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Kumihimo: A guide to supplies & terminology, pt. 1

Get familiar with the tools and materials that you’ll encounter when learning this wonderful braiding technique. 
Kumi tools hero

As with any discipline, it is important to learn the terminology associated with it in order to communicate with others and advance one’s own knowledge. However, identifying a common kumihimo language has been a challenge due to the reluctance of many to use Japanese terms combined with the fact that braiding does not have its own English lexicon. This has resulted in some confusion and misinformation about kumihimo terminology. This guide is intended to help clarify concepts and enable the kumihimo community to share knowledge more easily through a common terminology.


At the present time, there is no “Universal Kumihimo Terminology Council,” so the terms shown here are those most commonly used by the kumihimo masters. When there was no consensus among them, and multiple terms were used for the same thing, I used the term that has proven to be most easily understood by my students. In some cases, I coined my own term while making every effort to use descriptive and easy to understand words and phrases. For example, “2-drop kongoh” and “continuous beaded braids” are both terms that I created for easier communication which have now become accepted kumihimo terminology.

Speaking of terminology, don't forget to view the accompaniment to this article, part 2 of our kumihimo series: A guide to equipment and terminology. 
Kumi bead stoppers
Bead Stoppers
Flexible wire springs that can grip a cord tightly, used to prevent beads from sliding on a cord.
Kumi bobbins

Small plastic bobbins that snap open and closed. They are used to hold the warp cords when braiding on a disk or plate. They can also be used to store beaded warp cords when transporting a project. They come in several sizes. Weighted versions are also available.

Kumi chopstick

A chopstick or pointed dowel is used with a marudai to hold the braid in position when taking a break or anytime you are not actively braiding. This is the same as in fiber braids. To put the chopstick in position, work from under the mirror and, with one hand, gently pull the braid down while using the other hand to insert the chopstick on top of the warp cords at the point of braiding. Release the braid and the chopstick will be held firmly in position between the warp cords and the marudai mirror.

If the marudai is accidentally knocked or bumped, the chopstick ensures that the warp cords do not move out of position. If you forget to use the chopstick and bump your marudai, the resulting mess will be a hard lesson that you will not soon forget.

Kumi weight set
Kumi weights

Counterweight (CW) 
The CW serves to balance the weight of the tama or bobbins. When working on a marudai, the CW is attached to the braid beneath the mirror. Sometimes a light CW is recommended for use with a disk. As the braid is forming, the CW pulls it down through the hole in the mirror, maintaining an even tension during braiding. A smaller ratio of CW to tama weight makes a tighter braid while more CW produces a looser braid.

Fiber braid patterns generally recommend CW that is about 40–50% of the tama weight. Continuous beaded braids generally follow the same ratio as fiber braids. However, this ratio does not work for 2-drop kongoh braids as it will produce a loose braid with a lot of exposed cord. 

For 2-drop kongoh patterns, as well as many other beaded designs, most designers want to have the beads as the focus of the braid rather than the cords. So after much experimentation, I learned that for the 2-drop kongoh braid, the CW ratio that works best is 25–35%. This ratio produces a braid with the beads closer together than a braid made with a 40–50% CW ratio, resulting in less cord being visible.

To determine how much CW to use, add the weight of all of the tama plus the beads, and multiply that amount by your desired CW percentage. 

For example:

Eight tama @ 70 g + 40 g of beads = 600 g

600 g x 25% = 150 g counterweight

Traditionally a CW bag (a small drawstring pouch containing weights) is used to hang the CW from the braid. A CW bag can be used with beaded braids, although weights with hooks make it easier to adjust and/or remove the CW during braiding. Adding a wire hanger to egg-shaped fishing weights (above) works well and they’re easy to make. But the most convenient CW I have found is a scientific slotted weight set (right). You can easily remove small amounts of weight as you work.

It’s a good idea to have several different size weights that total about half the weight of all of the tama being used in your projects. For example: For 16 tama @ 70 grams, your CW supply should be about 600 grams.

Kumi disk

The invention of the polyethylene foam disk and plate by Makiko Tada has made kumihimo more accessible and has been credited with the current explosion in the popularity of kumihimo. They are now available in a variety of diameters and thicknesses. The disk can be used for making round, square, and narrow flat braids, including 2-drop kongoh braids. However the disk is not recommended for continuous beaded braids, for which the marudai is a better option.

The square foam plate is used for making wide flat braids. The braids that have been designed for the square plate resemble braids made on the takadai rather than the marudai. Many of these braids are Makiko Tada’s original creations. The plate is not often used for fully beaded braids.

Cord stiffener
A sealant, such as Fray Check, super glue, or nail polish, can eliminate the need for using a needle during bead stringing by stiffening the cord ends.

Kumi marudai with leg extensions

Marudai (ma-ru-dye) 
The traditional Japanese braiding stand made of wood with a round top. It is usually available in two heights: Western (26 in./66 cm) or Japanese (16 in./41 cm). The shorter Japanese version is used while sitting on a low stool or kneeling on the floor. The taller Western versions are worked while seated in a chair. Both versions can be raised on a stool or table top in order to be worked while standing. The marudai is the fastest and most efficient method of creating kumihimo braids. Once mastered, it is at least twice as fast as the foam disk. A good marudai is worth the investment as it will last a lifetime.

Marudai leg extensions 

These 4-in. (10 cm) extensions (seen attached to the bottom of the legs of the marudai in the photo above) allow some of the Western height marudai to be raised to a more comfortable working height. When sitting in most chairs, a Western height marudai is too short to have a good visual perspective on the point of braiding without leaning forward, which can cause fatigue. By raising the marudai a few inches the braider can sit with a straight back.

The name used for the top of the marudai. The mirror is usually round and should have a gentle slope starting at the middle of the radius down to the center hole. This is essential for maintaining proper braid tension. Common mirror diameters are 10 in. (25 cm) and 12 in. (30 cm). The 10-in. (25 cm) mirror easily accommodates up to 16 warp cord. The larger version is more often used for braids using 24 or more warp cords. Since beaded braids most often use 16 or fewer warp cords, the smaller diameter mirror is recommended, as it is easier to work on and usually less expensive.

Painter’s tape 

Use painter’s tape to secure your chopstick below the mirror and sometimes to hold warp cords in position during set-up of ending a braid. Painter’s tape is the only tape that should be used on the mirror as it will not harm the finish on the wood. 

Split ring 
A split ring is a handy tool for starting a braid with a nice, neat end. It also provides a place to hang your counterweight. It’s easy to make a split ring. Simply wrap 16-gauge wire around a dowel or a marker a few times, and trim.
Kumi tama sizes

Tama (ta-ma) 
The weighted wooden spools used to hold the warp cords during braiding on a marudai. They come in different weights, including 70, 85, and 100 grams and all of these are acceptable for beaded braids. In most cases all of the tama being used for a project should be of equal weight. If a project calls for a specific weight tama it is usually possible to substitute a different weight tama as long as the counter weight ratio is adjusted accordingly. Tama also come in different sizes, with a larger one made specifically for beaded braids. Tama are sometimes called bobbins, however, this can be confusing since plastic bobbins are also used in kumihimo.

Warp cords
Warp cords are the cords used to make a beaded braid, since cord (not thread) is used to hold the beads. “Ito” is the Japanese term used for warp or thread. In English many terms have been used, including warps, elements, cords, and threads. The word warp is borrowed from weaving. 

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