Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Uncommon Uses for Common Things

While we're on the subject of helpful hints, here are a few others you might like.

Large Safety Pins: When you examine your braid for mistakes, stick the pin through the braid near the earliest mistake. Then unbraid down to the pin, remove it, and unbraid a few more rounds to make sure you’ve gone far enough.

Twist Ties (plastic-coated wire commonly used to secure bread wrappers): Use one to secure the final stitches in your braid before you remove the tama. It's so much easier than tying thread under the mirror.  After you remove the braid from the marudai, either stitch the end immediately or tie it more securely with thread.

Small Rubber Bands: Use them to secure the loose end of unused thread on a spool or cone.  I like the ones used to secure braids in horses' manes (they're finger-size), but bigger ones are ok, too.

Metal Snap Quilting Binding Clips or Snap Hair Clips (the ones you bend to snap open and bend to snap closed): Use them to keep threads organized into warps and to keep warp flat when you’re removing it from your warping pegs or warping frame.  I love these!  But if they're the bare metal ones, be careful that you don't catch thread in the crevices.

Large Jewelry Marking Tags (the kind that come with a fairly long string): Use them to label tama when you really need to know which tama is where. You can also use them on your braids for info about the braid (name, number of tama, tama weight, counterweight, number of ends per tama, colors, date made, warp length, etc.)

Cushion Foam (one-inch thick): Insert a piece into the hole in your marudai when you have tama sitting on the mirror. It keeps the tama from falling through if you knock them over.  I just hate it when that happens!

Some Helpful Hints for Braiders

Here are a few things I've discovered.  Some happened by chance; others came from fellow braiders.

When setting up a braid, just wrap the warp around the tama. Don’t bother tying it to the leader until you have to. (This works if the length of your thread is 36” or more). This lets you get to braiding quicker!

If you’re braiding with 40W rayon thread and finding the knots you use to attach the tama leaders don’t hold (rayon thread is VERY slippery), try tying an overhand knot in the thread close to the end and attaching the leader with a larkshead knot just above the knot in the thread. As long as you keep tension on the thread, the knot doesn’t come undone. The knot is easy to untie when there’s no tension on the thread, and the “kinks” totally relax when you steam the braid. I only do this with rayon; I use more traditional ways to attach tama leaders when I braid with other fiber.

If you’re moving 4 tama at the same time (2 tama in each hand) and having trouble placing them accurately on the mirror, try placing them one hand at a time. You still move and release them together, you just place them not quite at the same time. That way you can pay attention to one hand and then the other.

If your strands are getting tangled with their neighbors, keeping all tama at the same level will help prevent this from happening.

If you have trouble making all strands the same length when you let down your tama, use the one nearest you as the guide. Move the adjacent tama close to it and let them down so that they hang at the same level. Then use them as the guides for the next ones, and so on around.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I Fought the Turtles...

... And the turtles won.

After realizing my spiffy template was becoming a crutch and ditching it.

After reinterpreting the instructions into a mental chant that seemed to work really well -- until I lost my concentration.  More times than I care to disclose. 

After coming up with an "unbraid" chant that worked only some of the time.  Never could get a handle on how the point of braiding was supposed to look, much less what to move to make it look that way.

After endless "undoing" all the way back to the start.

I've twined the turtle harness, put it in a sandwich bag, and have retreated to safer ground.  I'll make those turtles march someday, but right now I'm just gonna lick my wounds.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Making Turtles March

I’ve been TRYING for the last several days to make a Kikko-gumi braid on the marudai. TRYING is the operative word here.

For those unfamiliar with it, Kikko-gumi is a flat braid with a hexagonal design that resembles tortoise shells. The tortoise symbolizes long life in Japan, and historically, this design was popular among the Samurai. Kikko-gumi is usually made on the takadai, but it is possible to do it on the marudai, too.

The Kikko-gumi marudai pattern came from a very nice person in the Yahoo kumi2 discussion group. (If you’re into kumihimo and you’re not a member of this group, you should be!) It’s done with 32 tama, and the movements look deceptively simple on paper. They’re even easy to remember… two groups, just a few steps in each group, and the second group mirrors the first. Repeat n times, and you’ve made your first turtle. When I first saw the instructions, I thought, “Hey, this doesn’t look hard!” Little did I know…

I already had enough tama and thread on hand, so I immediately set up my warping pegs and got started. I set up the braid with 20 ends of 40W rayon machine embroidery thread (2.7 meters long) on each tama. I chose red for the “turtle” outline and white for the rest. I like using this standard length when I’m learning a new braid. It allows for plenty of practice.

The first clue… 32 warp strands makes for a crowded mirror. When I’m setting up a braid, I often put the empty tama in their starting positions before I wind threads on them. I couldn’t even fit all 32 tama around the edge of my marudai – and it has a 14-inch mirror!

The second clue… only two colors are in this braid, and the positions of red relative to white shift at each movement. I’ve done other complex braids before, but the colors always related to each other. This is a tremendous visual aid in figuring out what you just did, what you should do next, and if you goofed up. And I didn’t know enough about this braid to set markers on certain tama.

OK… “damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead!” I dove in, and was oh so careful. I double checked which strands I picked up and where I put them. I made sure I maintained groupings of tama and relative spacing.. I iterated the prescribed number of times. Wow! I made a turtle! Actually, the turtle was on the side of the braid that faced away from me. The design on my side wasn’t a turtle. But I found a picture of a braid on the web that matched mine, so I figured I had done it right. Yay! “Let’s make another one!”

Now for turtle number two… I’m starting to get into a rhythm; I’m starting to remember the steps. I think I’ve finished the turtle. Oops, looks like there’s a mistake – guess it’s time to undo. I started reversing instructions mentally, and immediately got lost. So I just manually unbraided what I had done by selecting the top threads and putting them where they looked like they should go.

The third clue… the point of braiding is really complex. Threads intertwine on the sides, some cross in the center, and some toward the middle are vertical but cross others. When I picked up the top thread, it was not at all obvious where it came from. I eventually unbraided everything I had done.

Let’s start over and be really careful! OK… didn’t make a mistake until somewhere in the third turtle. Oh, well, let’s try unbraiding again, and really think about it this time. That lasted maybe four moves before I got totally lost. So I painfully unbraided the whole thing the second time.

Try number three… two turtles. I can repeat the instructions to myself, but I’m having difficulty seeing where to put the threads down. This makes me pick up the wrong threads for the next move. Rats. Undo again. You’d think by now that I could undo the right way, but I can’t.

Try number four… three good turtles before a bad one. I even put pieces of drafting tape on the mirror in various spots as visual references. They helped, but the angles of the threads are confusing. I know good braiders don’t need crutches. Maybe I’ll be good some day, but not today!

In the past, I’ve found that learning to unbraid a particular pattern to recover from a mistake is very instructive. I’ve done this more than I care to admit, but consider it good experience. So why can’t I do it with THIS braid?! Maybe if I write down the “unbraid steps”…

Try number five… two turtles. I can’t even unbraid successfully WITH written unbraid instructions, although I did manage to move pairs of threads instead of single ones. This is really getting frustrating. I don’t want to keep starting over… and over… and over…

Time to think of something… my main problem is seeing where things are, where things go, and keeping group spacing on the mirror. So I decided to bring out the big guns and make a template. The template divides the marudai into warp group sections for this braid. I used the Open Office draw program (the equivalent of PowerPoint) to make it, and sized it for my marudai. I printed only the part that would fit on one sheet of paper, and made three more copies to make the complete circle. I cut out the pieces and slipped them under the threads on my marudai. I labeled the groups as noted in the instructions, and marked the destination position of each move.

Try number six… haven’t counted the turtles, but the braid is long enough that I’ve moved the counterweight bag. This template works! Now I can see the groups, recognize them correctly, and keep them in the right place. I don’t have to “hunt” for landing sites at each movement. So far I haven’t become confused by thread angles or made mistakes. The rhythm is starting to come, and so is muscle memory. Hopefully, if I do make a mistake, the template and the written unbraid instructions will keep me on track.

Time to get back to braiding! TURTLES,… HARCH!... HUT, TWO, THREE, FOUR!

Friday, September 18, 2009

The Journey Begins

I'm still in the midst of braiding with horse hair and haven't posted anything in a while.  I've been trying off and on to put pen to paper about how I started braiding.  Here's what led to my very first kumihimo braid...

The Journey Begins

I didn’t know it at the time, but my journey began one sunny winter afternoon in Jackson, Wyoming. It was early February, 2007, and my cousin and I were there for a week of fun and freezing.

We were poking into all the nooks and crannies around town when I saw a bracelet made from horse hair. Being an avid horsewoman and interested in all things horsey, I picked it up for a closer look. It was several narrow three-strand "pig tail" braids finished with crimps on the ends and a toggle clasp. Now, I have many years of braiding horses' manes and tails for the hunter show ring under my belt, and I've become pretty good at it. My immediate reaction was, "I can braid better than that!"

Needless to say, I put the bracelet down, and we moved on. But I kept thinking about it.

The First Steps

A few weeks after returning home, I fired up the computer and Googled “horse hair bracelets.” There’s a bunch of web sites out there selling them. Many didn’t appeal to me, but Suzanne Storms’ braids were different from anything I had ever seen. I was intrigued; I just HAD to know how to make a braid like that.

Further searches on “Suzanne Storms” led me to the Victorian Hairwork Society site. I discovered there are books on how Victorian hair jewelry was made, that horse hair can be purchased in bulk, there’s something called “kumihimo,” and there are books on how to make kumihimo braids. WOW! There’s a whole world of braiding out there! I wanted to know more.

More Discoveries

More searches on “kumihimo” led me to all sorts of places. I discovered there were such things as the marudai and tama, and I saw lots of braids and jewelry made from various fibers. They were eye-openers and fascinating, but at the time they weren’t what I was interested in.

I also discovered something called a braiding disc. There were even instructions on how to use it for some braids. I immediately understood that many braids that could be made on the marudai could also be made with the disc. And this was something I could experiment with without a big investment.

The Very First Kumi Braid

I was anxious to get started and hoped the local craft store would have a large selection of braiding equipment and supplies. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. However, in the kids’ craft section there was a kit with a foam disc and plastic lace for making lanyards. The disc looked much like the ones I had seen online and the kit was inexpensive, so I took the plunge. I also looked for something that would be about the same thickness as a bunch of horse hair, and found some hemp (normally used for knotted friendship bracelets).

I eagerly ripped open the kit when I got home. It even had instructions for several different braids. The square one looked nice and I decided to try it. The instructions were clear, and I was actually making a braid! And it was looking good! Holy cow… this might really work!

Here's the braid...

And here's the disc.

The braid was about the right size for a bracelet, but it didn't smell very good!  And I knew there would be a whole of of things I'd have to figure out to make a horse hair bracelet.  Nothing like a good challenge...!

This seems like a good place to pause...  more to come sometime later when I get my thoughts together.  I have several other post ideas, but I WILL get back to this (and that's a promise).

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Practice Makes (More) Perfect

Since I set up this blog over a week ago, I guess it's high time I posted something to it.

I haven't started another kumihimo braid yet... I'm back to braiding horse hair, for two bracelets and two necklaces. I finished one braid earlier today, and will make five more (the necklaces require two braids each).

I've been doing traditional kumihomo with machine embroidery 40w rayon thread and 240g tama for the last two months. Now that I'm braiding with horse hair again, I noticed several things right away: 
  • 150g tama seem much lighter than the 240g tama I've been braiding with. I used to think the 150g tama were heavy.
  • The horse hair setup seems to be much easier than it used to be. Either I've got the technique down pat, or I've learned patience after dealing with all those ends of long rayon thread. For sure, counting out the horse hairs goes faster than making a full-rope warp.
  • I'm more accurate in moving the warp than I was before I started braiding with the traditional length warp. Braiding with 2.7m of thread gives one the opportunity for lots of practice.
  • It's REALLY important to document every aspect of your setup. You may think you'll never forget it, but (believe me!) you will. I didn't do my "standard" braid for two months and was fuzzy about how much counterweight to use. DUH! If you find me wandering about the neighborhood, please direct me to my house.
I thought I had finished the braid last night. I got to the end of the hair, took it off the marudai, and noticed the spirals weren't even. I had removed part of the weight from my core strand midway through the braid, which caused the spirals to elongate. Another head-smacking moment. The good thing about horse hair is that it really wants bo be straight. Especially if you wet it. I just undid the fastenings at both ends and put it in the sink. It didn't take long to completely undo it. Now that I'm using twisted pulls (like the ones the horse hair hitchers use), it was really easy. I laid the pulls on the counter and they dried overnight.

I set up the marudai again this afternoon and redid the braid. I was about half-way finished when I noticed a broken hair. Fortunately, the hair had enough length before the break to make the braid long enough for a bracelet. The twist in the pull kept the hair in place, and I just ended the braid early.

Since I need to make two more braids to match this one, I'll have to be careful about the hairs I select.  I'll need longer braids for a neckace, and broken hairs would be a disaster.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

In the Interim

I'm just getting started here, so please bear with me.  I hope you'll enjoy following my journey.  Until I get up to speed on this blogging thing, here's an example of some of my horse hair work that I turned into jewelry.