Loop-Manipulation Braiding Technique

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Two bronze braiders on the lid of the cowry-container
Photo by Masako Kinoshita 1998 ゥ
Five experimental swatches of medieval braids made using kute-uchi

A Short History of the Loop-Manipulation Braiding Technique

Masako Kinoshita

The loop-manipulation (l-m) braiding technique, despite its primitive features, has been used widely in the world throughout the long history of mankind because of its ability to produce well-controlled braids quickly and easily. It had been completely forgotten, however, until No士i Speiser's groundbreaking work of the English pattern books in 1970's, in which fragmentary loop braiding recipes from nine 17th-century notebooks were reconstructed.

So far as we know, the oldest possible evidence showing the existence of the l-m technique is a small fragment from the 13th century b. c. of a braid, excavated from ancient copper smelting site in the desert of southern Israel. It was reported as a UO braid. The claim, however, has never been confirmed by a third party. UO braid is a group of braids with special structural features that marks that they are made using the l-m technique.

The next possibly oldest evidences comes from a number of fragments of 'xi' fabric from the Chu tombs in China (the 4th c. to 221 b. c.). Although the most likely construction method of 'xi' fabric is considered to be the l-m technique, that still is hypothetical.

The oldest sure evidence at present, therefore, is the 1st-century b. c. bronze statuettes of a braider-pair on the lid of a bronze cowrie-container from a tomb of Mount Lijia, Yunnan, China.

This is followed by traces of pseudomorphed oblique twining braids (sasanami-kumi) wrapped around iron dagger or swords from the 5th- to 7th-century burial mounds in Japan. This type of braid can be found among the 7th-century treasures of Horyuji, as well as among braids of the Shosoin treasures, which were all highly likely to have been made using l-m techniques.
It has also been proven that the extant medieval braids were made using l-m.

The l-m techniques used in Japan have been coined as 'kute-uchi.' It includes several different types of l-m techniques. The highly developed l-m technique reconstructed from a chapter in the 19th-century treatise, 'Soshun Biko (Notes on Braiding),' is the culmination of continued efforts of braid artisans from the 6th to 12th centuries to improve the function of lamellar armor. The tradition in braiding arts in Japan seems to represent this developmental track of highly trained professional groups of artisans, who prized productivity as well as beauty,
After surviving from the 6th century to early 20th century, the highly developed type of the technique that had been supported by professional braiders succumbed when it lost its major clientele, the samurai class, who had been required to keep up with well-equipped armor during the old regime. The survival of the simpler version of the l-m up till the present might be because it had been one of required skills for women, as shown in a picture book, 'Onna Daigaku Takarabako (Treasure Chest of Women's Know-How)' (1716).

In Europe, the history of loop braids so far goes back to the 12th to 14th centuries, as evidenced by artifacts of archeological excavation in London and Southampton. The household books of the 15th to 17th centuries reveal that these were among the skills needed for everyday life. Artifacts, such as drawstrings for relic purses, satchels, button fasteners on costumes, seals for documents have been found in Denmark, Germany, Belgium and Switzerland.
Names of the braids from the English household books follow the convention of heraldry, suggesting that the technique was nourished in this cultural environment. No records, however, later than the 17th c. have been found. Did they perish in the great age of enlightenment?

I am happy to see interest in the technique is now emerging.
As information of l-m techniques expands, we have more people sending us information.
Some recipes we have received are entirely new to us, making us realize the wide range of possibilities of the technique.
Speiser's research as well as mine was only possible because there had been people who have kept their tradition and who collected and reported the information. Without these, our research would have been impossible or very difficult to start. I am grateful to these people.
The question that the wide distribution of this technique raises is whether the technique was born spontaneously in different cultures, or was propagated. We hope future research might one day answer this question.

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