have a good idea.

John Whitley from Kumihimo Braiders International Facebook posting on March 17, 2016

Following on Michael’s post on the history of and approach to unpublished braids; I'll add some thoughts of my own. Beyond the history and culture around craft guilds in Japan, I've come to believe there's another important and practical reason that some of the "amazing" braids remain "secret": we, the international community of braiders, need the challenges.

As it happens, there's a good mix in the existing books of braids from the most basic structures up to some pretty complex braids. There's a lot to pour over and learn from. But then there are the over-the-top braids: in Makiko Tada’s books, there are a number of photos-only braids, such as her amazing 288-Ryomen-Sou-Kikko braid. There's the Dômyô Chusonji braid that Michael and I have posted about. The original works of artists like Jenny Parry. If we're "climbers", then these works represent the "mountains" that inspire us to reach the summit. Imagine a world where a mountain flattened out after the first climber reached the top! (Hint: it'd be very, very flat.)

That said, there's a lot of room to improve the teaching and understanding of braid structures, especially outside of the Japanese schools. Michael’s taking up this work directly in his teaching, notably with his "Braid Reconstruction Basics" class at the Braids 2016 conference in Seattle this summer. I'm working on plans around both teaching and publishing as well, to help fill this gap. So we really, really do want braiders to advance their skills. Because the effort of conquering these braids isn't the end; it's the beginning, where you develop the skills to expand the boundaries of what's been done before.