Braided Poetry

January 4, 2012

This post is about kumihimo braiding and Japanese kanji. Braiders will decorate their obijimi with seasonal patterns from Nature (vegetables, butterflies, pine needles, etc.) and very occasionally they will include Japanese kanji on plain backgrounds.

The Iroha ‘poem’

Kana characters “ni-ho-he”; page 2 of 20; the braid pattern is Yayoi Miura’s , the handwritten notes detailing the hand movements and placement of bobbins through the threads are mine

Iroha Poem

My braided ‘Iroha”, right-side up (blue-on-white); the reverse shows the characters in reverse (white-on-blue); about an inch wide

It’s mid-summer here in Australia at the moment and sometimes to take my mind off the fierce heat at this time of year, I throw myself into a textile project. Last year, I put my temari aside and stitched biscornu, for the sake of something completely different. Braiding the Iroha poem is indelibly imprinted on my mind as being associated with four or five days of non-stop braiding, probably around New Year in 2005 or 2006, I can’t remember which. All I can remember is that it was braided in the crucible of extreme heat.

I posted information on braiding this listing of traditional kana characters known as Iroha back in 2009. The sequence of all the ‘letters’ in the Japanese ‘alphabet’ (not dissimilar to “The quick brown fox…” in English) is also a poem in its own right in Japan and has been adapted to braiding on the takadai stand by Yayoi Miura.  The kana characters themselves are written somewhat informally, in a grass style of Kietsu Gire (Edo Period, 1600-1868) but anyone who has studied formal Japanese kana characters will recognise the braided forms relatively easily.

Miura-san provides the look of the characters; the braider has to create their own braiding sequence (see my pencilled notes on the two side panels). They are in pencil so I can quickly fix up any errors. Bascially there are just two Japanese characters used, ue (up) and shita (down) reflecting which threads have to be lifted or pushed down as the bobbin passes through.

Ogura Hyakunin Isshu

The first kanji characters of poem 26, page 1 of 10; the braid pattern is Yayoi Miura’s , the handwritten notes detailing the hand movements and placement of bobbins through the threads are mine

Beyond merely listing the characters of the Japanese ‘alphabet’, there is the business of braiding poetry. Following in the footsteps of Yayoi Miura and her colleagues, who braided all 100 of the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu, a famous collection of poems, I braided just one, #26. I did this by way of preparation for the first International Braiding Conference in 2007 – the second is coming up mid-2012 in Manchester UK. I shan’t be attending the Manchester Conference, but I’m certainly thinking about braiding at the moment; prospective conference participants are surely busy at their braiding stands as we speak! I received a lovely compliment recently on my Iroha braid, but I see I haven’t posted before my efforts with the Ogura Hyakunin Isshu. I was so intimidated by the 2007 Conference exhibition with so many stupendous examples done in silk, I’ve barely touched my takadai loom since, but I will braid this poem or another some day.

Braid Structure: Double-layer pickup.

Source: Poem 26. Yayoi Miura, website

Materials: 2/20 Tencel – red and silver. 4 strands per bobbin. Sourced from Marg Coe, USA.

Equipment: Braidershand takadai. 68 bobbins, 100gm. Standard 16/17/18/17 bobbins on arms, left to right.


Materials. I like to use 4 strands per bobbin. Any fewer with this heaviness of bobbin and the braid becomes too taut. Examples in Japan are done in silk and are somewhat thinner than my example.

Technique.  Since there are no torii edge weaving stitches, the braiding is relatively straight-forward.

Pattern. Mrs Miura’s website complements the published work of Makiko Tada and Rodrick Owen very nicely since she presents a very wide range of very simple plant, insect, animla and other motifs suitable for double-layer pickup braiding, destined for end decoration on obijime. She and her colleagues have moved beyong the usual obijime context to braiding a famous collection of Japanese poems – the 100 Poems by 100 Poets (Ogura Hyakunin Isshu); the collection sports its own interpretative museum in north-west Kyoto, near Arashiyama, called the Shiguraden. I had the opportunity of visiting the museum in 2007; it’s not particularly kind to foreigners who don’t speak Japanese (there are a lot of electronic games for kids) but I’m not aware of too many museums established to celebrate and honour a poetry anthology. Mrs Miura has published a lavish monograph featuring colour plates of each of the braids with accompanying graphed designs (ayagaki) for braiders. The exhibition of the the International Braiding Conference in Kyoto, November 2007, had many examples of braided poems on show – of the long, continuous type (i.e. one long braid wiht a substantial space at the top and bottom of the braid – the poem is located in the bottom 2/3 of the braid). Miura, by contrast, presents the poem as it would traditionally appear on paper, in several lines from right to left. Here the braid is cut up and set behind glass like any Western painting. The poems are often braided on a ‘background’ of delicately-shaded colour, what we would call space-deyed but which the Japanese have formalised (Jacqui Carey, UK, used to sell these pre-dyed lengths of silk ready to braid). The background shading as well as the lower-level colour for the kanji are obviously closely linked to the emotion and content of each of the poems.

A translation by Teishin Ko of the original poem by Fujiwara no Tadahira (in praise of Autumn) is as follows:


Mine no momijiba

Kokoro araba

Ima hitotabi no

Miuki matanan

If the maple leaves

On Ogura Mountain

Could only have hearts,

They would longingly await

The emperor’s pilgrimage.

I’ll post a photo of the finished braid in due course.

References – includes some additional information about Poem 26 Yayoi Miura’s website

Tada, Makiko. Comprehensive Treatise of Braids V: Taka-dai braids 3. Double-layer takadai braids. 

Owen, Rodrick. Making Kumihimo: Japanese Interlaced Braids. Double-layer takadai braids.


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