KUMIHIMO: Japanese Silk Braiding by Domyo – Tying together the threads of history

December 7, 2022

Japan House London presents KUMIHIMO: Japanese Silk Braiding by Domyo, the UK’s first major exploration of this ancient yet contemporary Japanese art. Drawing together the strands of its fascinating 1300-year history, the exhibition also considers kumhimo‘s vibrant current applications, from formal and contemporary fashion to science and engineering. The future of kumihimo is posed as an open question, asking the visitor to join in with the discussion on possibilities and potential.

Literally translating as ‘joining threads together’, kumihimo refers to braided cord from Japan. It is characterized by vivid colours and intricate patterns, and is created by expert craftspeople who combine up to 140 hand-dyed threads, often made of silk. The exhibition at Japan House London, the breadth and depth of which is a first for the UK, is produced by Yusoku Kumihimo Dōmyō (Domyo), a company located in the old shopping and entertainment district of Ueno in central Tokyo, which has been making braided silk cords by hand since 1652.

Kumihimo‘s history is one of transfer of material culture. In 710 CE, Nara became Japan’s imperial capital, its location at the end of the Silk Roads positioning it as a point where Central Asian, Chinese, Korean and Japanese influences would converge. Silk braiding in Japan at the time was inspired by patterns and colours from the Asian continent. In the 9th century, braided silk cords were used in clothing worn by aristocrats, for binding and hanging scrolls and as religious decoration in temples and shrines. Designs evolved and took on a uniquely Japanese character, becoming more complex and sophisticated in the process.

From around the 10th century, it was the samurai classes who continued the tradition, using kumihimo to join together armour plating and as decorative ties for the scabbards of their swords. Today, however, many people in Japan will know kumihimo from its use as obijime – colourful cords which are tied on top of the sash, known as an obi, of a woman’s kimono. Less well known, either in Japan or abroad, are the contemporary applications of kumihimo, such as aircraft components, golf clubs and artificial limbs.

KUMIHIMO brings the story of Japanese braiding to life with floor-to-ceiling installations, absorbing videos, presentations of tools and processes and more than 50 different examples of the braids themselves, imaginatively presented throughout the gallery. These examples include cords made using historical designs, the originals of which are held in Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines as well as the Shōsōin Repository in Nara and are rarely, if ever, publicly displayed. The exhibition is complemented by a rich programme of events, including hands-on workshops which allow guests to try making kumihimo themselves.

The exhibition is divided into three sections:

  • ‘The History of Kumihimo’ explores kumihimo‘s past, from the earliest evidence of braiding found in Japanese burial sites in the early Jōmon period (4000–3500 BCE). It draws on the extensive and valuable research by Domyo into historical examples of kumihimo that remain to this day in temples and shrines, as well as the Shōsōin repository in Nara. This section includes a collection of kumihimo made according to these historical patterns, as well as a selection of scrolls and books on the technique, dating back as far as 1603.
  • Much of the detail in individual kumihimo braids is so fine it is easy to miss. ‘The Structure of Kumihimo’ features enlarged braiding frames, designed to bring guests closer to the process. Large marudai (or ’round stands’), used in the braiding of round or square cords, and takadai (‘tall stands’) with rectangular structures used to braid flat cords, are positioned artfully within the exhibition space, functioning both as aesthetic and instructive installations.
  • ‘The Future of Kumihimo’ explores present-day uses and possible futures. The exhibition’s final section showcases kumihimo in fashion, fine art and science, invites guests to consider what this cultural practice has to offer in the 21st century.

Simon Wright, Director of Programming at Japan House London, commented, “This exhibition invites the visitor to come closer and delight in the beauty of intricate detail. The continuation in Japan today of the centuries-old tradition of producing kumihimo is not only a respect for what has gone before, but also a story of how this art can survive and provide a source of inspiration for the future. The skills of dyeing and braiding silk are acts that support people’s livelihoods; this is about sustainable business in the modern world. Through this in-depth exploration of kumihimo, I hope that we can discover more about the ties that bind us rather than that which might keep us apart.”

Dōmyō Kiichirō, 10th-generation CEO of Yusoku Kumihimo Dōmyō (Domyo), commented, “I am honored to have this opportunity to introduce kumihimo from Japan to the people of London. The technique of kumihimo, which has uniquely evolved in Japan over a period of more than a thousand years, expresses all manner of worldviews within a single thin, linear structure. I hope that visitors will get up close to kumihimo, study it carefully and get a real sense of its surprising complexity, delicacy and beauty.”

About Japan House London

Japan House London is a cultural destination offering guests the opportunity to experience the best and latest from Japan. Located on London’s Kensington High Street, the experience is an authentic encounter with Japan, engaging and surprising even the most knowledgeable guests. Presenting the very best of Japanese art, design, gastronomy, innovation, and technology, it deepens the visitor’s appreciation of all that Japan has to offer. Part of a global initiative, there are two other Japan Houses, one in Los Angeles and the other in São Paulo.

About Domyo

Domyo is a Tokyo-based producer of kumihimo, established in 1652. Using centuries-old techniques, its aim is to create products that will be used by people all over the world and the company’s product range includes everything from obijime to earrings and bow ties. While other companies have mechanized their braiding processes, skilled craftspeople at Domyo continue to braid by hand, and each silk thread used in their kumihimo is also hand-dyed in house.

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