Kyoto's Traditional 'obijime' Silk Cords Make Smooth Transition

Kyoto's traditional 'obijime' silk cords make smooth transitionWith its products going out of style and its future in doubt, a braiding studio here stuck with tradition--but added a twist.
Shoen Kumihimo, a “kumihimo” braiding studio that began business in 1948, now designs funky, hip and modern “obijime,” a decorative sash that accentuates the style of kimono. The company has also expanded to build an accessory brand reminiscent of the crafts and activities enjoyed by young girls.

The brand, called “ilono tavi,” a word-play on the Japanese for “colorful journey,” features modern accessories in an array of pop colors--bright fuchsia, shimmering gold and sky blue.

The shapes include a string of balls, a silk chain made with origami-like pieces, and necklaces made from 100 percent silk thread and cord.

And like the obijime, which is knotted tightly around the “obi” to keep it firmly in place, the accessories are made using traditional hand-braiding techniques.

Kyoto braiding dates back to the Heian Period (794-1185).

Shoen Kumihimo’s main product had been hand-braided obijime. But with the decline of Japanese-style dressing and production taken over by China, orders for handcrafted obijime continued to dwindle.

Tsutomu Kaji, 56, a traditional craftsman and the second generation president of the company, saw obijime going out of fashion. So he decided to “try and create something else using a single silk cord.”

Twenty years ago, he began expanding his business by creating hair ornaments and silk straps that could be used as charms on mobile phones.

In 2012, Shoen Kuhimimo collaborated with a designer to come up with the new accessory brand.

The neckwear line called “corocoro” uses the traditional odamaki technique to create ornamental balls that have long adorned obijime cords, while the “wakka” line is a chunky chain made from colorful woven silk links.

“We would have never come up with (such designs) on our own,” Kaji said.

The brand’s concept was inspired by rich color swatches that contained a wide palette of 64 varying hues.

Many kimono-related businesses were folding, and there was no guarantee that dye-plants would continue.

Kaji also wanted to keep dyeing tradition alive.

After Shoen Kumihimo started dyeing its own threads four years ago, Kaji sent an employee, Asumi Sakurai, 32, to undergo training at a dye-plant before the technique was lost.

Shoen Kumihimo can now create close to 100 shades through its in-house plant.

Although a major part of the production process has shifted from hand to machines, kumihimo braiding remains an extremely hands-on technique.

Numerous delicate steps are required, starting with spinning the silk and twisting the thread. The length must be checked and the threads counted to meet exact specifications.

The tiny odamaki balls with a diameter of 18 millimeters are crafted from a single silk cord that measures 5 meters in length. The cord is meticulously crafted by stitching and wrapping the cord, one stitch at a time.