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)
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.)
The KumiKreator braiding machine is priced around $25. (NB: the braids in photo below are sorta ‘hacked’ – the machine and its included spools make braids like the ones in the bracelet photo further down.) 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 braids it makes are very different from those made by any of the other braiding machines in the pictures and video links above – or any machine-made braids that I’m aware of. It’s a common type of Kumihimo braid, though, called Kongoh-gumi (I think that 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.
This machine braids 8- and 12-strand Kongoh braids. 12 strands is equivalent to a 6-loop braid, but most Kongoh color-patterns are quite different from those of loop braids, 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. The bracelet (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 a standard ‘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 load 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 connect and to 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). 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 folded and crochet-chained it 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. Exact final length of a braid is hard to predict because almost invariably some spools run out of thread long before others even though they all started with approximately the same length wound on – 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 #4 further down.)
There are two ways the machine can jam up and stop functioning.
1. 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.
A thread jam probably means you didn’t successfully release the white arm that pulls upward on the developing braid, so check that too. (Push the white tab above the clip forward and firmly down to release the arm). Or it might be because you didn’t insert and thread the spool into the spool-holder correctly, or tighten all the spools before you started cranking: Each strand should come up through the top of the spool-holder and go straight and taut to the white clip – strands shouldn’t come out from the bottom of the spool-holder, or hang slackly between the spool-holder and the white clip. (again, see tip #4 below!)
2. Mechanical jam A spool-holder might suddenly and inexplicably be occupying a slot that should be vacant, so the next moving spool-holder is blocked from entering its proper slot. Test this by pulling all the thread from the spools – eliminating the possibility of a thread jam. If the machine is still jammed, then it this mechanical jam. This has happened to me only once, and luckily I had already 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). It 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 shortly 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.
When using thread that is finer than the Kumi Kreator thread: After winding the spools, loading them into the spool-holders, and threading the end up through the spool-holder, when I am about to load the thread-ends into the clip at the tip of the white arm, I tie a knot at the top of each thread (or more often now, I bunch 3 or 4 adjacent threads together and tie a knot at the top). This keeps them from sliding out of the clip. After loading them with their knots above the clip, I pull down on all the threads so their knots snug down firmly against the top of the clip. Then I manually turn the little ‘wheels’ on the side of the spools to tighten away any slackness in the threads.
Tip 2: When making a long braid, once the arm has pulled all the way back (maybe a ten-inch braid), you must then re-clip the arm further down the braid. However that clip doesn’t look very strong, and might eventually break or get too loose if you keep forcing fat round braids into it (it’s just designed to hold strands, not a fully-formed braid). I suspend a small lasso-like larks-head noose around the braid, and hang that from the clip, sliding it further down the braid when the arm has pulled back as far as it can go. See photos below.
Tip 3: 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 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!
Tip 4: 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.
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 you use it even an adult needs to go over the directions slowly and carefully, step by step – or do the same thing by slowly following and pausing a youtube video.
After you ‘get’ it, 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.) For younger children, the hardest thing will probably be pushing the spools into the spool-holders, and loading the ends of the thread up through the spool-holders and into the white clip, plus taping and trimming the ends and attaching the plastic clasp. An adult will probably have to help with all that especially in the beginning. However, there are no knots to tie, or glue to worry about, so it is very user-friendly compared to 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.
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.
Another brief but interesting reference I found was on 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.
[This was long before the more well-known New England Butt Co. began manufacturing braid in the U.S. I wonder if Henry Pearce’s candle-wicking braider was identical to the cast iron braiding machine on display at Paradise Mill! This was in the days before electric lighting – I guess 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.]
Braiding machines, although they have an apparent complex movement of bobbins, are mechanically simple and robust.
Horn gear braiding machines were invented in the 1700’s – pretty much the dawn of the industrial revolution, and yet they are still the most common type of braiding machine today!
Here’s a rare video on Youtube from Andreas Siegler (an amazing DIYer) that clearly demonstrates how the little u-shaped recesses on horn gears work to propel a bobbin around the undulating track of a braiding machine, while the horn gears themselves simply rotate in fixed positions: DIY Maypole Braider – How does it work? (Use your back button to return here from the youtube page)
He has a series of videos about his process of building this 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 take off the base and 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.
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.
© 2019 Ingrid Crickmore
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