Karakumi and Hirao sword sash

April 30, 2010

The making of the hirao sword sash on the karakumi-dai braiding loom has been for the most part a little-known aspect of kumihimo braiding outside Japan until recently. Makiko Tada of Tokyo has of late been teaching karakumi-dai basics in the United Kingdom, thus introducing it to the West, but contemporary braiding on the karakumi-dai turned out to be quite a significant activity at the first International Braiding Conference in Kyoto, in November 2007, where many exponents of extraordinary technical calibre in Japan exhibited and demonstrated their work. What follows here is as comprehensive a discussion in English as I can muster on the traditional hirao sword sash, karakumi-dai braiding and contemporary karakumi-dai braiding, stopping short of a detailed description of the hand movements associated with this type of braiding.


Karakumi-dai is described in Noemi Speiser’s definitive book on braiding(1). Virtually the sole literary source in Japanese is Karakumi hirao by Seigyoku Takatsukasa(2). The loom was introduced into England in the 1980s by Rodrick Owen and from an original Japanese stand owned by Edna Gibson, Steve Pretty is now making the stand, publishing plans and has sold over a dozen world-wide in recent years. The basic hand-movements are published by Makiko Tada as part of the proceedings for the recent Kyoto Conference. Arthur J Bryant in his online history of Japanese clothing and accessories (Nihon Yusoku Kojitsu Ron) makes several references to wearing hirao at court. Kyoto’s Period Costume Museum sells postcards showing mannequin models wearing various sashes, hirao and otherwise, as worn by members of the court and others from the 17th century onwards. The volume on embroidery published as part of the Kyoto Shoin Library series devoted to Japanese textiles includes several hirao sashes(3). The male dolls in the Period Costume Museum dioramas, imperial courtier-archers dressed in red and blue robes, wear miniature replica hirao braids which mimic karakumi but in fact are not made using the traditional diamond braid structure. A life-size mannequin there dressed in an orange robe, complete with breastplate and sword, does wear a more authentic diamond-braided waist sash, complete with over-embroidery of phoenix and paulownia flowers. Similarly, life-sized mannequins on show at the Osaka City Museum – Naniwa Period chamberlains – wear a waist sash, though in the plain weave andagumi style, similar to extant Heian Period sashes. This method of tying the braid around the waist with the long tasselled ends hanging down the front has been followed down the ages since. Life-sized costumed mannequins, wearing hirao, are on display at Kyoto Castle and the Kyoto Imperial Palace. The kumihimo studio and retail outlet in Kyoto, Rakuen, near Nanzen-ji in the east of the city, has several excellent examples of karakumi in its upstairs gallery space, including a hirao sash on a karakumi-dai loom.

Hirao sword sash

The hirao is a waist sash, around 10cm wide and 2.5m long, used to hold a tachi sword. The earliest extant hirao seems to be the one held in the Maeda Family collection, dating from the 12th century, with its long purple central section, fading to white at either end. It formed part of the formal dress, known as sokutai or bukan sokutai sugata (literally “civil-official-sokutai-form or appearance”) for men employed at court. The colour of the sokutai was strictly prescribed and represented class and rank at court. For example, men of the fourth class or higher had to wear black. Within this prescribed colour, they distinguished themselves in terms of a variety of hirao. For example, upper fifth class could wear karakumi (interlaced diamond pattern) and anyone below the sixth class could wear kanbata-ori himo (a type of woven cord) or siragi-gumi (anda-gumi or interlaced plain weave) and so on. The hirao was worn as a waist sash and as a sword sash by those allowed to wear a sword (miliary officials, nagon or counsellors, sangi or advisors and anyone else permitted by the Nakatsukasho (Ministry of Central Affairs). Hirao for these ranks seems to contain alternate panels of white and purple. There is, in addition, an hirao which seems to be mainly white with purple ends, as part of a semi-formal outfit.

Karakumi hirao

Karakumi hirao probably originated in China, given that “kara” is the old word for China – “kumi” is the word for braid or knot. The Japanese however probably enhanced this original Chinese braid into the double-diamond (“hishi” in Japanese) that we know today. We know one was preserved in the Horyuji Temple among an important hoard of archaeological finds there in the Yamato Plain near Nara (though the finds themselves have been moved to their important museum venue in Tokyo) and the distinctive surface pattern used here probably became the model for those braided ever since: ten or more interlinked diamonds, with small diamonds at each side, the central braided area being dyed in various shades of colours (kasuri or ikat-dyed)(4) and further over-embroidered with birds and crests. The widest sashes have 25 sections with eight pairs of elements each. Karakumi consisting of just two sections can be executed on the maru-dai (karagumi braid) which we know as sasanami (the top half of the diamond) followed by reverse-sasanami (the lower half of the diamond). A form of karagumi is also possible on the taka-dai loom. Karakumi hirao has been made by the Fukami family for generations as a braid for the Yusoku or Imperial Court. The late 13th Jusuke Fukami (1885-1974) was designated a National Living Treasure in karakumi, the only one among his kumihimo colleagues(5). An example of his karakumi (10cm x 2.25m) is in the Tokyo National Museum and his techniques were partly described in Takatsukasa’s book and were passed on to the late Yuji Furusawa and the late Kazuko Kinoshita(6). Makiko Tada of Tokyo is the only pupil of Kazuko Kinoshita and she continues to work in the karakumi tradition.

 Contemporary karakumidai

The Kyoto Conference saw Japanese and Western exponents of karakumi-dai gathered together and the conference exhibition features many excellent examples of contemporary interpretations of this age-old form, both as sash braids and as flat, dimensional ‘paintings’ under glass in the Western style. Edna Gibson (UK) taught karakumi-dai to Westerners. Contemporary karakumi-dai braiders retain the central panel and two side panels of double diamonds out of respect for the tradition, but are keen on experimenting with colour. Retaining a single colour in the central panel has been replaced by many bright colours; Edna Gibson’s example of an all-purple central panel harks back to the kasuri patterning of purple and white. None on show at the conference displayed the traditional kasuri dyeing or the over-embroidery. Western karakumi-dai exponents have adopted the ‘star’ structure based on starting the braid from a central point and moving outwards, in contrast to the long, rectangular sash of tradition.

Working on the karakumidai

In Kyoto, we were privileged to work with some two-ply silk, originating from the ‘stash’ of National Living Treasure, Fukami. The silk is quite tightly plyed and resembles very thin perle cotton. At the conference, American plastic Ezybobs were available and are easier to wind on the silk than the much more traditional paper-covered feather-weight bobbins. Those from England covered a single English penny in a square of Japanese hanshi paper. We worked a simple double-diamond using 24 bobbins, in six colours of four double threads each. Arranging the colours from light to dark, ungen style, approaches the traditional colour mix. Edna also works very effective karakumidai braids in linen and has been experimenting with karakumi in the round, thus producing remarkably sculptural three-dimensional effects. Edna showed us how to most effectively transfer the “weft” threads through the “warps” by passing them between the fingers. As other students have noted, most of the effort and time goes in to tweaking the threads into position once braided – to this extent it is closer to finger-weaving than other kumihimo braiding. Of particular note is the extent to which threads dyed before braiding have to eventually “line up” when the colour changes from white to purple. Makiko Tada indicated that a competent braider can work a diamond in thirty minutes, but that the traditional sash takes two-and-a-half years to braid. The koma pins around the entire square of the loom come into play as threads have to be tucked away in order to braid individual diamonds. In this regard, the green plastic rod on the Rakuen karakumi-dai shows some of the bobbins being tucked away in the back instead of the sides. I gather that there is quite a range of techniques in handling the bobbins and the hand-movements between different kumihimo teachers. Contemporary textile art and fashion designer Akihiko Izukura has developed his own loom for weaving karakumi diamonds “spirally”(7).


Kawakami, Shigeki. Japanese Embroidery. Kyoto: Kyoto Shoin, 1993.

Owen, Rodrick Making Kumihimo. East Sussex: Guild of Master Craftsmen Publications Ltd, 2004.

Speiser, Noemi. The Manual of Braiding. Switzerland, self-published.

Tada, Makiko ed. Proceedings of the First Braiding Conference, Kyoto 2007. Tokyo: Texte, 2007.

Takatsukasa, Seigyoku. Karakumi hirao (Royal sashes of karakumi). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1972.



 (1) Speiser has a basic line drawing of the dai (p.64), discusses movements of the bobbins (pp.58-67) in the context of similar braids (Canadian Assomption sashes, Peruvian turban braids) and has b&w illustrations of same (Plate 9B).

 (2) Seigyoku Takatsukasa, Karakumi hirao (Royal sashes of karakumi). Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1972, is the first written report of a tradition otherwise transferred orally through the generations from master to pupil by a few famous specialists.

 (3) See the chapter headed “Kamakura and Muromachi Periods”, Plate 10 (p.20), side diamonds with embroidered birds and landscape, late Kamakura Period; Plate 12 (page 22), hirao sash, embroidered plovers on an indigo-blue ramie cloth background, framed with four-coloured stripes rather than karakumi diamonds –  a theatrical bugaku costume accessory, Muromachi Period.

 (4) Rathbun (Beyond the Tanabata Bridge) on p.54 discusses how hirao, technically being paired oblique twill interlacing, deployed thread resist well before the importation of this technique from the Ryukyu Islands to mainland Japan in the 16th century.

 (5) Mary Duysenbury, Braiding in Japan, p.88.

 (6) Rodrick Owen in his Making Kumihimo (p.20) and again in Strands #13, 2006 (Braid Society UK Journal) uses an illustration of Kinoshita’s reproduction of a karakumi from the earlier Asuka Period (552-645), the original from Horyuji, two diamonds in width. A sash from the Heian Period typically had a series of 12 diamonds in a row (horizontally) and it was about 2.5-3in wide.

 (7) Americans None Redmond, Carol Goodwin, Giovannia Imperia, Ann Rock and others have their work illustrated online at http://www.weavershand.com (see Kumihimo Gallery).




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