Kumihimo – tsuka-ito sword braid
December 12, 2012
I’m reviewing what I know (and don’t know) about Japanese sword braids, because alongside braids for making Japanese decorative knots, for making obijime waist sashes to wear with kimono, there are at least two more kinds of kumihimo, being made today, which are functional and associated with Japanese swords: the thin tsuka-ito used for wrapping the hilt of the sword and sageo used for attaching the sword to the waist.
To begin, tsuka in Japanese means “sword handle” and ito means “thread”. There are various types of ito associated with Japanese samurai armour and accessories, so tsuka-ito contains the idea of “handle wrapping”.
Today my length of dark red tsuka-ito arrived from China and I thought I’d compare its width with a bunch of sundry other Japanese braids I’ve made, test or learning braids with no anticipated functional purpose.
From the top, then:
1. photo of a sageo attached to a Japanese sword in the Osaka City Museum. They have a special section on permanent display devoted to sword blades as well as examples of sageo such as this, as well as a range of tsuka-ito braids of many many colours in drawers (I imagine they must have someone come in and demonstrate to the public how the tsuka-ito is tied to the sword hilt.) Like others of its type, you can see its not too thin and nice and plump. I don’t know for sure how wide sageo are when used by iaido sword play practitioners, but you can see that my braids approximating this type are around 1.5cm to 2cm wide. The thing about the sageo on this braid is that it’s tied in a standard decorative, non-functional knot – for display purposes only when not in use. These days, there are videoclips on Youtube and elsewhere showing how this elaborate display knot is tied.
So if I’ve posted a photo of a sageo here, what has that to do with tsuka-ito? The white-outlined kikkoh braid is obviously a sageo, but have another look and take in the thinner dark green braid underneath. I’ve no idea what this green braid is doing here but it looks awfully like a “stray” piece of tsuka-ito, since tsuka-ito is supposed to be on the sword hilt, not on the outside of the sword as here.
2. The second is the dark red Chinese tsuka-ito, 1cm wide, made from rayon thread and commonly available for Japanese sword enthusiasts. It’s sold by the metre or, in this case, in 10m lots. It’s a double-layer Takadai braid so if I was attempting to copy it, I’d be going for 56 bobbins using a standard, single-colour Nimai-Kourai-gumi pattern, which would give me six ridges (whereas 60 would give me seven). Most Japanese sword experts would stick to Japanese tsuka-ito and perhaps go for traditional silk. The everyday variety is Chinese, of rayon. It’s possible these days to see it available in cotton (in 6mm and 8mm), leather, high quality doeskin and suede. It is normally sold as 10mm wide, i.e. when “relaxed” which becomes 8mm wide when pulled tight on the sword handle.
3. This is the two-colour une-gumi sample I’ve braided this week on Takadai. I prepared the bobbins with only six strands of 20/2 weaving yarn so the whole thing felt like I was braiding a miniature braid. When I finished, I had a flashback to the Kyoto kumihimo studio/workshop/retail outlet, Adachi Kumihimo-kan, where I saw what looked like miniature braids, as I imagine apprentices would braid – what seemed like 50% the size of ordinary obijime, arranged vertically on cardboard supports.
4. What follows are braids I’ve done in years past. I guess I had a need to make ‘substantial’ braids with some heft and handle. This fourth is the kikkoh from Rod Owen’s book on Takadai and it’s 15mm wide.
5. My test Saidaiji-gumi has nothing to do with Japanese sword braids. On the contrary, the original was 3mm wide, a square braid, and was used for wrapping up Buddhist sutras. Mine is nearly 9mm wide. Its religious function is a far cry from braids deployed in armour for the battlefield.
6. Next is a 2cm-wide braid, another plain kikkoh, red hexagons on a yellow ground, done this time on Ayatakedai.
7. The last one is another Ayatakedai braid (this time done in 20/2 tencel), 22mm wide.
Here’s how the tsuka-ito is tied with its distinctive cross-over point. The photo below left shows how it’s tied on pieces of wood; the second below right shows it wound on the hilt of the sword with the stingray skin (same in Japanese) underneath showing through. The textured rayskin was excellent for keeping a strong hold on the sword when in the battlefield. The skin is normally an off-white colour; if it’s any dyed colour (e.g. red, black), it’s as a result of lacquer being applied after the skin is fitted to the sword and before the tsuka-ito braid is wound on.
Actually braiding by hand a length of tsuka-ito is more an academic exercise than anything else these days. A 12-inch sword handle would require 16 feet of tsuka-ito and commercially machine-made braid in silk is available for as little as $US3.75 a foot. That said, it is possible to buy, for 24 pounds sterling per metre, silk tsuka-ito braided in Sasanami (in one or two colours), so a kumihimo braider could create some bespoke tsuka-ito in Sasanami-gumi (see Makiko Tada, Book III-Takadai I, design 14 on p.37 with 49 bobbins) but it would have to be just 10mm wide.
Will I have a go at braiding some tsuka-ito in an “exotic” pattern such as sasanami? Sure, but probably only in the context of moving towards examples of thinner “miniature” Takadai braids than I have in the past, rather than metres and metres of tsuka-ito. Far better to have a go at making 2-metre-long sageo braids instead. More on sageo in an upcoming post!