15 December 2023 · Mazda Stories
A Thread of Inspiration
The story of the Japanese art of kumihimo is one of creativity, beauty, and an enduring challenger spirit for survival.
Words Mariko Kato / Images Showen Kumihimo and Domyo
What links Mazda cabin interiors to iPhone straps and kimono obi cords (obijime)? The common thread is kumihimo, the traditional Japanese art of braiding. The intricately handcrafted cords have sat at the centre of local communities for over 1,300 years, adorning temple furnishings, connecting swords to samurai’s waists, and decorating women’s kimonos, and are now modern-day accessories – also providing inspiration for the stitching in the First-Ever Mazda CX-90.
The art of kumihimo has adapted so well over the ages thanks to an unrivalled combination of practicality and creative potential. “There are many varieties of colours and patterns you can choose from to make just one kumihimo cord,” says Shun Hatta, handcrafter at Kyoto-based maker Showen Kumihimo. “It combines art and function better than any other type of cord.”
The practicality of kumihimo cords meant that for centuries they were ubiquitous in everyday life, holding heavy materials together in armour and kimonos, as well as binding scrolls and hanging amulets. The uplifting beauty of kumihimo braiding also inspired the wearer to use it for self-expression. “The kumihimo colours and patterns chosen for a samurai’s armour reflected how he felt going into battle,” says Shuhei Kobayashi, handcrafter at Tokyo-based kumihimo maker Domyo. “Kumihimo was also a fashion statement – the cords on the samurai’s scabbard would have lots of variations.”
To create a quality kumihimo piece, the artist needs to master skills that have been refined through the ages, from selecting the right yarn and dyeing it to interlacing the threads over a specialised loom to create a unique design. For Kobayashi, the trickiest part is keeping a constant rhythm and a steady hand during braiding. “I empty my mind and concentrate – I don’t let anything external disturb me,” he says.
In Japan, the meticulous craft of knotting, be it securing a traditional warrior’s helmet strap or fastening a kimono, transcends into artistic expression. Drawing inspiration from musubu – meaning “to connect” or “tie together” – Mazda's designers embraced a distinctive stitching approach for its interiors (pictured) called kakenui. This hanging stitch technique introduces subtle spacing, reminiscent of the ties seen on ancient Japanese harnesses and armour, which would accommodate the natural movement of the human body. In the Mazda CX-90 (pictured), kakenui evokes a sense of connection between the car and its driver. Similarly, the gaps between the kakenui stitching add both depth and dimension.
The braiding process has been mechanised in recent years, but kumihimo artists still swear by the unmatched quality of a handmade product. “Intricate work like embedding images or words into the design still needs to be done by hand,” explains Hatta. For Kobayashi, it’s the human touch that makes the finished piece complex and delicate. “The finished cord can’t be too hard or too soft,” he says. “You need to bring out a warmth in a way that a machine can’t.”
The art of kumihimo is also one of true challenger spirit, having relied on the maker’s skill and imagination to endure. Throughout its long history, kumihimo has faced moments of near-extinction – first when the samurai class was dissolved in the late 19th century and, more recently, when women in Japan began favouring Western fashion over kimonos for everyday wear. The art form has survived because its devotees kept reinventing it, making it relevant by incorporating kumihimo braiding into an ever-widening range of products, and thinking outside the box to capture the heart of the modern consumer.
Now kumihimo braiding is part of global popular culture and pops up in surprising places. For example, fans of the One Piece anime series would love the official collectors’ item bracelet made by Showen Kumihimo in collaboration with the creators of the 2017 Japanese TV version. And, during COVID-19, you could send your overseas friend a lucky charm featuring the colours of their national flag – Showen Kumihimo made charms for 201 countries and territories around the world.
Beyond novelty items, kumihimo braiding has now branched out into Western-style fashion. Those in search of a unique gift can buy kumihimo ties, belts, earrings, and card cases through Domyo’s online store. If you visit Kyoto during a holiday to Japan, you can try your hand at kumihimo braiding and learn from the masters at Showen Kumihimo’s visitor-friendly workshops.
Yet the most special thing about kumihimo is that it’s a traditional Japanese art that you can easily turn into a hobby without leaving your couch or spending a fortune. Go online and there are affordable starter kits that you can buy with a click of a button.
If your focus is not as great as Kobayashi’s, fear not, you can always fix a mistake. “If you notice something wrong, it’s probably because you’ve skipped a step,” he says. “Unravel what you’ve done, making sure to go back a little further than you think is necessary. Otherwise, once you start again you often find that you hadn’t gone back quite enough.”
Hatta’s advice is to simply let your creativity soar. “The important thing is to just try lots of different braiding styles and colour combinations,” he says, “and explore the beauty of kumihimo.”