Medieval 2-worker braid from a German cathedral

This is an amazing finger loop braid from the 14th Century! I had no idea anything like this had been made by European loop braiders (see note about kute-uchi braids*).

unusual fingerloop braids, 14th Century braids, loop manipulation, early medieval braids,

14th C. Sudarium braid reconstruction attempts, embr. floss

See Poll Results re recent request for a video tutorial for this braid. I’ve put it on the list….

This dense, 10-loop cord is basically two square braids that are completely enmeshed and interlaced through each other down the axis of the braid.  Each component braid keeps its own loops–the loops never migrate from one “sub-braid” to the other. If you set up one with green and white loops, and the other with red and blue loops, you’ll get vertical bands of green/white and vertical bands of  red/blue, but the two color groupings won’t mix together (making this another way to get lengthwise striping in a braid).

Together the 2 enmeshed braids form one compact, larger, square or roundish braid with 8 ridges as compared to a regular square braid’s 4 ridges.

unusual fingerloop braids, 14th Century braids, loop manipulation, early medieval braids,

Sudarium braid variations, nylon beading cord, embroidery floss [Click twice for more detail]

The braid is very firm and solid. It’s nice as a bracelet–has a lot of body, doesn’t sag or drape. Another thing that’s nice about this braid is how different it looks from different angles.  This is hard to convey in a photo. It’s great for a bracelet–the bracelet’s pattern seems to shift as your arm moves. I purposely twisted some of the braids in the picture above, to show them from different angles.

This two-worker 14th C. braid is unlike any of the braids in the surviving braiding manuscripts from the 15th and 17th Centuries.  It’s only known from one artifact–the handle / strap of a small ecclesiastical textile called a Sudarium, now in the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, but originally from the Cathedral of Halberstadt in Germany.

Apparently a sudarium is the linen cloth that hangs from a “crozier”–the crook or cross at the top of a bishop’s ceremonial  staff– for the bishop to wipe his hands on, presumably so he won’t get the staff dirty(?). Luckily, the braid somehow came to Noémi Speiser’s attention.

Embroidered Sudarium, 1375~1399, Germany. This may be the one?, since it’s the right era. ©Victoria & Albert museum. No 3rd party reproductions (do not copy). You can find the photo here.

This unusual braid, along with others that Joy Boutrup and Noemi Speiser have found in scattered museums and other collections, show that European loop braiding was already highly developed long before the earliest known loop braiding manuscripts (see Speiser and Boutrup’s 4-part series European Loop Braiding parts I-IV).

I only just recently paid attention to her description of this sudarium braid—it’s on pp. 66-67 of  Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding. No photo, just a description, which I had glanced over but misunderstood until I really concentrated on it.

After 3 attempts at this braid, I got the colors to work out the way Speiser described them. In the lower picture below, the knots are where I started over with a different arrangement of the same loops, trying to get the correct color-pattern. I finally succeed to the right of the rightmost knot–first the pattern Speiser describes on the Sudarium braid, and then the variation she suggests trying, where no transfers are turned (the stripey part).

fingerloop braids, 14th century, reconstructions

my first attempts, and source

First sudarium braid, pattern variations, embr. floss

The directions made sense, but what with trying to adapt them to my own barely-figured-out solo-braider method for this braid, I kept getting the color-order wrong at first… I like those “mistake” patterns, actually!

Speiser’s suggested 2-person method is very unusual:  Two braiders work together, each making a standard 5-loop square braid, but not exchanging loops to connect their braids, as in most multiple-worker loop braids. Instead they take turns doing each braiding cycle through/ between the other braider’s outstretched loops.

The way I picture it, the two braiders would have to stand (closely) next to each other, with their adjacent arms overlapped in some way, and take turns braiding.

[update: I got to see this in action at Braids 2012 in Joy Boutrup’s loop braiding class! It was very fun to see — Joy had Apple and Mally, the most experienced team-braiders there, doing this braid–the way it is described above, which Joy believes would have been the way it was originally done. From what I remember, one braided more vertically and the other more horizontally (or else both were slanted a bit in opposite directions) so that one set of arm movements could open and close between the other set. Like two people taking turns clapping hands between the other person’s clapping hands.]

However, this is actually the alternative, easier method Speiser suggests for two braiders, not the one she thinks was actually used in the 14th C.

Here’s the method that she says was more likely the one they used (by analogy with a less amazing but just as oddly made braid that is described in the 15th C manuscripts**):
Each component square braid would be made by the left hand of one braider and the right hand of the other braider braiding together! Still with alternate cycles of each braid being done between the outstretched loops of the other braid. The braiders would probably stand the same way–adjacent arms overlapping.

Both 2-braider methods would work to produce the braid, but the second way would require even more coordination between the two braiders.  It would probably look like a strange partner dance with a lot of arm movements, or two people doing a silent “Miss Mary Mack” type clapping game while making Cats-Cradle string figures.

Speiser suggests one method by which a solo braider could braid this Sudarium braid,*** which I’m sure would work, but I stuck with my basic braiding practice of using all my available fingers—including thumbs—before resorting to doubling or tripling loops on any fingers. A) because it usually makes for easier and faster braiding, and B) because it allows adding extra loops on some fingers later on, to make an even larger version of the braid.

The way I set it up, the first square braid’s loops are on the upper fingers (including the thumb) of my left hand; and the lower fingers of my right hand. Those fingers all work together, and do a left and a right loop transfer (v-fell). The second component square braid’s moves happen next, in mirror-image fashion: the upper fingers of my right hand and the lower fingers of my left hand work as a unit to make two loop transfers with their loops. (Now this all seems clear to me, but it was very murky at first!)

16-loop variation in 2 colors, bonded nylon beading cord

The purple and white braid above has 16 loops but the same basic structure. One of its component braids has 8 purple/white bicolor loops, the other component braid has 4 purple and 4 white single-color loops. (Bonded nylon beading cord.)  I really like the way the 2 different patterns turned out when combined into one braid. I’m bending the braid in the photo to try to give an idea of how the pattern looks from different sides. (****see footnote re 12- and 16-loop variations)

Another interesting thing about the Sudarium braid: Two surfaces of each component square braid are visible on the combined braid. These 2 surfaces are the ones that would have been the sides of the component square braids, if each one were a separate 5-loop square braid. (the ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ surfaces being the ones that would face to and away from the braider.)  Actually, the top and bottom surfaces of the component square braids are also visible, but they are harder to notice. That’s because they are effectively split down the middle by the side surface of the other component braid. So they end up looking like a narrow border on the two edges of any side of the Sudarium braid.

I like that the component braids’ side surfaces are emphasized, because it’s the side surfaces of a square braid that show those nice chevron shapes (in braids with single/mono-color loops, as opposed to bicolor loops)–I’ve always secretly considered them the good sides of a square braid, compared to the upper and lower surfaces.

The pink chevrons show that this is one of the 2 side surfaces of the pink/purple component square braid

This braid is the best example I have of  the V-shaped chevrons that form on the sides of square braids.  These chevrons are from 2 single-color loops in dark pink–the other 6 loops in this sub-braid are all bicolor loops of purple and light pink. On the upper and lower surfaces of this component braid, the dark pink loops would have shown as “zigs,” rather than chevrons (split down the center in the photo below). The other sub-braid is of single-color loops in dull gold and dull silver—those chevrons tend to blend together.

in-progress Sudarium-type braid, another side (embr. floss)

unusual fingerloop braids, 14th Century braids, loop manipulation, early medieval braids,

The 2 sub-braids show as: 1) Pink chevrons on purple+pink; and 2) Indistinct silver and gold chevrons

In the following braid, the two sub-braids would have chevrons on all 4 of their surfaces, not just the sides–that’s because each one started out with a color arrangement like that of the Medieval 8-loop braid called ‘lace dawns’.  White and orange loops for one, and white and turquoise for the other. A short way into the braid I  rearranged the loops so each component sub-braid had exactly the same colors: 2 turquoise, 2 white, 2 orange, and 2 white loops (in that order).  If you look close, you can see the pattern change –a couple of inches below the loop start, on the lower right of the photo.

Sudarium-type braid, finger loop braiding, 16 loops, embroidery floss

The braid in the center below is of 16 loops, with one of its component braids having pale purple and khaki single-color loops, and the other component braid having bicolor loops of pink and navy. (Embroidery floss)

unusual fingerloop braids, 14th Century braids, loop manipulation, early medieval braids,Sudarium-type braids, finger loop braiding, many loops

The longer braid lying around it is of 12 loops of bonded nylon beading cord. One of its sub-braids has black and white bicolor loops, the other sub-braid has gold and turquoise bicolor loops.

Wow, a totally new braid! Thank you yet again to Noémi.   Happily I am still nowhere near working my way through all the braids in OEPBforLB.

P.S.—what I call a “surface” of the braid is a little misleading! They don’t exactly have simple sides or surfaces the way a tabletop is a surface. It’s the 4 ridges (corners) of a simple square braid that are its most basic units. Each “surface” is really a partial view of two adjacent ridges.


[p.p.s.—since making this post, I found out it’s not necessary for the 2 component sub-braids to have the same size thread, or even the same number of loops.  You will have a lot more take-up on the sub-braid with fewer loops. The braid ends up being flatter, with the smaller sub-braid at the center of the wider surface.  —Ingrid, 8-4-11]


* There is a Japanese Kute-Uchi braid (hand-held loop braid) with a similar structure and appearance to this Sudarium braid. It is called Genji-uchi, and was traditionally made by a solo braider, not two braiders. I first came across it a year or so ago in a workshop taught by Kumihimo master Makiko Tada (also here).

Here’s a photo of several genji-uchi braids (of differing numbers of loops) that I made after taking that workshop:

Kute-uchi braids, 16-36 loops

Genji-uchi braids, 16-36 loops. Cotton, wool, linen.

Makiko Tada originally learned kute-uchi loop braiding from Masako Kinoshita, the editor of LMBRIC, who in the 1990’s rediscovered the lost art of Kute-Uchi and proved that all the classic medieval and earlier “Kumihimo” braids—even the biggest and most elaborate ones that present-day kumihimo experts struggle to reproduce—had actually been made by loop braiding, not on any kind of braiding stand!

[Update: my recent kute-uchi tutorial has more information, including a video+text tutorial and links to Masako Kinoshita’s pages on Kute-uchi.]

** The similarly-made braid notated in the 15th C. manuscripts is a 2-person, doubled version of the Spiral Braid, a.k.a. lace bend rounde. It is the “Bend of 16 bows for 2 fellows”  described on p.64 of OEPBforLB. (From the Tollemache and Harley documents, though according to Speiser the Tollemache description is flawed)

*** Noémi Speiser’s one-person method incorporates a kute-uchi-style “outside-around” loop transfer that I’ve only seen once before with finger-held loops, on Phiala’s String Page. Phiala (aka Sarah Goslee) uses an outside-around move with fingerloop braiding as part of her single-braider method for braiding “the 2 person version of the round lace” (I call this a 10-loop double braid), using 8 fingers, no thumbs.

Her site has a lot of great info about various archaic textile techniques, including braiding, and also now an online store for supplies.

**** Re 12- and 16-loop versions: In making Sudarium braids, I eventually discovered that using an even number of loops for the sub-braids results in a more balanced-looking and symmetrical braid. Because of that I’ve been making more 12 and 16-loop versions than 10 and 14-loop versions.  This is not in general true for even-no.-of-loop braids, in fact usually the opposite is true.

Edit and new note June 2014: I just realized why this Sudarium braid comes out better with an even number of loops in both sub-braids—it’s not (primarily) for the reason I originally assumed, so I’ve deleted my original explanation…

It’s the exact same reason that the more well-known braid called Barleycorn or Grene Dorg is made with an even number of loops.

Barleycorn braid, a.k.a Grene d'org, Green Dorg fingerloop braid, 15th C.

Barleycorn, or Grene Dorg braid

Barleycorn comprises an underlying 4-loop square braid (navy blue in the photo above), plus 2 contrast-color loops that twine down the center of the braid. If 5 loops instead of 4 were used for the square braid (navy) portion of the braid, the contrast-color twined threads would end up off-center, rather than in the exact middle of the braid. That is, the blue border would be wider on one edge than on the other in my example above if I had used five blue loops rather than four. (I’ve tested this, and it’s very obvious in the resulting braid.) For the contrast-color twined area to end up in the exact center of the braid, both the right and left hand have to be holding the same number of background-color (square braid) loops when the twining moves occur in the middle. That’s only possible with an even number of loops.

This is counter to the most common way to make square braids. An odd number of loops is much more common, and on its own, this actually produces a more symmetrical square braid than if an even number of loops is used.

The Sudarium braid is a similar case, since each of the two square sub-braids essentially divides the other sub-braid, and is visible halfway between the other’s left and right sides. This is easiest to understand if you watch two braiders making this braid together. Each braider in turn waits with outstretched hands, while the other braider makes two braiding moves between the waiting braider’s outstretched loops. If the waiting braider consistently holds three loops on her left hand and only two loops on the right hand at that point, then that left edge of the braid will end up being wider than the right edge… for each braider.

However, all the edges will all be about equal if each braider starts and ends her two braiding moves with the same number of loops on each hand. At that point the other braider then braids her two moves in between the other braider’s left and right loops, at the exact center of the braid.

This makes me wonder why the original braid Speiser found had been made with ten loops rather than 12. It wouldn’t be especially difficult for each of the two braiders to braid with six loops rather than five, which creates a more symmetrical braid. This was well understood by long-ago braiders for the Barleycorn braid.

The Wayuu people in the Guajira penninsula of Columbia also make a Barleycorn-type braid, and they too use an even number of loops for it—two more than the European version. Their underlying square braid (divided form) has 6 loops rather than 4, for an 8-loop version of the braid. See the photo of braid #12 in Masako Kinoshita’s report on Guajira braiding in LMBRIC. (The Wayuu people use both A-fell and V-fell loop braiding and make many different loop braids. They also practice ply-split braiding, sprang, and many other textile crafts. The first photo in this Wayuu online craft-selling site shows what appear to be ply-split bands hanging on a line.

© 2011–2015 Ingrid Crickmore
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4 thoughts on “Medieval 2-worker braid from a German cathedral

  1. Hello. Have you ever heard of the Caddis Man?
    He was supposed to sell his wares of braids and worsted tapes in Tudor times.
    ANY info would be great thanks.

  2. Hi Doug,
    It’s not a bother at all, I love to talk braids! But I do find this hard to explain–I rambled on and on about this in a reply to a question from Dominic in my Bicolor Loop Magic post…

    I almost always start braids with a loop, but there are a few different ways to do this. The easiest way does leave a tassel of ends (as in most of my square braid tutorials)–you just start your braid with a divided section (all loop transfers straight/ unturned/ unreversed). Or you can end your braid that way.

    My usual way to make a loop start (without a fringe or tassel of loose ends) is quicker to do but harder to describe than what I did with the Sudarium braid…

    [I snipped the rest of this too-long reply—it’s all covered in a more recent post–Starts with no ends–Ingrid]


  3. Sorry to bother ou so much…whre can I find how to create the braided ‘eyelet’ on the sudarium? I could see this being very useful to create a buttonhole on a cuff, with a monkey’s fist knot on the opposite end as a button.

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