Tag Archives: braiding

Is Victorian Hairwork Akin to Kumihimo?

So, in one of those brilliant ah-ha moments, my day job as a museum curator collided with 52 Lasers. Have you ever heard of Victorian Hair Jewelry?  Made from braided, woven or otherwise intricately arranged stands of hair, it was popular in the 19th century as a way to remember loved ones.  It was made into necklaces, earrings, watch fobs, brooches and they even would make hair wreaths for the wall.  Kim Poovey’s Victorian Hairwork Pinterest board shows good variety of examples.

16 strand set up from Mark Campbell's 1867 book
16 strand set up from Mark Campbell’s 1867 book.  Look familiar?
16 strand set up.
My 16 strand set up from Week 15

How is hairwork like the kumihimo I made back in week 15?  The original tools are nearly identical.  In doing research on the hair jewelry at the museum, I stumbled across the book “Self-Instructor in the Art of Hair Work, Dressing Hair, Making Curls, Switches, Braids, and Hair Jewelry of Every Description” by Mark Campbell, published in 1867, and now available for free thanks to Project Gutenberg.  Flipping through the book, the patterns look exactly the same.

 

 

 

 

 

 

And the “braiding table” could have easily been a marudi (which modern kumihimo disks were derived from.)  I will admit I’m not the first person who had the ah-ha moment – when I was looking for examples for this post, I saw that the Victorian Hairwork Society sells marudai for this exact purpose.

Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry
Most hair work in the Victorian period was done by professional that also made other forms of jewelry.  Image from Mark Campbell’s book

I love it when parts of my life collide.  With the tools being so similar, though, I was curious if they had similar origins.  According to    author of Love Entwined, “European colonists in North America brought a tradition of making decorative objects made of human hair with them.”  Internet sources say the roots of this tradition are fro Scandanavia, (but they don’t site resources, of course!)  The most detailed account is half way down on this page; it tells the birthplace was Vamhus, Sweden.    It appears they already did braiding (so no solid start date), but a financial crisis forced them to sell their wares to the world.

Most sources (again, on the internet) cite the first mentions the origins of of kumihimo in Japan’s Nara Period (645-784 AD). Generally, very little is known about the history of kumihimo – the braids were not considered significant.  The theories seem to agree it came from finger loop braiding, and that it likely came from mainland China.  There are whispers that there is research that has connected Japanese kumihimo with European braiding, but I wasn’t able to locate the original theory or the author.  I found interesting write ups on the the history of kumihimo here and here.

Hopefully this wasn’t “tldr” – I fell down the braiding internet rabbit hole of research.  It would be fun to try some of the hair braids in a modern kumihimo disk. (Horse hair is a good and Victorian-approved substitute if you aren’t ready to part with your own just yet!)

15: Kumihimo Disks

I was first introduced to Kumihimo (Japanese cord braiding) by Becka Rahn of the Minnesota Textile Center. She was teaching shoppers at Craftravaganza in St. Paul, Minnesota. I was stuck in my booth for the show so I couldn’t try it there, the idea stayed with me. (Shameless plug: Isette will again be at Craftstravaganza Saturday, May 10th.  Come check it out, it’s a cool show!)

16 strand set up.
16 strand set up
16 strand braid in progress, coming through the center hole
16 strand braid in progress, coming through the center hole

A very basic explanation of kumihimo: you move threads around a disk in a specific repeating pattern that causes the threads to overlap and make a cord.  You need a minimum of 8 strands, and from what I can tell, there is no maximum.  There are tons of tutorials on-line, and it’s a very cheap hobby to try out!

Becka taught people how to braid on homemade cardboard disks – it seemed quite reasonable to make one on my laser.  After researching kumihimo on-line, I learned 3 things:

Fact 1: Modern of kumihimo disks are based on the tool called a Marudai, which make braided cords and is stool like, not hand held.  The other big difference is that it is smooth on the edge – no individual slots for threads.

Fact 2: Most commercially available kumihimo disks have 32 slots, and are round. Square disks are also available, marketed to make square or flat braids.

Fact 3: 32 strands is an artificial limit to the braid, and square / flat braids can also be made on a round disk – the square ones just make the threads and repetition easier to keep track of.

So, having never actually made a kumihimo cord in my life, I set out to make a versatile disk with more options than the 32 slot version.  (Ah, hubris.) That, and I didn’t want to simply copy what you could go to your local craft store and buy.  Overall, I’d call it a success – I made some beautiful braids.

Braid in the order I made them.  12 strand twist, then a 8-strand. 16 strand, and then the 32 strand Mitake Style
Braids in the order I made them. 12 strand twist, a 8-strand, a 16 strand, and then the 32 strand Mitake Style

Design change 1: squarish design – more like a puffy cube.  It still can rotate in the hand, but has the “corners” marked directionally to keep track for square/flat designs. Verdict: win.  The disk worked well for both round and flat braids, and could rotate in my grip.

Design change 2: Go big – 48 strands can go on the disk (I read somewhere that I can’t find now that kumihimo thread slots should increase 4 at a time).  Verdict: toss-up.  It basically made this disk impossible for beginners – almost all the tutorials on-line are for 32 slot disks.  But it is not hard to extrapolate the data if you are not depending on the numbers to tell you where to move your thread to, but instead use visual placement.  The bonus is that it allows for larger, more complex braids. 

You can she the size difference 1.5 inches makes!  Green one was the first attempt, the almond one was used for the rest
You can see the size difference 1.5 inches makes! Green one was the first attempt, the almond one was used for most of the braids

Design change 3: With the go big idea, the original disk was roughly 6.5 inches across.  Marudai are quite large, so I figured with a larger diameter, it might be easier to work with. Verdict: loss.  Part of keeping the tension on the braid with the handheld disk is pinching the center of the circle from the top and the bottom – there was no way my hands could reach that.  Even the second version, 5 inches across, was a bit to big for comfort, and I don’t have dainty hands.  I’ll make the next one 4.5 inches.

The thumb in the center helped me keep the tension even as I was moving the threads - like sticking your finger in to hold the knot before you make a bow.
The thumb in the center helped me keep the tension even as I was moving the threads – like sticking your finger in to hold the knot before you make a bow.

The laser cutter is a great way to make kumihimo disks, and quite versatile.  It is relatively simply to design one with more or less slots, and the durability of the acrylic allows for more handling than a homemade one from cardboard.  The acrylic disk is more rigid than the foam store-bought versions, and there isn’t as much “grab” to your thread.  This makes it more important to watch the tension while braiding so it doesn’t get sloppy.  It doesn’t take long to get a rhythm going though, and it can be quite fun!

If you’d like to try your hand at your own kumihimo, here are some helpful hints:

Get a pattern for your own disk, which you can easily cut from cardboard.

– Check out You-tube videos to see the movement of the braiding – sometimes the written instructions can be a bit daunting.  Start with the 8 strand kumihimo and work your way up.

The color picker I used for the 8 strand cord is great to see how the colors you pick will work!

– Craft Design On-line has a great kumihimo braid gallery, and is where I got the patterns for the 16 strand and the Mitake style cord.  They allow you to customize the strands with your own colors!  I also like they give instructions for the marudai as well as the disk.

The hardest braid I did, this one requires 32 strands and was originally intended for the marudai, not a disk.  I had to keep adjusting the placement of the strands so there was room.  This strand has 32 threads, and is impossible to make on a standard kumihimo disk.
The Mitake is the hardest braid I did.  It 32 strands and was originally intended for the marudai, not a disk. I had to keep adjusting the placement of the strands so there was room to continue the braid. The Mitake is impossible to make on a standard kumihimo disk.