Braiding disks 

I spent some time in the workshop yesterday, cutting out kumihimo disks.  Kumihimo is a Japanese art form, a technique for braiding using a disk and silk strands. I made this form of braiding part of my class called “String Theory” several years ago, along with the Lucet and knitting needles. The challenge was always producing a disk in the time allotted for the class, without power tools.

What I Made

Now, I have some power tools. Thanks to the scroll saw and drill press, I’m able to crank out the disks necessary for the class in about 30 minutes. Sanding takes longer because I don’t have a belt sander, and I have to do them individually.  But it’s still possible to produce a few dozen disks pretty easily.

These come from oak hobby board from Home Depot.  I’m not sure how I feel about Home Depot at the moment, because their president is supporting DT for president rather than HRC. But short of going to a smaller lumber yard and buying more expensive board, this is at present a cheaper option.

There are a number of online guides in how to use kumihimo disks to braid.  HEre’s a favorite pattern of mine, which I use for a good many applications; it’s also possible to add beads to the work, this way.  There’s another collection of braiding patterns here.  Really, though, I have to make a small booklet to go with the disk.

It is possible to make one of these disks out of a paper plate.  I prefer the wood, because it’s a tactile awareness for the students who use one. And it’s more enduring, which means that if one finds the right group of students, you can help change the school culture by having these strings made by all age groups, and traded back and forth across the school. It’s a way of introducing a continuing culture of making, and the trading of the bracelets/necklaces/backpack strings becomes a way of enriching the social/emotional culture of the school. Hmm!

The current challenge I have to think about, is how or if to mark them.  Modern disks label the slots in the edge with numbers.   But it seems likely that children and adults who braided were probably taught patterns, instead, and the patterns were done without benefit of numbered points on the disk.

Why add numbers? Or symbols? Here’s roughly how this tool works.  A number of strands of embroidery floss or yarn are tied together. In traditional kumihimo, there are usually an even number of strands, like four, eight or sixteen; in modern braiding work, sometimes seven strands are used.  The patterns are based on the numbers.  The strands are arranged in the slots around the edges; the knot (sometimes with a weight) is hung through the hole in the middle.

So symbols or numbers allow one to recall a greater number of patterns — heck, let’s teach some programming while we’re at it, and introduce the concept of a WHILE loop… continue doing this pattern of string movements until the bracelet/necklace reaches the correct length — and use the disk in a greater number of situations as a training tool for understanding algorithms.

I think the two stumbling blocks at the moment are cleaning, sanding and cleaning,  maybe staining and sealing. I can turn out quite a few disks — smaller sized for smaller hands — in a few hours.  The scroll saw makes chopping the slots around the edge quite easy; the drill press punches through the oak hobby board quite easily.  It’s the removal of the paper pattern with mineral spirits; the sanding of the edge, the edges of the center hole, and the individual slots that takes the most time.


There are a number of online guides in how to use kumihimo disks to braid.  Here’s a favorite pattern of mine, which I use for a good many applications; it’s also possible to add beads to the work, this way.  There’s another collection of braiding patterns here.  Really, though, I have to make a small booklet to go with the disk.

Here’s the PDF pattern for the disks I made.  The individual sizes can be increased, I think — but I preferred a smaller disk, especially since the oak board provides a good deal more weight in the hand; and it’s easier for smaller/child-like hands to manipulate a smaller disk.   Kumihimo Disk.

Here’s a report on a similar tool from the Viking era, called a Lucet.  The Lucet and the Braiding Disk together (also possibly with the addition of a pair of knitting needles, which can EASILY be made in a Makerspace, or a Crochet Hook (another easy tool to make), together form a curriculum I call “String Theory”.   I have oak lucets for sale on my Etsy shop.

I used to include weaving in my string theory class. Not any more.  It’s just too hard  — weaving requires way too much set-up and complications, and should be its own class. Though then you get to teach card weaving or tablet weaving too.

Use in classes

As I mentioned, this is a great way to teach the concept of while loops in computer programming, or algorithms — the idea of a repetitive process (like the manipulation of eight variable ‘strings’ through the multiple repetitions of a set of six steps) that results in a particular outcome (a necklace or a bracelet).  For schools that have a MakerSpace, the process of making such a disk teaches the concept of Tools Make Tools Make Things, which I think is pretty important these days.  It also helps bring back artisanry — how to make a thing that makes something else; and helps history teachers teach the concept of specialization.  Making braids and knotted cords also opens up pathways into jewelry-making.

Use in Magic

Braiding is a pretty easy thing to do.  Knot-magic has been around for thousands of years; there are ancient statuettes of women from the Paleolithic era wearing string skirts; learning to work with string is a powerful way to teach important magical skills.  But more, braids in the right color can be used to secure mojo bags (as drawstrings or as decorative elements), hands, talismans, or astrological images.  They can be used as bindings and wrappings.  And they can be used as charms in and of themselves — tie one on your wrist after consecrating it to a given purpose, and it will do its thing until it is too dirty or falls off from over-use.

Not a bad thing at all.

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