Visiting Artisans

Visiting Matsushima Kumihimo

The second story is about Matsushima Kumihimo in Iga, Mie Prefecture where “Shozaburo Thread Snips with Silk Iga Braid” is produced.

“Kumihimo” braided thread is a traditional craft that gained a huge amount of popularity after being featured in a film in 2016. It is a tradition stretching back centuries, all the way to the Nara period (8th century). This technology, originally used in armor and buddhist clothing, soon spread and flourished in clothing in general, and became the source of many assembly methods and technologies.

The beautiful luster of the silk thread continues to enthrall the people’s hearts, as it has always done.

Cohana’s “Shozaburo Thread Snips with Silk Iga Braid” have been carefully assembled and wrapped by artisans from the Matsushima Kumihimo for 4 generations. We have been given a special opportunity to talk to these artisans, so we are on our way to Iga.

▲ Iga means just one thing, the “Iga ninjas.” The ninja motif can be found just about everywhere.

▲ Before we got to the interview, we made our way to the recently re-opened “Iga Kumihimo Braiding Center” museum. These small items made using the braided thread techniques are beautiful, and are a joy even to just look at.

▲ We arrived at the Matsushima Kumihimo’s studio and store, “Kumihimo Studio Araki.” It is a charming building.

Matsushima Kumihimo is currently managed by the 3rd generation craftsman master Shunsaku, and his wife Hiromi who is in charge of “Musubi (joining)”. And there are also their sons Kenta and Koki, the 4th generation. Without further ado, let us get to the interview.

Tell us a little more about the history of Matsushima Kumihimo.

In 1932, Masao Matsushima, the 1st generation store owner, opened the “Matsushima Kumihimo” in Iga. In the greater history of braided thread, it’s really not so long ago, is it?

I’ve heard that the history of braided thread can be traced all the way back to even before the Nara period.

The threads were originally used in armor and religious clothing, but really came into its own once it started being used in kimonos, and as its popularity as a tie for obi belts and as a fastening for haori coats increased demand only grew. This was after the Edo (1603-1868) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods. Of course kimonos were a thing before then, but they used highly valuable silk thread and gold thread, so they were very precious items.

As the kimono culture spread to the normal people, the craftsmen making these braided threads, in other words the string stores, also increased in number.

▲ A traditional Japanese painting showing the threads being braided lovingly displayed in the studio

So it’s the demand from the people that allowed stores like this to come to be.

That’s right. And at the same time the demand for mechanical braiding also increased.  My father Yasutaka, the 2nd generation store owner, was the mechanical braiding specialist, and my mother Fumiyo was in charge of the hand braiding. So at the time we offered both mechanical and hand braided products. Most thread stores would specialize in one or the other, so I think it’s rare to find one that offers both.

I wonder if you could show us examples of both the mechanical braiding and hand braiding… .

Braiding requires knowledge and technique, whether it is by hand or using a machine, so I think both techniques are important. The machine I’ll show you later is quite old… If any of the parts were to break it would be quite difficult to find replacements. There’s a lively trade among thread stores of parts for these old machines.

It’s an important tool for our work whether you braid mechanically or by hand.

Thank you. I look forward to seeing that later.
By the way, could you tell me why you two have chosen this path, to be the 4th generation? Having grown up so close to this traditional craft, did you not feel that it  might be a hard life?

▲ Kenta, the elder brother

Kenta: “I’ve always wanted to do this job, ever since I was little, so the idea that it might be hard never crossed my mind. ”

▲ Koki, the younger brother

“I think there are hardships in just about any job you choose to do,” said Koki, the younger brother. I’ve never thought that traditional crafts are any harder than any other job. Besides, when I was studying design at vocational school I started to think about what I could do with my family’s braided thread… So it’s not so much a case of thinking about “inheritance” or “legacy,” but instead it’s a job I chose because I wanted to do it.

What is most important to you at work?

Of course the quality of the kumihimo or the bunches is important, but I also think it’s important to keep the finish exact and beautiful all the way to the final processing and packaging so as to never let the value of the item or technique go down.

I have to say, we were always excited when we got to open the Cohana thread shears when they arrived. The way the shears, which are difficult to package, were so cleanly lined up in their boxes… Thank you so much.

Thank you very much.

Finally, Shunsaku. I’d like to ask you about how you intend to connect to the traditions, and your hopes for the future.

Whereas there used to be 100 craftsmen working, these days there might only be about 20 left. In the world of kumihimo production, where the labor is divided, the fact that “there are no more masters to teach, and no more craftsmen to work with” is a real crisis. There’s a craftsman who spins the thread, and a master who dyes it, and we assemble the final product. If the dye master has no one to carry on his craft, then we would have to take over that process ourselves. In that case, things may be more difficult for those two than it has been for me.

But I feel confident that if they work together then they’ll be fine. In fact, Kenta has been learning how to dye from a craftsman, so as long as they both bring what they’ve learned to the table, they should be able to take on the challenge. Finally, I think that it’s very important for these traditions to be passed down. Without these techniques then there can be no innovation.

 

I’m very grateful for hearing from the 4th generation, and for learning a little about your thoughts about the work, Shunsaku, as well as your hopes for the future.

Thank you very much.

After the interview, they were kind enough to show me the dying stage. Using the Cohana original 5 traditional Japanese colors as a sample, they showed me how they skilfully and vividly dye the pure white silk.


▲ Kenta is in charge of dying the silk. The dyed silk is checked half in shade to see if it matches the samples.

▲ The dried thread is spooled onto several spools using a hand powered reel.

The next step takes place in the machine braiding studio. When we got to the studio I was confronted with a clamor of sound and a truly beautiful machine.

▲8 bobbins rotate at high speed, assembling the kumihimo thread.

▲ There were also a lot of gears of various sizes from old machines.

“Right now I’m putting together a fine braid, but we can also make thicker braids as well. It is important to slightly twist the thread before putting it on the machine. This is the twisting machine. ”

▲ The twisting machine. It’s important to get the direction of the twist right.

As I heard in the interview the machine was old, but it was clear from the state of the studio that it has been carefully looked after and lovingly used. They’re making new products here even as they keep the traditions and techniques alive. The impression of that scene where thread and iron are weaved together so seamlessly by the will of the craftsmen will stay with me.

Last but not least, the hand braiding studio.

▲ Various assembling tables such as a high table, a bamboo table, a round table, etc.

By moving the “kumidama” spools which keep the strings in a state of tension in order, various patterns can be created. In the quiet studio the gentle sound of the kumidama echoes softly. The two craftsmen’s hands move smoothly, and it seems they already have the finished product visualized in their heads.

I also got to see them making the Cohana thread shears.

▲ Using 3 threads they wrap the kumihimo around the handles of the shears.

▲ They use a button to finish it off.

The craftsmen use their delicate handiwork and ingenuity to work on these small shears that can fit in the palm of the hand.

If we can use Cohana’s products and interviews to bring the spirit of Japan’s craftsmanship to our customers… That was what I was thinking as I left the studio.

▲ On the way back the surrounding countryside was lit by the light of the setting sun, and was truly beautiful.

Matsushima Kumihimo

In the Iga studio, where they make kumihimo braided threads, we create threads with a real braided pattern using purpose-made assembly tables such as the high table, round table and angled table. Using the natural luster of the silk thread, we hope to continue seeking the beauty of this tradition.

http://www.iga-kumihimo.com/

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