Can traditional Japanese hair ornaments make a comeback?

by Linda Lombardi


Kanzashi are hair ornaments that were worn by geisha and young daughters of the nobility in a tradition dating back hundreds of years. They’re gorgeous, and tsumami kanzashi — complex ones decorated with fabric flowers — are officially recognized as a traditional Japanese handcraft by the government.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, to discover that the basic technique of making the folded cloth flowers is simple enough to learn while sitting at a sidewalk cafe.

On a recent trip to Tokyo, I signed up for a 90-minute workshop on a technique called tsumami zaiku (loosely translated to “pinch-style artisanship”). Similar, hands-on craft experiences that I’ve done before have always involved going to a studio. In this case, however, I’m met by instructor Chikako Oshiro at a train station and we head to a cafe, where she sets the supplies out on the table. Organized neatly in compartmentalized boxes, they all fit into a tote bag.

Oshiro shows me some sample flowers and points out that there are two kinds. The ken tsumami type, the petals have a sharp point — “ken” means “sword.” Maru (round) tsumami petals are rounded. The latter technique is harder, so we start with ken.

I pick out five 4-centimeter squares of two different colors of fabric, and Oshiro demonstrates what to do. First, fold the square in half into a triangle and glue it together at the tip of the triangle. Then fold again and glue again; do it one more time, and you’ve got your first petal.

It sounds simple, but with the pieces so small, it requires dexterity. Oshiro shows me how to hold the piece of fabric in the middle with a small pair of tweezers and fold it over, which makes it easier to fold a straight line.

Once I complete 10 petals, the next step is to cover a round piece of cardboard with matching fabric to make a base. Then, the petals are glued on to this base. To make sure they are arranged evenly, Oshiro shows me how to start with two petals opposite one another, looking kind of like rabbit ears. The rest of the petals are then added next to those two, alternating colors.

Finally, I choose a small decorative bead for the center, glue the flower onto a hair clip, and it’s done.

Next, I try the round-petaled maru technique, which is indeed more difficult and harder to explain in words. Starting with two different-color fabric triangles laid a little offset on top of each other, and then using a slightly more complex folding technique, I end up with a rounded petal that has one color in the center and another color around the edge.

Floral creations: Tsumami kanzashi decorative flowers with  ken (sword) and maru (rounded) petals. | GETTY IMAGES
Floral creations: Tsumami kanzashi decorative flowers with ken (sword) and maru (rounded) petals. | GETTY IMAGES

Though many say “Wow, you made that?” when they see my creations, the little blossoms are a far cry from the “wow” of tsumami kanzashi hairpieces made by professional artisans. These are wearable works of art, featuring bunches and cascades of multiple silk flowers.

Such ornaments are still worn today by women dressed in kimono for special occasions, or for work by traditional performers. But, as with many traditional crafts, the number of tsumami kanzashi artisans is dwindling. Currently, there are only two certified masters accredited by the Japanese government, living in Tokyo and Chiba prefectures, says Kuniko Kanawa, a professional Edo Period (1603-1868) style tsumami kanzashi artisan who lives in Maryland.

Modern artisans, however, are creating new types of accessories using the cloth flowers, such as earrings and brooches. Hairpieces have also evolved, moving away from the authentic style of two parts, where one worn on top and the other on the side.

“They work only for the traditional Japanese hairstyle,” says Kanawa, who makes both the old style and newer forms. “That (new styles) is how the craft still survives and is carried to the next generation.”

The basic technique has also been taken up by hobbyists and crafters in Japan and elsewhere. Kanawa says that only those who have been trained by apprenticeship and approved by a certified master, however, are officially permitted to produce and sell nationally designated traditional crafts, including Edo tsumami kanzashi. Nowadays, however, the prohibition is widely ignored.

That’s frustrating for those trying to maintain the traditional craft. Having tried it, though, I can also understand the urge to make them again.