This is a video-based tutorial on my workaround method for braiding the ten-loop Nun’s Book letterbraid* as a solo braider. I learned about the traditional method from Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup’s Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th Century Manuscripts*, which describes how the braid would be made by two braiders working together. My solo-braider method is very different from the two-braider method, but the actual loop movements are the same. (I plan to make a separate tutorial later on for the traditional method.)
This technique of making two-color motifs and patterns by swapping light-color strands with dark-color strands between two braided (or more often woven) layers is often called “complementary pick-up patterning,” though I don’t think Noemi Speiser or Joy Boutrup have used that term in reference to the letterbraids.
Page numbers apply to Speiser and Boutrup’s Letterbraid publication. You don’t need their publication to follow my tutorial, but you’ll need it afterwards if you want to braid other letters than U, J, and Q.
Update: I recently found out that Gary Mitchell has posted all the Nun’s Book charts for the original alphabet letters on his FingerTips site! (with Joy Boutrup’s permission) They are available here (link will open in separate tab) without having to purchase the Speiser/Boutrup publication (though the publication has more complete information, plus an errata list). Not only that, but you can also plan your own patterns for the Nun’s Braid Letterbraid on his site – click on his second planner (skip the ‘Lady Bindloss’ planner – that’s for yet another letterbraid that I haven’t taught here).
(In case you are younger than me, and/or didn’t go to school in the U.S., that’s my version of a pangram that was often used in typewriting classes back in the dark ages!)
The braided letters J, U, and Q above are not from the Nun’s Book charts. In the 17th C. the letter “I” was used for both “I” and “J”, and the letter “V” was used for both “V” and “U”. The letter “Q” did exist in the 17th C, but the Nun’s Book chart for it is in the shape of a lower-case “q”, which to me doesn’t read clearly as a “Q”.* So I’ve made up charts for a more standard-looking Q, and for the letters J and U.
Click letters to see–and print for your own use–my charts for the letters U, J, and Q.(Charts will open in a new tab in your browser) Note: The charted letters display sideways in charts, the way they show up as you braid–bottom of the letter on the left edge of the chart and braid. My second video explains how to follow these charts.
Re the “jumbled” look of the charted letter-shapes: See Jen’s question in the comment field below this post (it was the 1st comment, so it may be way at the bottom of the list), and my suggestion on how to work around this if you are trying to create your own motifs…Oops! just noticed I forgot to fill in the B’s for “black” in the J chart’s background squares. It might seem unnecessary, but I find it easier to read a line of the chart to myself if the B’s are there. If you print this out, just fill in the missing B’s in the empty squares.
For this “Nun’s Book” letterbraid, Joy Boutrup deduced two methods that both work for following the Nun’s Letterbraid charts, each with a different order to the braiding moves. My interpretation here for a solo braider is based on her first method, which she outlines on page 56, not on her second method (described on p. 60).
Later on, if you want to go from my tutorial to braiding actual inscriptions, you would use the moves I teach below, along with Joy Boutrup’s ORANGE Nun’s Book charts on pp. 57–59 of the Speiser and Boutrup Letterbraid book (NOT the yellow Nun’s Book charts pp. 61-63).
Material: I recommend cotton embroidery floss for learning this braid. I used bulky yarn in the videos so it would be more visible, but floss is easier to tighten evenly, and I think its untwisted strands help the letters stand out more clearly. From what I remember in Joy Boutrup’s letterbraid book, the few extant letterbraid samples from the 17th C. were all made with of filament silk, in fine flosslike bundles barely or not at all twisted/’thrown’. Filament silk yarn or thread is made from very long lengths of silk filament; as opposed to (modern) spun silk which is made from chopped up, carded, short lengths of silk (less glossy, weaker, and more prone to pilling than actual filament silk.) Silk yarn and embroidery thread nowadays is often made from spun silk. Silk beading thread should be filament silk, but it’s highly twisted, which would give a different effect than the flosslike strands used in samples in the old English braiding books.
My solo-braider method:
In these videos I use the same order of braiding moves that Joy Boutrup describes on p.56 (before her orange charts). Joy’s left braider’s five loops are all on my left hand, and her right braider’s five loops are all on my right hand. Each finger holds a loop, including the thumbs, as in my 10-loop double braid method. But 10-loop double braids only require 2 loop transfers per hand instead of the 4 per hand of this Letterbraid. Learn solo-braider 10-loop double braids first. [Update: I’m planning a tutorial on double braid pick-up patterning as part of my current pick-up patterning series!]
Remember, the traditional 2-person method for braiding this letterbraid is quicker and easier than my solo-braider workaround! Each braider of a team holds 3 loops on one hand and 2 on the other. Each braider does the moves of a 5-loop Spanish braid. After finishing one set of left and right moves, the two braiders trade their closest index loops, and then proceed to the next row. (Contact me for more details if you and a friend will be trying it.)
1st solo-braider video – Braiding moves only (no letters):
This video teaches the braiding moves only, not the color-switching moves for forming the letters. Each ‘row’ or cycle of braiding moves has 4 main braiding moves per hand, followed by a loop-exchange move between the two hands at the end of the cycle.
A letterbraid is braided as a completely divided braid (two separate layers, one above the other). This is done by not turning any of the loops while doing the braiding moves. Keep checking to make sure that the two layers of the braid are not connected at any point. That’s the best way to be sure that you’re not turning any loops, and–a little tricky with this braid–that you aren’t inserting your finger in the wrong direction through any of the loops.
Drag bubble under video to time-point you want to see.
0:45 example of a finished Nun’s Book letterbraid, showing letters of the alphabet
1:03 example of a “non-lettered”, flat version of this braid
1:14 example of a “non-lettered”, rectangular version (similar to my “Rainbow Girl” braid–4th from left in header photo)
2:35 Loop set-up on the fingers.
3:37 First run-through of the braiding moves, very slowly.
Left hand loop moves:
4:00 First and second transfers
4:50 First tightening move
5:20 Third and fourth transfers
6:50 Second tightening move
Right hand loop moves:
8:07 Fifth and sixth transfers
8:50 Third tightening move
9:36 Seventh and eight transfers
10:44 Fourth tightening move
11:02 Final move: Loop exchange between left and right D-fingers.
11:27 Last tightening move in this row (cycle) of braiding.
2nd row of braiding, slightly faster moves with less explaining
11:52 Left hand moves
12:48 Right hand moves
13:40 3rd row of braiding
15:07 Checking to make sure that the braid is forming as two completely divided layers – describing possible problem of taking a loop through another loop “backwards”.
16:11 4th row – showing a slight shortcut I sometimes do when transferring a loop downward (toward the middle of the braid)
18: 36 5th row – a little faster, and without the ‘shortcut’
19:58 6th row – faster, with the shortcut move
20:57 pausing and placing right loops on left fingers to free up right hand
21:07 showing abstract designs on start of braid, followed by the completely divided area I have just been braiding.
22:14 About the yarn I’ve been using –thicker than I like for letterbraids. Other samples I show are made with embroidery floss.
2nd solo-braider video – following a letter-chart: Demos how to follow a chart in the format of Joy Boutrup’s ORANGE charts for the Nun’s Book letterbraid, pp. 57-59. (Braiding moves are not demoed slowly–see my previous video to learn the braiding moves.) I am following a chart I made up for the letter U, which didn’t exist in the 17th C. as a separate letter from V. I’m turning all loops on the left hand counterclockwise, and any loops on the right hand clockwise. It might be worth trying the opposite as well.*
1:25 How to read/ interpret a chart in the format of Joy Boutrup’s ORANGE charts for the Nun’s letterbraid (pp. 57-59), not her yellow charts.
3:35 Color set-up.
4:14 How loops are turned while reading the the chart, starting with Row 1.
5:48 How to tell which part of the thumb-loop is the “UPPER” shank.
7:33 Tightening tip. In the video I am braiding around the camera and can’t see the fell of the braid well enough to follow my own advice! But for making well-shaped letters, it really helps to watch when tightening and adjust accordingly.
7:52 Do the loop exchange BEFORE turning colors for the next row!
8:13 Reading and braiding Row 2.
10:21 How to tell where the loops will be after one row of braiding. (demoed @22:07)
12:21 Reading and braiding row 3
14:01 Pausing to check the braid. Info about delay in seeing the pattern on the braid.
16:02 Reading and braiding row 4.
17:28 Reading and braiding row 5.
18:34 Pausing to check a possible mistake.
19:21 Reading and braiding row 6.
19:56 How to fussy-tighten one particular strand that is loose in the braid, and not responding to “regular” adjustments. This should only be necessary once in a while, if one thread is grossly loose in a previously tightened area of the braid. In general, I adjust the tension by pulling more in one direction than another, or maybe repeating an earlier tightening move, not by pulling on individual threads.
21:09 Recovering from “losing my place” in the braiding procedure.
22:07 “Hmmm… What row did I just finish??!” Examining the loops to figure this out. (explained @10:21)
22:37 Reading and braiding the last row – row 7.
23:55 Letter finished, now doing one or two rows of “space” before starting next letter. Tips about spacing the letters.
27:41 U and following space is done, now checking the letter to see how it turned out (a bit slanted).
It takes practice to get used to these braiding moves, as with any new braid. But it happens faster than you might think when you are first trying them. Once your fingers “get” that the first two moves are a pair, and the second two moves are a similar pair, they will start to relax and know where to go next in the braiding moves.
Everything will feel smoother and more enjoyable at this point. At this point you have learned the braid! And it’s a great braid—even without any charted designs. It can be made with twice as many variations as the braids that I call double braids. Even if you don’t get into making charted designs, just the “regular” braid designs that you can make are almost endlessly variable and interesting!
If you decide to go on to forming lettershapes, it’ll also take a little practice to get used to following the charts consistently. Be patient and have fun! (Isn’t it amazing that fingerloop braiders in past centuries managed to invent this???!)
Please contact me if you have any questions or would like to show me a braid. You can reach me through the comment form below, or through the email form under the “Contact” tab in my upper menu [Note: my contact form is now in the drop-down list if you hover on the “ABOUT” tab – upper right of the top menu on every page]. If you’d like to send me a photo, email me and I’ll let you know how to do it. I’d love to see it!
I’ll be teaching a simplified version of this braid at the next international Braids conference—Braids 2016. The simplified version has only 8 loops, so no thumbs. It’s a great braid for learning how to braid and plan simpler charted motifs than letters—hearts, circles, triangles, etc!
My new series of tutorials on pick-up patterning explain and teach this starting with square and flat braids, up to (coming soon!) Spanish-type and double braids.
* Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup, European Loop Braiding, Investigations and Results, Part II: Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th Century Manuscripts. For more information on this publication than shown on the purchasing site, see my upper menu tab Letterbraids of the 17th Century. (Hover on the About Loop Braiding menu tab, and the Letterbraid tab will appear in a drop-down.)
*The “O-with-a-tail” type of Q did exist in the 17th Century, even though the Nun’s letterbraid didn’t use it. (The fourteen-loop letterbraid does have that “O-with-a-tail” type of Q.)
*There are three (known) 17th C. letterbraids, one of 14 loops and two of 10 loops.
Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup call one of the two ten-loop letter braids the “Nun’s Book letterbraid,” after the only manuscript in which it’s been found. They refer to the other ten-loop letterbraid as “the Verbal Letterbraid” because it had text directions for making the color-changes instead of charts.
The only differences between the “Verbal” and the “Nun’s Book” 10-loop letterbraids are in the slightly different shapes of their charted letters (this is due to the designers – theoretically the same exact letter-shapes could be made with either braid), and in the order that the four main braiding moves (of each braider) are done. Structurally, they are essentially the same braid. There is only one minor structural difference that I’m aware of. For certain letters in the ‘verbal’ letterbraid the braiders are occasionally called upon to turn the loops for the following row before doing the final loop exchange for the previous row, which is never the case for the Nun’s letterbraid. This does cause a little structural difference in the braid at that point. This technique for ‘smoothing out’ some of the lettershapes could in theory be done in the Nun’s letterbraid as well, but apparently wasn’t used.
But just considering the underlying braid (and ignoring the slightly different designs of their letters), the Verbal and the Nun’s Book letterbraids are really the same doubled 5-loop ‘Spanish’ braid.
‘Spanish’ braids: Five loops is the minimum number needed for braiding a so-called Spanish braid. A spanish braid is essentially the same as what I call a “Double Braid”. It’s a braid in which a braider makes 2 loop transfers on the left half of the braid and 2 loop transfers on the right. So 4 loop transfers in each ‘row’ of braiding – twice as many as in a basic square braid.
With only 5 loops – the minimum for a 4-transfer braid like this – the resulting structure is plain interlacing/ plain-weave. “Under one, over one” across both braid layers.
The extra ‘over’ in the middle of a letterbraid: When a plain-weave 5-loop braid is doubled into a 10-loop letterbraid of 8 columns across, one column on one side of the center of the braid ends up being under/over two (2/2 twill) rather than plain weave – a result of the loop exchange between the two braiders. The rest of the columns in a 10-loop letterbraid are all plain-weave (1/1).
Fell-shapes: The 8 interlacing moves in a letterbraid are done in 1 of several possible sequences. Maybe the inner transfers first, outer transfers second, etc etc. There are several possible orders, all of which result in the same braid — the same threads passing over and under each other in plain-weave (with one central column of 2/2 twill, see above).
These different sequences create what Joy Boutrup refers to as different “fells” or “fell shapes”. Depending on the order in which you do the 8 given interlacing moves, the working edge or fell of the braided area will have a differently-shaped contour at the end of each cycle of braiding (one full ‘row’ of all the moves).
This is sort of a superficial difference in that it only applies to the continually changing lower edge of the developing braid. That contour changes a bit each time you transfer a loop. After the thumb-to-index loop transfer, the fell shape at that point is different than after the b-loop-to-c-finger transfer. But the braid itself that is being built by these eight given interlacing moves will end up with the exact same structure regardless of which of the several possible order of moves (and their resulting fell-shapes) the braider uses.
However, color-charts for pick-up patterns, or even color set-up instructions for a ‘regular’ braided color-pattern are based on a particular order of the interlacing moves. (one or more particular orders – some differences in the sequence of moves are minor enough not to make a difference.) Doing the moves in a different order would usually require changing the color chart for a particular pattern. [Update: my current series of posts on Pick-up Patterning explains this a little better, I think!]
Even with a regular braided color pattern that doesn’t involve charted color-switching (pick-up patterning), changing the order of the moves would likely require a different starting set-up arrangement of the colors of the loops.
Even though the Nun’s book color-charts don’t work for the Verbal letterbraid and vice-versa, both 10-loop letterbraids are basically the same braid – you really could just pick whichever order of operations feels the most comfortable to you and make the same 10-loop/ 20-strand braid with either method…or even a few other orders of making those same ‘through’ and ‘around’ loop moves.
*Joy Boutrup’s first deduced method for turning loops:
The way I demo this braid follows the first of two possible braiding methods that Joy Boutrup deduced from the Nun’s Book instructions. She first assumed that the two braiders would turn loops on their fingers (following a chart) before doing a row of braiding moves. The braiding moves for that method are given on page 56 of Boutrup and Speiser’s Letterbraid book.
This way of following the charts — turning loops before doing the braiding moves — is how both the other two 17th C. letterbraids are known to have been done, and I think it’s easier to learn than the second method that Joy deduced.
Joy Boutrup’s second deduced method
The second possible method that Joy Boutrup deduced requires that the two braiders turn loops while doing the braiding moves. This requires following a different order of the same braiding moves. That order of braiding moves is described on page 60, and the accompanying charts are in yellow.
The second method includes the same four loop transfers, but they must be done in a different order. Turning the loops while doing the braiding moves is not how the other two known letterbraids were done, so it might seem less likely that it was the method used by the writer of the Nun’s Book.
But certain oddities about the order in which the color changes were listed in the Nun’s Book instructions made Boutrup suspect that perhaps the loops really were meant to be turned while braiding, rather than beforehand. [One of my replies in the comment section below has more details.]
Either of the two ways of following the charts produces the same letter shapes. The first method is a little slower, but feels more relaxed. First you read a line of the chart to find out which loops to turn, then you turn them on the fingers, and then you braid a row, using the exact same braiding moves every time. (That’s the method I used in these videos.) The second method requires more concentration while braiding, and the braiding moves are a little different every time, depending on which loops need to be turned. It does feel like a faster way to braid the letters, and it’s the way I prefer to braid them now that I’m more used to these braids.
[Update: in my current series of tutorials on Pick-up Patterning with simpler braids than letterbraids, I teach the second method of following charts – the ‘turning while braiding’ method. This probably seems very inconsistent! But for simpler braids than letterbraids, turning the loops separately from the braiding moves is unnecessary and much too cumbersome.]
The other two 17th C. letterbraids in Joy Boutrup’s book were both described as using the first method, the one I demo in the second video above – all loops turned (according to the chart) before the braiding moves are performed.
* The rotational directions of the loops’ turns can have a slight-to-fairly-big effect on how the finished braid turns out, but the original manuscripts don’t specify which direction to turn loops.
Last updated Jan 18, 2019
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