An Imperial ‘Bathroom’ braid

June 11, 2009

 imperial kyoto 1
I’ve posted remarks on basic twill weave braids done on the  taka-dai. Here is a four-twill or yonken-gumi: design 7 on p.24 of Makiko Tada’s first taka-dai book. A basic and pretty foolproof braid. Tada mentions the four-twill braid structure is mentioned in the Shika Suuyou braiding manual of 1826 as an odoshi braid used in samurai yoroi armour probably because of its thickness and strength.
What’s special about this braid for me is that it’s an attempt to re-create an authentic braid used to decorate furniture in the imperial bathroom of the Kyoto Imperial Palace. A small tourist guide, Ishikawa’s Palaces of Kyoto, introduced me to the use of kumihimo braiding in traditional soft furnishings and furniture fittings. Specifically, this book describes the Imperial Palace of Kyoto and contains coloured photos of the Seiryo-den.  The Seiryo-den is a building used, until the middle of the Heian Period (784-1184), as the emperor’s private residence. Since it was not built for ceremonial purposes, it is more compact and orderly. On the more private western side of the palace complex is this room where the emperor, after he had dressed in the morning, came to wash his hands. Large braids are slung through holes in the heavy wooden sliding walls of the Emperor’s dressing room and thus form doorknobs of a sort. Other braids are used as handles on large lacquered pots. In the room are two low tables, their tops covered in light green woven cloth with surface designs of flowers, including paulownia. An inch-wide (3cm) flat braid is threaded through the cloth around its borders, about an 1.5 inches (5cm) from the edge all round.


imperial kyoto 2

On a visit to Kyoto in 2003, I was unable to visit the Imperial Palace, since that required a written application from overseas in advance. But I was able to spend time in the Kyoto Costume Museum (Fuzoku Habkubutsukan). Located in the centre of Kyoto, within walking distance of the central railway station, it is in a non-descript office block – at first not easy to find. Several storeys up, above shops selling Buddhist wares for the most part, this Museum features a large main room with a static display which changes every three months. At the time of my visit, the display was a wooden miniature palace without its roof, allowing an overview of the various rooms and various Heian women clad in the elaborate multi-layered hitoe over-garments of the period. Off the main room is a much smaller one where stand several mannequins in Heian costume and a space for visitors to try on kimono. Nearby was a small table with a light green woven cloth on its top and a wide flat braid threaded along its borders. This Museum is just about the only one in Kyoto which permits photography and it was only when studying the photograph I took of the braid back home after the trip did I realise that the table was a copy of one in the Imperial Palace ‘ bathroom’.

In a repeat visit in November 2007 to the museum, the number of furniture pieces had grown: a rectangular 2×3 feet black laquer table with two shelves (nikaidana, two-level table) featuring a tablecloth in dark green brocade with bamboo, trailing vines and pawlonia flowers. Laced through it around the perimeter is a 3/4″ flat braid, with accompanying agamaki musubi knots at each corner, in the same colours as the braid. The whole thing resembles a large fukusa or traditional wrapping cloth with tassles. The table has a companion: a small chest on shelves, naikai zushi, also black lacquer with a green cover of traditional roundles featuring the karabana flower. Here the flat braid is a round braid in orange, white, red and green, laced together to form flat knots, laced in a similar way around the cover’s perimeter.

The flat braid – as deduced from my photo (I trusted my camera enough not to take detailed notes of the braid at the time) – is a 4/4 or four-ridge twill, called Yonkengumi in Japanese (literally “four-type braid”). Originally it would have been woven by the loop manipulation process, using loops on the fingers passe from hand to hand, without any equipment. It uses five colours in silk – white, lavender, pale green, orange and gold. From recollection, the braid would not have been wider than an inch.

While there is nothing particularly special about the braid’s structure – it is common throughout Japanese braiding history – both Tada (2) and Owen (3) note the use of these particular colours as talismans to ward off misfortune. The colours were worn in the years considered lacking in fortune – 16, 37, 45 and 61 years of age.

I normally do test samples of braids in 2/20 weaving yarn because of the relatively high cost of silk and silk-substitute (biron yarn). If done in silk-substitute or biron, as commonly used by kumihimo braiders, the five colours as supplied by Weavershand (USA) would be as follows: white, lavender, pale green, orange, gold.

As my photographs show, the flat braid around the perimeter of the table is laced through the green covering cloth. It is complemented by smaller round braids, worked in the same colours, attached to the four corners which are tied into musubi knots of the agamaki variety.

My braid is not an exact copy of the Imperial Palace braid, but inspired by it. I worked it on a taka-dai loom, with 25 bobbins, 4 strands per bobbin of 2/20 tencel: white, red, bronze, grey and green.


(1) Ishikawa, Tadashi, Palaces of Kyoto. Kodansha, 1968. (Library of Congress, 68-17461).

(2) Tada, Makiko, Comprehensive treatise of braids IIII: taka-dai I. Tokyo, Texte, 1998

(3) Owen, Rodrick Kumihimo: Japanese oblique interlacing. GMC, 2004.


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