Even though I’m a hand braider, I’ve always been fascinated by braiding machines. I loved the antique hand-crank 5-strand braiding machine that was on display at Paradise Mills, the old Macclesfield silk weaving factory we toured at Braids 2012 in the U.K. This was the oldest braiding machine I’d ever heard of – from 1830 – and I got to see and crank it in person!
(*Jump to braiding machine history here)
I love watching youtube videos of braiding machines in action – from antique to high-tech:
(Click your back button to return here from linked youtube pages)
1.5 min video of lovingly refurbished New England Butt Co. braiding machines in action (round braider circa 1960, flat braider circa 1920, flat braider 1880’s). Great closeups of braids, and machine parts in action.
Below are some links to video clips of the gorgeous, intricate, antique braiding machines and braids at la Maison des Tresses et Lacets – the braiding machines at this still-functioning braid factory in France were originally water-wheel-powered!:
1-minute video clip of two of their braiding machines at work making flat braids.
Simple modern braiding machine, not too different from the antique machines except in speed, 1-minute video
Aviation composite braiding (ultra-hi-tech factory in the Netherlands, same basic idea, but horizontal, and braiding around a solid core): 3-minute video (a fun one! You have to skip one ad in the beginning, but it’s worth it.)
BIGGEST, most humongous ever (this link cuts to the middle of a long corporate brag in German to the best part): About 1 minute (from 5:18 to 6:28). These enormous ropes are square braids – I think of ten strands. Almost exactly like a 5-loop fingerloop braid!
Makiko Tada’s amazing braiding machines for composite fiber industrial braids, I think these intricate tracks are forming integrated multiples of square braids – 1-minute video
Lo and behold a toy hand-crank braiding machine recently came out that was brought to my attention on the Braids and Bands discussion group – made by Spinmaster, called the Cool Maker KumiKreator Friendship Bracelet Maker (I am not being paid for this review btw, or for any clicks on links within it, and in fact I suggest using this product in ways the manufacturer does not recommend.)
Most online reviews of Spinmaster’s KumiKreator seem to be written by parents who received a Kumi kreator for free in return for their review, or are getting revenue from clicks on product links within their site. There are also some reviews by disgruntled parents who didn’t have the patience to go through the instructions slowly and carefully, and are dismayed when the machine jams up because they loaded it wrong (see Notes and Tips below). I am a hand braider, not a parent, and I bought this to use myself. I have taught both preschool and elementary school though, so I do have some insight into what would be hard or easy for children in using this toy. Almost all children will need adult help at first, but if they are 9 or older they will probably be able to use it on their own after some practice.
Children under 8 will likely always need adult help in setting up (popping the spools into the holders, and threading the ends up through the holders and into the clip on the top arm); and also finishing the bracelet (cutting off the ends, sealing with tape, and attaching the clasps). The actual cranking of the handle to produce the braid is the easiest part, yet takes some co-ordination and effort, I imagine any child would feel very proud and productive cranking hard and watching a braid form.
There are no knots to tie, or glue to fuss over, so attaching the clasp – while a bit tricky for young children – is much simpler than standard methods of finishing braided jewelry. The clasps seem surprisingly secure, but they are not easy to open and close, most kids will probably prefer to roll their bracelets on and off.
Any age child will probably require adult help in learning how to use the machine, and the adult needs to be willing to read (or watch the video) and carefully follow the directions for each step of the set-up. The steps aren’t hard, but you can’t skip any of them. Speaking for myself, I couldn’t catch them all just by a a quick scan-through of the directions, or a quick watch-through of the video. I had to refer to them step-by-step during the first set-up.
The Kumikreator is priced around $25 – $35. I don’t have links to sellers here, but you can find it online, and in craft and some ‘big-box’ stores.
It is an actual braiding machine, but the braid it makes is very different from any industrial machine-made braids that I’m aware of. It’s a common type of Kumihimo braid, though, called Kongoh-gumi, which I hear means firm, round braid in Japanese. Kongoh braids are typically made by hand, either on a round wooden braiding stand called a marudai, or on a stiff slotted card or foam disk.
(Btw: the braids in photo below are sorta ‘hacked’ – the machine and its included spools make braids more like the magenta/blue/orange bracelet in photos further down.)
This machine braids 8- or 12-strand Kongoh braids. 12 strands is equivalent to a 6-loop braid, but most Kongoh color-patterns are quite different from those of the loop braids I teach on this blog, so I am finding them very fun to make! All samples with the exception of the bracelet are 12-strand Kongoh-gumi in cotton, wool, silk, or linen. One of the two finished bracelets (photo further down) is 8-strand, made with the KumiKreator synthetic thread and plastic clasp.
Left-to-right, from lower left corner: 1st braid is the thickest, crochet cotton #3 (3-ply); braids 2-5 are fine weaving wool (discontinued brand); 6-12 are dmc embroidery floss. (#9 and #11 have a single spool of pink rayon thread)
I’ve never come across a machine-made braid like this – meaning a round braid that is dense and compact in itself, rather than tubular around a core. (The fingerloop braid I call the Spiral Braid is similar – the strands all pass through the center, creating a dense, round braid.)
When you turn the crank of the KumiKreator braiding machine, the spool-holders don’t all circulate simultaneously the way they do in an industrial ‘horn gear’ braiding machine. Instead, only two spool-holders move at a time while the others wait in slots around the circular face of the machine. The machine has 2 spool-moving gears. Each gear picks up and moves one spool-holder, rotating them (in opposite directions) to a vacant slot across the circular face of the machine. In the photo below, the 2 vacant slots are at the top and bottom of the machine (left and right in the photo), but as you crank, two spool-holders will move into those vacant slots, leaving two other slots vacant, and so on.
The action is fast and clattery, not very pleasant for others in the vicinity! (But somehow not bothersome at all to the obsessed braider doing the cranking!) The growing braid is drawn upward by the white spring-loaded arm at the top of the machine.
This toy braiding machine is targeted toward young girls making friendship bracelets, and the manufacturer (Spin Master) wants to keep them all buying packs of replacement spools, in different color-assortments with enticing names. They strongly suggest only using this thread, vaguely threatening disaster if you dare to use your own thread. The spools are SMALL. Each spool holds only 20″ of thick, braided synthetic thread, enough for one bracelet-length braid:
However it’s no problem to reload these spools with your own thread. There’s a handy slot/groove inside the spool at one end which grips the starting twist or two of the thread as you wind. With finer thread you can make much longer (and finer) braids. So far I’ve used fine weaving wool, #3 crochet cotton, and embroidery floss:
Two bracelets for comparison. Left bracelet was made with size 3 crochet cotton that I wound onto empty KumiKreator spools (12 spools). Right bracelet is an 8-spool bracelet made with the KumiKreator synthetic thread. Both have the Kumikreator plastic clasps, which come in two colors. Easy to attach (no gluing) but difficult to use – they are hard to snap and unsnap. In a youtube video, I saw one child simply rolling her bracelet onto her wrist without using the clasp.
I also tried using a fine slippery rayon, doubled, but that really was a near-disaster! Even at only one spool among 11 well-behaved spools of cotton embroidery floss – the doubled rayon thread kept slipping off its spool and tying up the works. Maybe doubling it was the problem – I’ll try to find a thicker rayon thread and try that. [update: I’ve now tried both silk and linen – both turned out great. The linen looked disappointing until I washed it – improved it 100%, and it feels amazing, like quicksilver.]
The spools don’t have a lot of room for thread, but if I wind carefully, I can load 3 yards of embroidery floss onto each spool, for a braid of about half that length (almost 5 feet). This is more than enough length for a necklace, or could be a drawstring or a handle for a bag, shoelaces, pet leash, etc. Winding onto twelve little spools takes patience, but the payoff is cranking out a long pretty little braid, clickety-clack!
The spiral-pattern braid in the photo below is just under 5 feet in length (all these braids are cotton embroidery floss).
Update: Braids can be up to twice that length if each end is braided separately. My test braid below turned out about 3 yards long (9 feet/ 2.74m). I cut 6 yds of embroidery floss for each spool, and wound only 3yds onto the spool, leaving the extra 3 yds hanging (well actually I bundled the ends up temporarily into a more manageable bundle). Then started braiding at the mid-point of the warp. When I finished cranking out that first half, I then wound the opposite ends of the threads onto the emptied spools – after first threading each strand down through a spool-holder of the machine. I tightened the spools well to avoid looseness at the ‘join’, and then braided the other half of the warp. It’s hard to predict exactly how long the braid will turn out, because often one spool will run out of thread long before the others even though they all started with approximately the same length – this is very puzzling!
A small round pattern booklet comes with the machine (upper right in product photo, and sample pattern page shown below). There are other pattern books available online. Most of the patterns are for 8-strand braids, but a few are for the full 12 spools. I love the pattern they call ‘Dream Beam,’ shown on the pattern booklet page below. It’s the color-pattern of the lowest braid in the group shot two photos up (pink, black, and gray embroidery floss).
You can also design your own patterns, either by experimenting (always fun) or by using the Craft Design Online Kongoh braid pattern generator (also fun!). This independent site is a great resource for braid pattern generators, (also for converting uploaded images into customizable gridded patterns). On their Kongoh planner page, use the ‘minus’ icon to bring the number of strands down from 16 to 12, pick a color from the color wheel, and start designing!
Note 1: Using a Kongoh chart
A standard Kongoh chart like the one on CraftDesignOnline does not align exactly with the starting set-up of spools on the machine, and the little round KumiKreator pattern charts. I added all the numbers into the pics below to show how a normal Kongoh chart can be used with the Kumi machine (the real KumiKreator pattern charts are not numbered.) You wouldn’t get the Dream Beam pattern if you started by loading color #2 of the Kongoh chart into spot #1 in the machine, even if the rest of the colors follow in the correct order.
In starting position (shown above right), spool no. 2 will be the first spool to move downward once you start cranking. (spool no. 8 will be the first to move upward).
Note 2: Jams
(If you have a jam, be sure to also see tip #2 further down.)
There are two ways the machine can jam up and stop functioning.
A. Thread jam A thread may be tangled or stuck – check each spool to see if its thread has gotten stuck onto the side of the spool, or around another spool-holder.
Untangle the thread, but also fix what caused it. It probably happened because you didn’t (successfully) release the white arm before you started cranking, so the growing braid wasn’t being pulled upward. Before you start cranking, you must push the white tab above the clip forward and firmly down to release the white arm. Another possibility is that you didn’t insert the spool correctly into the spool-holder, or thread the end of each strand up THROUGH the spool-holder, or tighten up on all the spools before you started cranking. (again, see tip #2 below!)
B. Mechanical jam A spool-holder might inexplicably be occupying a slot that should be vacant, thereby blocking the next spool-holder from entering its proper slot. Test this by pulling all the thread from the spools – eliminating the possibility of a thread jam. If the crank still won’t turn, then it this mechanical jam. This has happened to me only once. Luckily I had already read about this potential problem, and had saved a link to the online video that shows how to fix this. (that link is also listed in the directions that come with the machine). The video shows how to access and remove the ‘illegal’ spool-holder and replace it into its proper slot (you can’t just stick it into any visible vacant slot – the video shows how to find the right one). That mechanical jam occurred right after a thread jam that was my own fault, so maybe the one caused the other. It hasn’t happened since, which has been a lot of braids.
Tips and hacks:
Tip/ Hack 1:
Make your own patterns:
You don’t have to follow the colors of the pattern charts.
You or your child can make up your own patterns by loading any colors you want into the 8 or the 12 slots shown on the charts. The important thing is WHICH slots – must be the particular 8 slots shown, or else the full 12 slots (not including the 2 blue slots). Loading 8 spools into the wrong slots might result in a twisty muddle of threads rather than a true braid (ask me how I know!). As always, before inserting any spools, crank until the dial/ face is in proper set-up position, with the two blue slots vacant.
Follow the directions:
Probably goes without saying, but be sure to read the set-up instructions and/or watch one of the several official youtube videos demoing them, while pausing it to finish each step.
There is a certain amount of scuttlebutt around the web that this toy “doesn’t work” “is crap” “jammed up the first time we used it!” “worked at first then it got stuck and my daughter is heartbroken!” – simply because toy or not, this is a real braiding machine and has to be set up correctly in order to work. Jam-ups are fixable (see Jams above) and generally a result of misuse, so they stop occurring after you learn how to use the machine. The first time I used it I found I had to go over the directions slowly and carefully, step by step, while following them – when I tried to just watch the video through first, and then do the set-up it turned out I had missed some important bits of info.
After you learn how to load the machine correctly, and teach your child, yes, it will be easy for both of you, but the first time it might not. Especially if a spool-holder happens to be in the wrong spot from the start. (If the handle won’t turn even when no thread is in the spool holders, go to “mechanical jam” above.)
Tip/ Hack 3:
Using your own thread (see my own experiments further up):
Kumikreator thread is thick, plus has a slight extra thickening at the tip that helps it not slide out of the white clip. When using my own thread, especially if it is fine or slippery, I make a knot at the end of the thread, to help it stay in the clip. After winding the spools, and inserting and threading them into the spool-holders, when I am about to load the ends of the thread into the white clip at the tip of the white arm, I first bunch 3 or 4 threads together and tie them into a knot at the top. I load the threads into the white clip with the knot above the clip. Then I tug down on the threads so the knot snugs down firmly against the top of the clip. I do this with all the strands. (This might not be necessary with thicker thread, like size 3 crochet cotton – I think the clip would hold onto that without any knots.)
Tip/ Hack 4:
Hack the length:
You are not limited by the length of the white arm! The limiting factor for length is the amount of thread you can load onto the spools, not the length of the white arm. The Kumikreator machine can braid longer lengths – for necklaces, shoelaces, or drawstrings – if you wind thinner thread onto the spools. When making a long braid, once the arm has pulled all the way back (maybe a ten-inch braid), you can simply re-clip the arm further down the braid, and continue cranking. However that clip is sized to hold strands, not fully-formed braids, and might eventually break or get too loose if you keep forcing fat round braids into it. To get around that: After the arm has pulled all the way back the first time, I then hang the braid from the clip: I suspend a small lasso-like noose around the braid, and hang the noose from the clip, sliding it further down the braid when the arm has pulled back as far as it can go. See photos below.
You can even braid up to twice as long as your ‘longest’ possible braid! This requires loading the thread onto the spools twice. You start winding the thread onto the spool at the centerpoint of each super-long strand, crank til you get to the ends of the spools, and then wind the remaining lengths onto the spools (described above).
Another way to make a necklace is shown on a French crafter’s site – see link at the bottom of this page. She makes two bracelet-length braids and attaches them together with a decorative pendant at the join. Kids could also just connect two or more bracelets together by their plastic clasps into one big necklace.
Tension: The tension is set by the spring-loaded white arm, and the resistance of the spools. Even so, there’s a learning curve with this! My first floss samples had loose gappy threads near the start, now I tighten everything up very carefully before I start cranking.
It would be theoretically possible to bypass the white arm and rig up your own simple weighted system. If you want a tighter braid you would use a lighter upward pull. Most natural fiber (cotton, wool, linen) braids plump up, relax, and look better after washing them gently in hot soapy water, really helps even out slight tensioning issues. Overall, I’ve been impressed with the relative even-ness of the tension in the braids I’ve been churning out. My pics show most of them – I don’t have a pile of “Dorian Gray” terrible ones hiding in a drawer!
Earliest braiding machines:
The first braiding machine patent is usually credited to Thomas Walford (apparently of Manchester, England) in 1748. He got another braiding machine patent in 1777.
In 1767 the first metal braiding machine was made in Germany.
Various types of braiding machines followed – according to the Maison des Tresses et Lacets website, the ‘definitive version’ (made of wood) was built by someone in Normandy named Perrault in 1783.
Jean-François Richard-Chambovet brought these Perrault braiding machines to Saint-Chamond, France (near where the Maison des Tresses et Lacets is today) in 1807. That link goes to a vivid account of how he happened to do that – it’s the starting page of a book about the effect of industrialization on family and social life in Saint-Chamond, with lots of information about the braiding and ribbon-weaving industries there.
The Manual of Braiding by Noémi Speiser has detailed information about industrial braiding machines, including their history – much better information than I was able to find online.
A brief but interesting reference I found online was in A&P Technology (a U.S. braiding company) website’s history pages:
1830’s – Henry Pearce comes over from England bringing his expertise in spinning and enabling the company to convert raw cotton into cloth. The company introduces its first braid product: Candlewicking.
[That was around the same time as the date on the cast iron braiding machine on display at Paradise Mill! I wonder if Henry Pearce’s candle-wicking braider was identical to it. This was in the days before electric lighting – lamp and candle-wicks must have been a huge demand back then. Before making this post, I had never really thought of candle wicks as an important braided item.]
Horn gears in braiding machines
The horn gear braiding machine was invented in the 1700’s – pretty much the dawn of the industrial revolution, and yet it is still the most common type of braiding machine today!
Braiding machines, although they have an apparent complex movement of bobbins, are mechanically simple and robust.
The simplest possible braiding machine has only 3 bobbins, circulated by two horn gears, making a 3-strand braid – this short video clip shows the simple figure-8 bobbin track and the developing braid. (Use your back button to return here from Youtube.)
Here’s a fantastic video on Youtube from Andreas Siegler that clearly demonstrates exactly how horn gears work to propel a bobbin around the undulating track of a braiding machine: DIY Maypole Braider – How does it work? [he doesn’t actually use the term ‘horn gears’, but that’s what he’s explaining]
He has a series of videos about his process of building this 16-bobbin braiding machine (not a tutorial – no plans given), click on his name under the videos to go to his youtube channel. Maypole braiding machines make tubular braids, though a very slight design modification allows them to make flat braids, like the ones in the first video links to the Maison des Tresses et Lacets near the beginning of my post.
The KumiKreator braider works by a very different mechanism that isn’t as smooth and efficient as horn gears, but it gets the job done for these Kongoh braids. (it’s not hard to unscrew and take off the base to peek in at the workings!)
It might seem sort of perverse for a loop braider to be fascinated by braiding machines, since it was the advent of braiding machines that almost killed off loop braiding worldwide. But I think hand braiding can coexist with machines in the modern world just like hand knitting, weaving, carpentry and other arts and crafts.
This little Kongoh braiding machine is fun for me as a braider to play with, but it can only make one rather minimal type of braid, and other than picking and loading the colors, my hands only get to do one repetitive and somewhat uncomfortable motion that is not soothing or graceful or “in the threads” like hand braiding. Once I’ve run out of steam with this machine, I’ll keep it around, but I will be back to the much wider possibilities of braiding with loops on my fingers and hands, and appreciating braiding machines from a distance!
Update 3/2/2019: I just ran into the blog of another adult KumiKreator user! (Or maybe she uses it together with her oldest daughter – my grasp of French is very rudimentary.) She is a French craftsperson and mother of two young children who has been using ribbon yarn with their KumiKreator machine. Click link for one stunning example. In this one, they created a pattern in just one color, but using a contrast of shiny vs. matte ribbon yarn.
For more, here’s a link to just her posts tagged “kumihimo” – the first several pages are of KumiKreator-made bracelets and necklaces. For ideas and inspiration keep clicking on successive pages when you get to the bottom of the first page. Some of the bracelets have a braided tassel attached with metal findings – a fun embellishment.
2-14-2019, last updated 5-17-2019
© 2019 Ingrid Crickmore
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