The value of Archaeological Experiments often if found in the mistakes that we make while researching and I have really experiences this with my Japanese Braiding. I have been studying kumihimo for over a decade. The term kumihimo in Japan means a braid and refers to a wide variety of complex braiding techniques done on a variety of different braiding stands.
I first braided with the most familiar of these stands, the marudai, which is a round stand with a hole in the center and is used to make a round braid. After a few years of braiding, I began experimenting with a karakumidai, which is a small square stand with pegs and is the oldest known braiding stands. At the time, there wasn’t much information available on how to use a karakumidai, so I learned by a process of a lot of trial and error.
Researching kumihimo has been a slow, complicated process
I often refer to doing historical research as working on a puzzle with most of the pieces missing and the ones remaining often damaged. This was certainly the case with learning how to make karakumi braids (the style of braids made on karakumidai) . We know that the braids were made as early as late 7th C.E.–but the details of how those braids were made, and often even what exactly the braids were made from and what they looked like has been much harder to uncover.
One thing, however, had seemed to be without question true, and that was by Heian (late 8th century C.E.) Japan, the braids were always made from stranded silk.
Experimenting with the type of threads for my braids.
As stranded silk made kumihimo, especially of the lengths that I needed, extremely expensive, I learned the technique using stranded cotton threads instead–typically DMC embroidery floss. This worked well for the braids, for the most part. I tried gold thread where the faux gold is wrapped around a thread core. It is similar to material used in period for high belts for high-ranking individuals, though in period it would have been real gold wrapped around a silk fiber core. This worked well, though the gold was not as easy to work as the plain cotton thread. The gold gripped too well, so that it sometimes took a lot of tugging to get it to get it to move. This easily resulted in putting too much tension in the braid, creating a wavy, uneven edge.
I also tried synthetic satin DMC, which did not work well at all–it frayed badly and was so slippery that I was constantly fighting the thread to try to keep the threads from slithering out of the braid. Despite the difficulties, it did create a beautiful braid with the sheen of silk, but it was so hard to work with I doubt I will ever attempt it again.
Using silk as they did with the original braids was my goal.
Silk, I knew, was a strong fiber, as well as one that despite its smoothness and sheen grips well, so it made sense to me that silk would work better than anything else I had tried. Sadly, I was proven wrong. At least when it comes to Karakumi, the silk looks beautiful and the grip holds the diamonds nice and secure, but because the stranded silk threads are so very fine, they are too fragile. It frayed, and frayed again, making it difficult to braid, let alone tension correctly. I tried everything from period resins to modern thread conditioner minimize/prevent fraying, and still it frayed even worse than the satin DMC did.
Here you can see the results of the tension issues, though it did at least get better despite the fraying over the course of the braid:
And here I have attempted to capture on camera how badly the silk was fraying:
Finally, I found enough information through research and trial and error to pick the right type of strands for the braids.
After struggling for a while with the silk, I discovered a book with photographs of surviving karakumi braids dating back to the 7th and 8th Centuries. Some of the braids are photographed with the finished ends visible, which is unusual for braids that old as most of them are fragments. The finished end clearly shows the braids made from plied silk rather than stranded silk. This means that rather than strands being made of tiny individual threads, like embroidery thread, these threads are twisted together into a thin cord, similar in weight to modern fingering weight yarn.
Perhaps there is a reason I was having so much trouble with it! Now I am experimenting with plied silk; which so far is working much better for me than the stranded silk did. I think, however, it’s very important for anyone who is trying to reproduce something from the past, to understand the value of mistakes and failures. We learn best during the process of our experiments by what changes as we evolve our craft and art.
The Researcher’s Gateway