Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Kumihimo Braiding with Beads

So again, this week I am taking a little break from the Holiday patterns, and showing you something I have been working on for months now.  It has only taken me that long because I have been working on other things simultaneously.  I have completed a Kumihimo necklace with a Tibetan pendant but the Kumihimo is done with size 11 delicas and Fireline not just cord.  This is what the completed piece looks like:

As you can see you can't see any of the Fireline in the cord.  I looked for video's on how to do this but wasn't able to locate any to share with you.  I did find an old Q&A that may help that I am going to post.  But if you have questions on how to do this I would be happy to answer those for you.

This is what I found online:

I'm writing this post mostly in response to Leslie's blog entry about experimenting   with Kumihimo and a subsequent forum thread.  I've posted a lot of this info in earlier entries as well - back in the fall of 2009, I was working almost exclusively with Kumihimo and answering a lot of questions in response to my showcase entries.
I'm not an expert on Kumihimo, by any stretch of the imagination.  I don't use a traditional marudai and tama, and I don't think I even want to, and if you want to really learn about the art and science of braiding, I definitely recommend reading Jacqui Carey's or Roderick Owens' books on Kumihimo and other braiding techniques.  I've simply taken one class with a very good teacher, read and practiced and then extrapolated on the single technique of braiding with a foam disc, plastic bobbins and beads.  In my daytime/non-beading life, I put a lot of effort into capturing "lessons learned" and publishing institutional knowledge for my company - and it seems to always carry over - I just like to educate, I guess.
Anyway - here goes.  This will be a bit lengthy so I may have to break it up into several parts.
The Tools:
The traditional Japanese craft calls for a wooden marudai and weighted tama or bobbins - and you work with both hands moving opposite strands in a variety of motions to obtain specific patterns.  It's very difficult to work with beads using the traditional tools.  Actually, its simply difficult to work with the traditional tools, period - with or without beads.  The smooth wood and the need for weighted bobbins and counterweights on the growing braid are simply not conducive to moving beads.
The Loom (Or Disc):  The invention of the foam disc with 32 slots made working beads into braids extremely easy, since the foam slots hold the working strands in place, eliminating the need for weighted bobbins.  There are two major manufacturers for the standard round 32-slot kumihimo disc - Hamanaka and BeadSmith.
When you start with the basic "fill the slot" kumihimo braid (the best one for an all-bead braid), you need to orient the 8 strands equally, and this usually works best with cardinal compass points (NESW).  Both the Hamanaka and BeadSmith versions have the cardinal points marked, but for some odd reason, the Hakamata disc offsets the points by a few degrees - so when you hold the disc and the logo is parallel to the floor, the strands form an X, rather than a cross, but since you need to orient the strands to a cross (cardinal compass points), this becomes awkward.  The Beadsmith disc has the markings correctly oriented and aligned with the logo, so you start out properly.  I did not know it at the time, but the person who taught me how to make beaded braids - Anne Dilker of Mosshollow Pottery - was working with BeadSmith on the new disc.
Making your own disc - this can be done with 1/3" thick foam rubber - though you can definitely use foamcore or cardboard (both of those will break down quickly, though).  I've found the perfect round disc in the Children's craft section of Michaels' - it's sold as a "memo" or "pin" board, and you'll have to pull off the hanger from the back, but it the only piece of thick foam that I've found readily available.  The foam stuff in the craft stores is very thin and you'll otherwise need to glue several layers together - which can be messy unless you can find the packages of pre-adhesived circles.
When you cut your slots, try to keep the cuts short (no more than 1/3 of an inch, and it does help to cut a little of the foam away from either side (look at a premade disc to see what I mean),  This will help getting your strands in and out of the slots, and keep finer materials from fraying.
Bobbins:  Bobbins are essential - in both large and small sizes.  Even when making short braids, having your thread tails properly wrapped up helps ensure even tension.  These are not sewing machine bobbins, but ones that are used by knitters, called "EZ Bobs".  The best type are the disc shaped ones which have flexible covers that pop opened with a little thumb pressure.  You can get a set of 8-12 small bobbins for about $4 on eBay, or $8 for the larger ones.  While you make only work with 8 strands at a time, it's always a good idea to have an extra bobbin or two around.  The small sizes are good, particularly for short strands and when you are braiding with thin cording, and the larger for heavy cord, long strands or bigger beads.
Counterweights:  My teacher didn't think that counterweights were necessary when using the foam disc, but I disagree,  I like to use a counterweight on the braid, particularly when starting out with lighter weight strands or a combination or light and heavy weight strands.  My counterweight is a drawstring bag filled with pennies - and I can adjust as needed.  When using a traditional marudai and tama, the weighted bobbins and counterweighted braids need to be pretty exacting - but using a counterweight on a foam board is just a matter of determining what feels best.
There have also been times when I've needed to counterweight the bobbins instead of the braid.  After a few uses, particularly with heavy material strands (such as satin cord), the slots stretch.  If you then go back to using thinner material strands, it becomes hard to keep even tension when the braid becomes heavier than the collective weight of the bobbins.  For example, when I was working on a braid with eight strands of seed beads,  I needed to keep a counterweight on both the braid and on each of the bobbins (which were, individually, quite light).  For the bobbins, I used brass drops I found at Metalliferous.  They had holes in them, so I used either safety pins or paperclips to attach to the far end of each of the braid strands.
Stringing Materials - Non-Bead Strands
Satin Rattail - This is a smooth, shiny woven cord, soft and flexible - but also quite durable and not prone to fraying along the body.  It is pretty much the most popular material for non-beaded braids.  There are three sizes and two kinds of rattail.  The sizes are referred to as Rattail (largest - 2 mm, and most popular weight), Mousetail (medium - 1.5 mm) and Bugtail (thinnest - 1.4 mm), and are either made from Rayon (wood-based fiber, US made. Expensive and can hard to find) or Polyester (petroleum-based fiber, Chinese made, very common and generally cheap). Both the rayon and polyester come in a wide variety of colors in the "rattail" size, and less variety in the other sizes.  Except as noted below, all of these braids were made with satin rattail.  The large diameter braid (third from the top) is a twelve-strand monster.
Gimp - Shiny rayon or polyster thread coiled around a multistrand cotton base, equivalent in size to bugtail.  Gimp can be found in spools or unwoven from upholstery trim.  It's also a difficult material to use with a foam board, particularly a new one, since the coiled/wrapped covering doesn't hold up to the constant rubbing against the slots, and the bobbins, nor against pulling and retensioning.  The last braid in the arc (on the bottom, with the green beads) used gimp and Super-C.
Knitting Yarn - Great stuff, particularly novelty stuff like ribbon yarns, eyelash yarns, ombres, etc.  I've had my eye on yarn made from recycled sari silk, and I'll let you know how that works out.  The one thing to be careful about is matching weights when you're mixing fiber types.  Lightweight yarn should be mated with something that has a bit of body and strenght (like C-Lon or Super-C) when other strands in the braid are made from heavier materials. 
Embroidery Floss - Great stuff too, and this is the traditional material for making "friendship" bracelets (a type of flat braid).  An all-floss braid will be very small in diameter, but quite strong.  An interesting treatment is to combine on or two separated threads of metallic floss with a strand of rattail into a single strand (one of eight).  The narrow pink, purple and black braid (second from top) is make with Japanese knitting ribbon paired with matching colors of Super-C.
String Materials - Bead Strands
SuperLon or S-Lon:  Nymo's really heavyweight cousin was invented for the shoemaker trade - this is the same stuff that holds the uppers to the soles of your shoes.  Althought this was the thread I was taught to use for beaded braids, I've found that it is a bit of overkill strenghtwise and can be hard to work with when using beads that have small holes, or when you really would like to use a big-eye or twisted wire needle when threading beads.  The diameter of SuperLon is just too thick to pass through most beads when doubled.  I do like to pair SuperLon with lightweight yarns on a single bobbin to give them strength and durability.
Nymo:  I have not had a good experience with Nymo - I've found it to delicate to withstand the constant pulling and friction on the disc.  However, your mileage may vary.
Beading Silk:  I'm a big fan of Gudebrod spooled silk, for both stringing/knotting and for kumihimo.  There is nothing like the slide of beads on silk, and the suppleness of the finished product.  While there is a lot of length on a spool (in 20 years, I've only emptied ONE spool of silk), it is still expensive and a full range of colors can be hard to find. 
Pearl Cotton Embroidery Thread:  This is the best substitute I've found for silk, and I've got a line on a great supplier who sells the thread on bobbins in a very wide range of colors.  If you want the name of the supplier, email me and I'll send you a link to the store.  Frankly, I bought the thread and figured that it wasn't going to work - that it would fray from the slots and the pulling - but it's as durable as silk (maybe more so). While the cotton is not as frictionless as silk, it's still a pleasure to use.
Metal Wire:  I do confess, I was left scratching my head after seeing and reading Leslie's post on Kumihimo last week when she used wire.  No disrespect intended, but the results were less than pleasing to my eye.  The wire looked kinked and the finished bracelet looked very stiff and uncomfortable to wear.  The essence of kumihimo is the evenness of the braid - each strand fitting and interlocking, creating a seamless whole.  Using wire for every strand (even "dead soft") defeats that.  I can see where a thin wire, married with rattail, could result in a very pleasing, albeit stiff, braid, but I'm just not on board with eight strands of stiff wire.  Sorry.
Coated and Cabled Beading Wire (Beadalon, Tigertail, Softflex):  Not something I would recommend under regular circumstances (see the "Beads" section for irregular circumstances).  This stuff is expensive, particularly the 49 strand material that has the best drape and flexibility!  Why waste it in a braid?
Fireline and Other Braided Filiments:  Useful for particular circumstances (see "Beads" section for further explanation). 
A note about thread color.
When creating an "all bead" braid, the color of your thread will be of minimal importance, unless you are using transparent beads.  The thread is fully buried inside of the braid, so you'll usually will never see it, but if your beads are large, or irregular, the thread may be visible within the work.  If you're a perfectionist (like me), you'll probably want to match your thread to your bead color regardless.
When beads are on only a few strands of a braid, color will be more important, since you'll see the bead strand thread within the body of the braid.

Again, if you have any questions, I would be happy to try to answer those for you!

Happy Beading!


  1. I'd like to have the name of the supplier where you get your pearl cotton embroidery thread. Thank you

  2. I too, would like the name of the supplier for the earl cotton thread. Thank you.