Comprised of 100% Silk Cord, woven in Kyoto, combined with a White Bronze Buckle, carved and fabricated in Los Angeles, this is a piece that has been years in the making.
It all began with a belt that I got over a decade ago from the beloved, and now defunct NY-based brand, A Détacher. The original belt was made of a braided leather cord and finished with a simple double loop on the end that allowed one to fasten it in the same manner as our new version. It was like nothing I had ever seen, and so versatile, I found myself wearing ALL The Time. I wore it over shirts.. dresses… with pants.. I wore it for years. And years. Until I finally wore it to shreds.
We visited "Showen Kumihimo," the company in charge of the production, to learn more about the history and origins of braided Kumihimo cords, which have been used for over 1,000 years.
When you hear the word "Kumihimo", what comes to mind? A traditional Japanese handicraft. Kimono Obi-jime belt. To me, that was it.
That’s why I was surprised and marvelled when I encountered the dazzling world of Kumihimo at "Showen Kumihimo," a manufacturer in Uji City, Kyoto, and was completely fascinated by it. Now, I am a big fan of Kumihimo.
My first question was ‘what is a Kumihimo?’ According to Shohei Nose of Shoen Kumihimo, "Most of the common cords in the world are Kumihimo.”
What? Kumihimo is a ‘Kyoto thing’ recognized as a traditional craft and ‘something only found in Japan,’ right? His response was no. "Cords with the same structure as Japanese Kumihimo exist all over the world."
Okay...Then, what structure?
Mr.Nose says "we divide cord into three categories: knitting, weaving, and braiding.”
"Knitting," as you know, refers to a structure in which a single thread is hooked and tied in a series of loops, just like knitting woolen yarn. When the thread is untied, it returns to a single strand.
“Weaving" is a structure in which the weft threads run in a direct line with the warp threads, as can be seen from the swiping motion of the loom.
Then there is "braiding," which is a spiral structure, made by intricately intertwining bundles of three or more threads. There are many types of cords in the world, which are specifically called ‘Kumihimo’ in Japan.
Mr. Nose says "I think it is because Japan is a unique country that has developed cord in its own way and has even found spirituality within them."
A cord is a primitive tool for connecting one thing to another in order to create a new function. So all over the world, every civilization has had a culture of cordmaking. Then there came a time when cord making fell into disuse as cultures developed interests in weaving and knitting techniques. At least in the rest of the world. However, Japan, has deviated from this common logic, showing a deep interest in "braiding," and has deepened the development of Kumihimo.
Looking back at history, it is said that braided cords came to Japan from the continent more than 1,400 years ago via the Silk Road as part of Buddhist ritual implements, along with Buddhism. First to the Heijo-kyo capital in Nara, and then to the Heian-kyo capital in Kyoto. People at that time must have found braided cords useful as well as beautiful. Since then, braided cords have been widely used for ornaments in temples and shrines as well as for the costumes of the aristocrats. It is said that a ministry in charge of Kumihimo existed in the Heian period (794-1185).
As time passed, and warriors began to wear swords and armor, Kumihimo began to be used in new ways. People preferred to wrap Kumihimo around the handles of swords and each piece of armor was bound together with Kumihimo. Warlords even designed their own armor by combining Kumihimo in their favorite colors.
Once the culture of Chanoyu (tea ceremony) began to flourish, Kumihimo was used for tea ceremony utensils, such as tea caddies (called Shifuku). Tea masters often tied the cords into intricate knots like butterflies and flowers. "In those days, Chanoyu was a place of politics. To prevent guests from being poisoned, masters guarded their teas with knots that only they could untie. The knots of the Kumihimo also worked as keys," says Mr. Nose.
It was during the Edo period (1603-1868) that Kumihimo finally came to be used as Obi-jime belts to tie Kimonos. Women used to wear narrow Obi belts, but Oiran, the fashion leaders of the time, brought in wider Obi belts and began to use Kumihimo to fasten the Obi on top. The elasticity of the Kumihimo played the role of "tightening" the obi around the body in a modest manner, neither too tight nor too loose.
While Kumihimo was admired with its functionality in each era, the Japanese craze for Kumihimo has never cooled down. But wait, I’m still wondering why Kumihimo was so valued. Did sword handles really have to be wrapped with Kumihimo?
"I think it has something to do with spirituality," says Mr.Nose. "The Japanese word ‘musubu’ (tie) comes from a god that appears in ancient Japanese mythology. It originated from the sound ‘musuhi’, which meant that by merging things, new energy would be born.” Because of this sacred background, Japanese Kumihimo has come to be considered more than a functional tool or ornament: ‘something that possesses power’ and ‘something that protects you’. This is why Kumihimo were eagerly incorporated into Buddhist ritual implements at temples and into swords and armor. The amulets with Kumihimo cords and knots sold at shrines are also an expression of spirituality. "The Japanese people have long relied on invisible power when they could not do something by their own strength, as we call it ‘Gen-katsugi,’ I think that the Japanese mind and Kumihimo have developed in tandem," says Mr.Nose.
Thanks to our Japanese ancestors and their spirituality, the technique of Kumihimo never ceased and has been handed down to the present day.
Originally, Kumihimo were made by hand using only silk threads. The methods of braiding Kumihimo have diversified in shape, from cylindrical round cords to flat cords, and has also been diversified in various designs. According to Mr. Nose, "there are more than 100 or 200 different patterns just for Obijime.” Japan is a really rare country that has poured so much passion into such tiny braiding cords.
The ARP BELT is a round cord braided with a method called ‘Karauchi’, which is one of the oldest methods to exist in Japan since Kumihimo was first introduced to the country. When I hear that it’s the same Kumihimo as still used in temples and shrines, I feel divinity from even a single piece of cord.
The ARP BELT, a collaboration between Leigh Miller and Sayaka Davis, is a result of the two designers' creativity. It embodies the ancient spirit of Kumihimo, which is the belief that fusion creates new value and power. You wear the story hidden in the belt along with your clothes, when you wear of the ARP BELT.
Modern Kumihimo can be hand-braiding or machine-braiding, and ARP BELT is made by machine-braiding.
Using a stand called "Marudai" or "Kakudai" (round stand or square stand), the cord is braided into a precise pattern with skillful handwork, as if by magic.
About 70 cord-making machines were in operation at the factory. On this day, braided cords of various colors and patterns were being braided.
This is the process called Heijaku. After this process, the necessary thickness and length of yarn is wound to make braided cords on the cord-making machine.
The yarns are twisted by a machine to make the braid stronger and tauter. Kumihimo is braided in the opposite direction of the yarn’s twisting to make the braided cord difficult to untwist.
ARP BELT in black is being assembled on a lacing machine. It is made of round cord with a bundle of silk threads in the core.
Although assembled by machine, most of the work is done by hand, including dyeing the thread, winding the thread, and setting it on the machine.