I recently got a question about which of the braids I teach on this blog are appropriate for 15th C. re-enactment. It made me realize I should have already made this clear! So I’m itemizing them below, with more detailed references and a lot of historical ‘tmi’ in the endnotes.
Some of the braids I teach on this blog are known from 15th C. Europe, some are only known from the 17th C., a couple are from equivalent eras in Japan, some are logically inferable for those or other eras, and some I assume are modern only.
First off, the method I teach for making a particular historic braid may not be the actual method used in earlier eras in Europe, even if the resulting braid has the same structure. For example, the square braid method I teach here is the V-fell method that was traditionally used in Asia and the Pacific, India, as well as parts of Finland, Russia, and South America. It’s sort of the reverse of the A-fell method that was used in most of Europe, the Middle East, and (I think) Africa to make the same braids. And any solo-braider workaround methods for making two-person braids are obviously not the traditional way these braids were made. See the endnotes for sites that teach the A-fell square braid method.
Likewise, my materials* are not usually historically accurate – I love wool, linen and silk for braiding with, but most of the samples in photos on my site are cotton embroidery floss.
Braids I teach here that are described in the 15th C. English loop braiding manuscripts*:
5-loop square braid (“A lace common round of 5 bows” – also the Edge pattern of this braid: “A lace bastonne, 5 bows”, and the divided version “An open lace of 5 bows”)
Lace Daunce (aka Dawns) and Lace Piole – 2 color-patterns for the same flat 8-loop braid (this is the flat variation of a square braid – you can learn a 5-loop flat braid in my 5-loop Square braid tutorial, see “inferred braids” below). For Daunce and Piole I teach the Asian/V-fell method for handling the extra loop – holding it on the thumb, rather than keeping two loops on the index finger.
Solid rectangle double braid of 10 loops (“A thick lace bordered of 10 bows, 2 fellows”) – The 15th C. name and directions are for a particular color-pattern for the solid-rectangle (double-square) braid. In my tutorial, I teach this same lengthwise-stripe color-pattern – I call it “Edge” – as well as some other patterns described for this braid in the 17th C manuscripts, and a couple of color-patterns that are not described in either set of manuscripts.
The several different braids that I term Double braids are made with almost the same braiding moves, the only differences are in which loops are turned vs not turned when making these moves. All double braids have 4 loop-transfers in each row, twice as many as a square braid. Traditionally, any of these would have been made by two braiders working together to make a larger, single braid. The solid-rectangle double braid is a combination of two square braids. Other double braids are hollow, flat, or several other shapes. This blog teaches two ways to make double braids – the traditional method in which 2 braiders cooperate on one braid, as well as my workaround method for making these braids by myself.
Hollow double braid of 10 loops (“A hollow lace of 10 bows, 2 fellows”)
8-loop spiral braid, (“Lace Bend Round”) I suspect that the 4-loop version of this braid is also described in one of these documents, probably Tollemache, but I can’t find that reference at the moment.
Braids I teach here that can be logically inferred for the 15th C. – even though they aren’t specifically described in the 15th C. loop braiding manuscripts: (Judging from the braids that are described. Historical evidence also exists, in the form of surviving braids on museum and ecclesiastical artifacts, but is hardly needed for most of these.)
3, 4, 6, and 7-loop square and flat braids
— on the basis of the 5-loop square braid, and the 8-loop flat braid (Lace Daunce and Piole). The other ‘sizes’ of square and flat braids would be obvious in a culture of braiders who could make those two. Surviving examples can be found in museum artifacts.*
Flat Double braid – this double braid variation would have been obvious to any braider familiar with ‘regular’ (2-transfer) flat braids like Daunce and Piole, along with the three double braid shapes that are described in the manuscripts (Hollow, Solid Rectangle, and ‘Tube-within-a-Tube’ a.k.a. Couvert braids).
Side-slit Double braid – (also known as two-layer braids with open selvedges) This form is obvious and inferable, too – the method is sort of mirror-image of the hollow double braid method. It’s similar in appearance to the solid-rectangle double braid, though bicolor loop color-patterns are different. Historical evidence for it is strong.*
Other color-pattern variations of notated braids:
Some braid instructions in the 15 and 17th C. manuscripts don’t stipulate any particular colors. (“Hollow lace of 10 bows 2 fellows” mentioned above, for example) Others do, or there may be separate instructions for two or more color-pattern variations for the same braid type (structure).
I teach some of the color-patterns described in the manuscripts, though my examples may not be in the same hues. If you are interested in reproducing the exact colors used in swatches or specified in the texts of the original manuscripts for some of the braids, check in other sources, including online images from some of the original manuscripts. (Certain colors in old braids may have faded or sometimes even completely changed – an originally dark green may now be yellow, for example.)
Imo, specific color-patterns given for a particular braid type are examples of possibilities. I seriously doubt they were intended by the original compilers as prohibitions against other color-patterns, or that they somehow imply that no other color-patterns were known or used “in period” for that braid. For example, the 15th C. “a thick lace bordered” that I listed above – it’s the only color-pattern given in the three known 15th C. manuscripts for the braid-type that I call a solid-rectangle double braid. It’s a bicolor-loop color-pattern of lengthwise striping that would not be one of the first patterns you would “happen upon” simply by random color substitutions. That in itself suggests that it couldn’t have been the only color pattern known for the braid. Anyway, it would be extremely unlikely that only one or two patterns would have been used for any of the braid types, considering the many centuries and widespread use of loop braiding, along with the use of dyed fibers, that preceded these manuscripts, and the fact that color-pattern variations in loop braids can be found very easily by simple color-substitutions of the (relatively few) loops.
The specific color-patterns described for some of the braid types would have been ones the compiler considered useful to record*, or personal favorites. It wouldn’t be practical or even useful to cram a manuscript with every conceivable color-pattern variation used in that era for each braid type. For someone interested in recreating braids of a particular era it’s a personal choice how restrictive you want be. It’s certainly safe to use only the color-patterns specified in the 3 known manuscripts, but it’s very unlikely that all the braiders of that era did so. The braid types (structures) themselves, together with the availability of dyes or dyed threads would be the true limitations on color-pattern variations.
Not all loop braids had color patterns, btw – single-color bands and cords would have been common in any era.
Missing braids in the 15th C manuscripts:
This doesn’t actually apply to any of my tutorials so far, but just as a point of interest, some 15th C. braid structures that Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup have examined as artifacts or deduced from other historical evidence do not appear in the few known 15th C. manuscripts.
One example is a braid from the early 15th or late 14th C. that I call the “Sudarium braid” on this blog (not a good choice of name, sorry! Not to be confused with the “Uppsala Sudary” braid).
Also, an interesting type of multi-braider loop exchange between the braiders, that results in an unusual braid structure along the lengthwise “seam” where the loop-exchange occurs. No braids with this type of loop exchange are described in the three 15th C. manuscripts, yet they they constitute most if not all the multiple-braider surviving European braid artifacts that Speiser and Boutrup know of from before the 15th C. (12th C. onward), and a significant percentage of braid artifacts from the 15th C. on through the early 20th Century.
This type of loop exchange was only described in the 17th C. manuscripts (for the Bucks Hornes braid and a few others). But based on known artifacts, it’s a mystery why braids with this loop exchange weren’t mentioned in the three known 15th C. manuscripts. Other evidence suggests they were likely quite common. All a team of braiders would have to do in order to recreate these braids is learn a slightly different (actually easier!) way to exchange loops between co-operating braiders in making an otherwise ‘regular’ double or triple braid. The side-slit form seemed especially common, as well as doubled versions of the ‘broad lace of 5 bows‘ – the common A-fell unorthodox braid.
[NB: Speiser and Boutrup’s research found that Pre-15th C. team-braiders likely only used that archaic loop exchange method, not the one described in 15th C. manuscripts, resulting in a different range of “2 or more-fellows” braid structures for those periods – see *endnote.]
Braids I teach that are known from 17th Century manuscripts:
Letterbraids and the “7-loop Spanish” braid are described in 17th C. manuscripts, but not in any 15th C. manuscripts. (Square, flat, and double braids are described in both sets of manuscripts.) Side-slit edges are described though possibly not in a standard double braid(?).
Some further color-patterns for the solid-rectangle double braid are described in the 17th C. manuscripts – imo these color-patterns would be quite appropriate for the 15th C. as well, but that depends on how restrictive you want to be (see “other color patterns” above). In my Solid-rectangle double braid tutorial (below the videos), I teach 3 of these color-patterns: “Chevron”, “Edge” (17th C. term for “Bordered”), and “Crowns.” Fingerloop.org teaches these, and has instructions for another one called “the waine/wave“.
Braids in my tutorials that were not made in earlier eras, or not in Europe:
Doug’s Braid (modern)
9-loop Square (and related flat) braid – Known from Finland and China (1900’s) with V-fell braiding (see my tutorial); but not likely for most of Europe since A-fell braiding requires holding more than one loop on a finger for braids of more than 7 loops. However the two documented 15th C. European 8-loop flat braids Lace Daunce and Piole do use a 9-loop strategy for the loops of one hand. Using 9 loops and that strategy for both hands (2 loops on both index fingers) would be a fairly obvious way to make a 9-loop square or flat braid for a braider who was used to making Laces Daunce or Piole with European A-fell braiding moves. Realistically, though, there isn’t much incentive to go to all that bother just for a 9-loop square or flat braid if you can get together with a partner to braid a faster, easier, stronger, and more impressive 9 or 10-loop double braid. Whereas there is an incentive for 8 loops: the cool color-pattern Daunce, only possible with 8 loops, and only likely as a solo-braider braid, not a two-worker braid (see note further down.**)
Square braids of more than 8 or 9 loops (unlikely in past, see **note further down.)
Double braids of more than 14 loops – Not appropriate for earlier European eras in general (they may have been made in Japan with hand-held loops, though.) In Europe, braids of more than 14 loops were made by three or more braiders, and had other structures than “double”. In areas of the world where V-fell fingerloop braiding was prevalent, up to 18-loop double braids would be possible (9 loops per braider).
Double Braids of fewer than 10 loops – Short version is “Not historically accurate” but this is gray area! They would be obvious to any team of braiders who could make a 10-loop ‘thick lace bordered‘, but in that case, why bother with making a reduced version! The resulting braids are similar or identical to later (17th C.) solo-braider braids called Spanish braids. The 6-loop flat double braid is structurally very similar to a 5-loop braid described in 15th C. manuscripts, called “a thin and broad lace of 5 bows, 1 fellow” (Speiser points out that this 15th C. braid has exactly the same structure as the 17th C. 5-loop Spanish braid, flat version, btw, though the method for making it is different). If you use only 5 loops to make “my” 6-loop double braid, the result is identical to that 15th C. braid. (With loop braids, there are often several ways to arrive at the same final result.)
Triangle and D-shaped braids – these 2 unorthodox braids were only made where V-fell braiding was practiced, not in Europe. Masako Kinoshita cites a 5-loop example of what I call a D-shaped braid on a Khanty (Western Siberian) coat, and two different 7-loop variations of D-shaped braids (braids no. 4 and 5 here) made by the Guajiro a.k.a. Wayuu Indians in Columbia. The Triangle-shaped unorthodox braid actually seems slightly ‘easier’ or more natural to come up with, but I don’t have a link or reference to point to a specific example. However, it is historically very likely on the basis of how common the equivalent A-fell “broad lace of 5 bows” is all over the world, including 7-loop variants*.
Genji-uchi and Pseudo-Genji-uchi braids. (Not European) These are traditional Japanese braids made by a solo braider using 8 to many hand-held loops. These would probably be pre-1700’s in Japan, but I don’t know the exact eras of the known historic specimens. From the 1700’s to the 1900’s braiding stands gradually replaced loop braiding in Japan. A similar-looking Kumihimo braid is now made, but according to Masako Kinoshita, the actual braided structure isn’t identical to either of the loop braided versions. (The Sudarium braid, traditionally made by two people cooperating, and known from a single museum artifact, is a very similar European braid).
Hand-held kute-uchi braiding for 5-loop square and flat braids – Not ‘historically accurate’, I just teach them as an intro to hand-held loops. According to Masako Kinoshita, 5- and 7-loop square and flat braids would always be made with finger-held loops, not hand-held loops. Hand-held loop braiding was used only for braids of more loops, or with structures that are more complicated than two layers, like 4-layer braids and Genji-uchi. See illustration near top of page, of a 15th C. Japanese braider using fingerloop braiding during the time when hand-held loops were also widely used (a period of over 1000 years, according to Masako Kinoshita!).
**2-transfer braids like square braids (and the Triangle, D-shaped, and Broad lace of V bows) of more than 9 loops would be theoretically possible, but unlikely in earlier eras, because it’s more efficient for two people to collaborate on a braid of that many loops. In earlier eras when loop braiding was widely practiced that seems to have been the most common way braids of many loops were made. However when two or more braiders work together on a braid, 2-transfer braids like square braids are not natural or obvious to make. They aren’t impossible, but it’s more natural (and structurally stronger) for two braiders to each braid two transfers, and then exchange their adjoining loops to combine their two halves together into a single 4-transfer braid.
The tutorials on my site cover a fairly small percentage of the braids in the 15th and 17th C. English loop braiding manuscripts. You can find many of the 15th C. manuscript braids on fingerloop.org and even more (maybe all of them!) on silkewerk.com. (My workaround methods for braiding two-worker braids as a solo-braider can be applied to many of those braids.) So far I have no tutorials for any twined braids, which is a large category of braids in the 15th C. manuscripts.
[I am very curious about the history of twined braids in Europe – these are the braids often called ‘bends’ or ‘chevrons’ in the 15th C. manuscripts, in which you twist all the loops before (or after) pulling the taken loop through them. Judging from the 15th C. manuscripts they were very popular then. But Speiser and Boutrup’s European Loop Braiding series of monographs on surviving European braid artifacts barely mentions them – I only recall one reference to a twined braid (in Part III on the Bridgettine braids). At least two of the monographs in the series are specifically focused on non-twined types of braids, though, so maybe that’s the reason they were ignored? Twined braids can be stunningly beautiful, as well as strong, but they are much slower to make than the more woven-type loop braids (oblique twill, plain-weave, and ‘unorthodox’ structures). That doesn’t imply that they weren’t made, though. Twining is an ancient, worldwide technique – done both ‘on the diagonal’ as braids, and horizontally like woven textiles. I’m pretty sure that most surviving ancient Peruvian flat braids were twined, also a significant number of Japanese braided artifacts.]
Braids from the 17th C. manuscripts are another story. I don’t know of any other sites with instructions for braids that are only described in the 17th C. loop braiding documents. I have video tutorials for two of these (the ‘7-loop Spanish braid‘, and my solo-braider workaround method for the Nun’s Book letterbraid), as well as a text how-to for my workaround method for another (the 14-loop letterbraid). There are several other interesting 17th C. braids that are only taught in Noémi Speiser’s Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding.
* 15th C. English loop braiding manuscripts: Each of these is a section entitled “Laces” (loop braids) within a large household volume of recipes, cures, and other useful minutae. Until 2005 there were only two known 15th C. manuscripts that included a section on loop braids. They are usually referred to as ‘Harley‘ and ‘Tollemache.’ They seem to be closely related, maybe both copies of another manuscript? Harley is available online. It contains fewer braid instructions than Tollemache, which is a privately owned manuscript, not available to the public (except as very expensive copies), though Noémi Speiser analyzed it for her book OEPBforLB.
A third manuscript was discovered (to braiders) around 2005: the very similar ‘Lady Serene‘ manuscript a.k.a. Natura Exenterata – printed in the 17th C. but with strong indications that it was copied from a 15th C. source. (Speiser and Boutrup cite it as a 15th C. source.) Accessible online as a pdf copy (of the needlework sections, scroll to find ‘laces’). The full digitized manuscript is accessible here if you are a member of a participating institution. “Serene” includes some very intriguing extra braids that were not listed in Harley or Tollemache.
Most or all of the braids from the three 15th C. sources are described on Cindy Myers’ silkewerk.com site, with text instructions and beautiful recreations of the braids. She has a great chart comparing all the 15th C. braids across the three manuscripts.
There are a few known German manuscripts or manuscript fragments with incomplete instructions for loop braids (one seems to be for a Catherine Wheel-type openwork braid), but so far these three 15th C. English manuscripts along with several from the 17th. C. are the most comprehensive records. These and some Japanese manuscripts decoded by Masako Kinoshita are the only written recordings from peak periods of what was probably once a world-wide technique. Other recordings are mostly just the many scattered world-wide brief references to observed loop braiding, along with a few detailed ethnographic records in recent times. (See especially within L-MBRIC issues 8,9,12 for Indonesian, and issue 10 for Columbian (Wayuu people of the Guajira Penninsula) loop-braiding traditions, both of which once included multiple-braider braids.)
17th C. Manuscripts: There are many more extant loop braiding manuscripts from the 17th C. than the 15th C. It’s not clear to me exactly how many. Noémi Speiser analyzed nine for her two books on braiding. (A digitized version of one of them is now available online: Lady Bindloss’s braid book, and fingerloop.org has a transcription/translation of it here.) I’m not sure if this or any of these nine were the same as the two 17th C. manuscripts that were cited on fingerloop.org (prior to their transcription of the Bindloss manuscript) as their sources for some 17th C. braids. Another 17th C. manuscript (the Nun’s Book) was discovered (to braiders) fairly recently.
Comparison to 15th C. manuscripts: With the exception of the Serene document mentioned above, the manuscripts from the 17th C. are much slimmer volumes (though one anomalous one is in the form of a scroll!), focused on loop braids (no household remedies, etc), do not clearly describe how to make the braids (the descriptions seem more like reminders to the author, and omit basic information as understood), use very different terminology for the fingers and braiding moves from the 15th C. works, and have a different though overlapping assemblage of braid types.
For example only one of the the 17th C. manuscripts (the Nun’s Book) has any twined braids (five), or any “loop exchange” braids like the Spiral braid (lace bend round – which is the only one it has). The Nun’s Book is an interesting exception to the others in this.
The 17th C. loop braiding manuscripts contain more instructions for ‘color-pattern manipulation’ for lack of a better term – braids in which the braiding moves don’t remain the same the whole way through the braiding procedure. The letterbraids are an extreme example. (my series of tutorials on pick-up patterning is based on the letterbraid technique, but done with simpler braids that don’t require 2 braiders, or using more than 7 loops.)
The 17th C. manuscripts contain very similar – often identical – braids as well as phrasing, as if they may have all been copied or passed down from one source or a few related sources. (A 17th C. version of “class notes”?) One of them, the Lady Bindloss’s manuscript, has some unusual and eccentric ‘takes’ on the standard phrasing of the other manuscripts, which occasionally helped Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup to figure out their meaning.
Even though the 15th C. loop braiding instructions were written in a much older version of English (Middle English), they are actually easier to follow than the 17th C. loop braiding instructions, because they describe the whole procedure clearly and completely, without glossing over or omitting important details. I’ve heard of people who have learned to braid directly from the 15th C. manuscripts, which paradoxically isn’t really possible for 17th C. loop braiding manuscripts. Noémi Speiser decoded them by reverse-engineering – analyzing the accompanying swatches and using them to figure out the meaning of the text.
*15th and 17th C. European braids in a larger historical context: It’s unclear how old loop braiding is in Europe, but it’s much older than the 15th C. A photo in Part IV, page 44 of Speiser and Boutrup’s 4-part monograph series on European Loop Braiding shows a beautiful ecclesiastical purse known to be from the late 900’s with loop braided drawstrings, and flat braids applied to the surface of the purse. According to Speiser and Boutrup, several loop braided artifacts are known from 1100’s (12th C.) to 13th C., and most of those are complex braids made by two or three braiders working together, so the technique was already very advanced at that time.
Narrow textiles don’t survive in the European archeological record from much earlier than that. In the Middle East, a very rare actual intact square braid fragment from 1200-1400 BCE was discovered in the 1990’s in an ancient Egyptian copper smelting site (located in a very dry area of what is now Israel), and was categorized as a loop braid by the project archeologists, though no loops were present on the fragment. (Loops are rarely present in fact, even on a whole braid, as they are often trimmed off after a braid is finished, or worn off from use or decay afterward.) The Middle East apparently had a strong tradition of loop braiding up until very recently, including hand-held loop braiding as well as finger-held (see references in OEPBforLB and L-MBRIC.) Unfortunately, most archeologists aren’t even aware of loop braiding, and up to now I don’t think they delved much into the construction method of ‘strings’ found in excavated sites. That might be changing now – I gather that textiles in general are increasingly regarded as important artifacts in archeological research.
Loop braiding was apparently an important and widely known technique in earlier eras. Braided cords and bands were items of daily necessity, not just details on treasured items. Utilitarian braids were not necessarily crude or “plain”, btw! Textile items of daily necessity are often very well-made and ornamented, as can be seen in many European folk traditions.
Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup have done some of the most extensive research and analysis of old braided European artifacts, and Joy Boutrup told me (at Braids 2012 in Manchester, England) that by the time of their joint publication, after closely examining and analyzing all those braids, she and Noémi Speiser suspect that almost all European braids made before the advent of braiding machines were loop braided (I assume meaning textile braids, not leather or straw).
Loop braiding in Asia has been studied by Mari Omura, she and others have found evidence for it there going back at least a couple thousand years BC. (More on this in the footnotes of A-fell, V-fell, and Slentre.)
Loop braiding in other parts of the world is discussed in many issues of L-MBRIC (Masako Kinoshita’s online loop braiding journal); in Noémi Speiser’s books; in my page on A-fell, V-fell, and Slentre braiding; and in my blog-post on Rodrick Owen and the Braids of the Mummies (Pre-Incan loop braiding from areas in and around what is now Peru).
* “Useful” color-patterns: If I had to pick just one color-pattern to note down for a square or double braid I would probably pick “Bordered / Bastonne” (a.k.a. “With the Edge”) too. The bicolor loop set-ups in two-layer braids that result in lengthwise striping aren’t obvious at all, so it’s very useful to have a record of them. The resulting patterns are striking, and they make great starting points for other striking color-pattern variations (like the one called Chevrons, as well as two others in my first double braid tutorial).
*One example of evidence for the inferable 4-loop square and flat braids (I’m sure many more exist for these and the other ‘obvious’ braids): pp 12 and 33 in Part iv of the Speiser-Boutrup series European Loop Braiding deals with the pursestrings of a 14th C German purse in the V&A Museum. The ends of the pursestrings on each side are 16 loops that divide into a very long ‘fringe’ of four 4-loop braids. Each of these 4-loop braids has a different braid structure. (Seems that the maker was having fun with these! The braids are so narrow, no one but the maker would likely even notice the differences). One was a 4-loop flat braid, one a 4-loop square braid, and two others that were too fine for the structure to be determined exactly – Noémi Speiser provides a theoretical analysis of all the possibilities (a few variations of unorthodox braids, as well as the 4-loop spiral braid.)
Here, as well as in Part IV of European Loop Braiding, Joy Boutrup and Noémi Speiser discuss a collection of medieval purses having 6-loop unorthodox braids associated with them (as well as other larger braids), not explicitly described in the loop braiding manuscripts, but obvious based on the broad lace of 5. Six loops is an “odd” number for a braid as it creates an asymmetrical structure, but just as with the flat 8-loop braid Lace Daunce, an even number of loops allows symmetrical color-patterns that are not possible with an odd number of loops. (Actual braiders in earlier eras seem not to have been as concerned about perfect structural symmetry as Noémi Speiser!)
Indications from more recent times of ‘obvious and inferable’ braid types: Here’s a real time-machine video! – a Norwegian history museum’s wonderful documentary footage of some traditional textile crafts that were still being practiced in Norway in 1940 (it shows spinning, naalbinding and weaving as well as loop braiding). At 2:31 a woman is braiding a 3-loop square braid using A-fell braiding (using 2 fingers to hold single loops!), and taking the loop from below to turn it. At 4:20 a woman is braiding a 7-loop unorthodox braid, also using A-fell braiding. She uses her (bare) index finger to reach through the neighboring (B-finger) loop, and then fetches the little finger (D) loop of the other hand. The 7-loop braid she is making isn’t notated in any of the 15th or 17th C. documents, but it’s an obvious corollary to the “Broad lace of 5 bows“. (There’s more loop braiding footage @ 3:35: two women cooperating to braid an extra-long 5-loop braid, using the ‘start from the center’ technique and braiding simultaneously, one on each end. This is a very different strategy from the one shown in the image of loop braiders in a 14th C. German mural). If you click on the uploader below the youtube video, you can find other interesting footage from this museum. (It’s been a few years since I checked these out, but I think I remember one that showed a woman warping or weaving on an upright warp-weighted loom.)
* Archaic/ unorthodox type of loop exchange between cooperating braiders: The discovery of this mysterious archaic European loop-exchange method is the main topic of Part I of Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup’s 4-part series: European Loop Braiding: Investigations and Results–Parts I, II, III, IV.
When Noémi Speiser was writing Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, she had noticed a structural anomaly along the central area of some of the braids in the 17th C. manuscripts, apparently created by an unusual type of loop exchange between the two braiders. She came up with an almost-but-not-quite theory of how the loop exchange had been done for those braids. Only later on did Joy Boutrup ferret out the actual method. Meanwhile, in doing extensive research of older braids in museums and private collections (including some very old ecclesiastical artifacts), they discovered that the method was not a fortuitous 17th C. mistake! Rather it appeared to be the original way all multiple-loop / multiple-braider braids had been made in Europe.
The seemingly oldest (12th C.) European double (or triple, etc) braids that they examined had been braided with the “broad lace of 5 bows” type of unorthodox braiding moves (for each individual braider), and with this newly-discovered but very old unorthodox loop-exchange move between the braiders. By the 13th C. there were also examples of braids with ‘orthodox’ (square or divided braid) sections connected by the archaic loop-exchange. I gather that this unorthodox loop-exchange was the only type of multiple-braider loop-exchange Speiser and Boutrup found in extant braids from the 12th through the 13th C., and maybe even through the 14th C.. Even after the ‘newer’ type of loop exchange appeared, the old method continued to be used all the way into the 20th C. (til the 1940’s in at least one part of Scandinavia!)
The archaic loop exchange is apparently quite easy to do, and furthermore might somewhat widen and strengthen the overall braid because it adds its own sunken lengthwise ‘ridge’ or braid column to the center of a double braid. It essentially ties down the upper and lower braid layers, which precludes many of the possible double-braid shapes (the hollow form, and the double-wide flat form of the braid, for example). It doesn’t preclude the side-slit form.
The “newer” type of loop exchange described in the 15th C. manuscripts allows for more variety of double braid shapes. But the older method apparently had its own benefits, and even some idiosyncratic color-pattern possibilities, so it survived well, and crops up in described braid types in the 17th C. manuscripts.
To recreate multiple-worker braids from periods before the 15th C., the exchange method described in Part I of European Loop Braiding apparently would produce more authentic results than the 15th C. manuscripts’ double braids (“2 fellows” braids) methods. The hollow double braid and the flat double braid are not possible with the archaic exchange (including the lacy Cattorn Wheel braid). A two-fellow/ doubled version of the broad lace of 5; 5-loop square braid, or 5-loop “flat” braid (divided on outer edge, turned on side nearest other braider, for a side-slit end result) would be very appropriate, and so would some unusual 3-fellow combinations of orthodox and unorthodox braids, connected together with the archaic loop exchange.
*Side-slit braids: Apparently, there are several references in 17th C. loop braiding manuscripts to the ‘string with edges open’ i.e. a 2-layer multi-braider (“double” or “triple” etc) braid with a shallow slit/opening between the upper and lower layer along the 2 edges of the braid. They aren’t mentioned in the few 15th C. manuscripts, but the Side-slit double braid method is a very obvious corollary to the Hollow double braid method that is described. However it turns out that side-slit two-person braids probably preceded the hollow double braid in Europe by at least a couple of centuries. Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup mention side-slit double braid artifacts of ‘orthodox twill’ like a square braid (though with an unorthodox loop exchange between the two braiders) from as far back as the 13th C. [Part 1, page 33 of European Loop Braiding] through the 17th C. Hollow double braids aren’t possible with that unorthodox exchange, which seems to have been the first and longest-lasting method in Europe for making multiple-worker braids – known from even before the 13th C. with unorthodox braids (individual braiders making the ‘broad lace of 5‘ type braid).
Re the 15th C: Part IV, page 29 of the same series deals with the pursestrings of a 15th C. purse in the Textile Museum in St. Gallen, Switzerland. The purse’s carrying strap is a 10-loop 2-person double braid with “open selvedges” – this is what I mean by a side-slit double braid – though this particular braid had more going on than a basic double braid. For one thing it probably had the archaic type of loop-exchange between the two braiders mentioned above. Also, the center of the braid was embellished with countertwining, probably by a third braider (creating a design like the one that runs down the center of the Barleycorn or Gren dorge braid, and obscuring most of the loop-exchange area). Speiser also reported on this purse in Issue 10 of L-MBRIC (scroll down page to find report.)
Materials: None of the braids on my blog are ‘historically accurate’ if you judge by materials. I tend to use cotton embroidery floss as my go-to thread for making samples (which is what I mostly make!).
In Europe up through the 17th Century cotton was almost unknown, and the most common fibers used in textiles, presumably including braids, were wool and linen, either in their natural colors, or dyed with natural dyes. These could be soft to very vivid but were not the same range of colors used in modern commercial dyes.
Linen is a very practical (and beautiful) fiber for cords and bands as it is very strong. It comes in two forms: tow linen is rougher/ hairier-looking, and makes nice rustic-looking braids; line linen is much longer-staple, strong, smooth to almost silky. (It’s also often identified as “wet-spun,” however this term can be misleading – I believe line linen is always wet-spun, but tow linen can be dry-spun or wet-spun). Both forms soften up with laundering or use, but remain strong. Nowadays, linen can also be ‘cottonized’ as part of its processing, in preparation for blending with cotton, I don’t know much about this, but I betcha it results in a weaker fluffier yarn, more like cotton. Hemp looks and behaves very much like linen (hemp yarns usually look more like tow linen than like line linen). I don’t know how prevalent hemp was in earlier eras in Europe. Both hemp and linen are made from the stems of tall plants (the definition of a ‘bast’ fiber) which is why they are stronger than cotton (made from the fluff that carries a seed in the wind). (But stay away from jute! See warning re jute bottom of page)
Wool is very good for braiding too – worsted-spun wool that is, not the soft, puffy woolen-spun wools that modern yarn stores are so full of (even knitting yarns described as “worsted-weight” are usually woolen-spun, not worsted-spun). Wool tapestry and weaving yarns are usually worsted-spun. Only worsted-spun wools are strong enough to be warped on a loom. In earlier eras very fine quality worsted wool yarns were common throughout Europe, of any weight down to as fine as thread. I would guess that wool was probably the main fiber used for braiding by rural people producing their own clothing.
Silk was used in precious fabrics and cords. That’s one of the main reasons that silk is misleadingly over-represented in extant braided artifacts from earlier eras in Europe – surviving artifacts tend to be those that were protected and hoarded rather than actually used or worn. Another factor is that the English urban dump sites where archeologists have recovered so many examples of medieval textiles (that had actually been used and worn out) have very acidic soils, which totally dissolve cellulose yarns like linen. So there too, silk braid remnants are disproportionately over-represented.
From “Set on Yowre Hondys: Fifteenth-Century Instructions for Fingerloop Braiding,” by Elizabeth Benns, in Medieval Clothing and Textiles, Volume 3 excerpt below fr p. 141: [“laces” in the text means braided cords and bands.]
…The archaeological evidence would suggest that it was mainly the simpler laces that were common, although many of them appear, from the number of loops involved, to have been made by two or even three people. An examination of extant artifacts is outside the scope of this paper, but I have noticed the more complex laces on surviving purses and ecclesiastical items. (*23) This difference is, perhaps, not surprising. Artifacts that have been preserved are more likely to be heavily ornamented, valuable items rather than everyday laces discarded once they were worn out. Similarly, the lack of linen laces from the London sites is probably more a reflection of the unfavourable conditions for their preservation than a suggestion that there was a preponderance of silk over linen laces in use. [my emphasis]
Types of silk:
The silk thread used in European silk loop braids up through the 17th C was filament silk, never spun silk. According to Noémi Speiser, most of the silk thread of the old manuscripts’ surviving braid swatches was not even ‘thrown’ or twisted together. It was composed of many strands of fine filament silk reeled straight from the cocoon, aligned together in floss-like untwisted bundles. Some silk threads were 2-ply, of loosely thrown (twisted) filaments.
The most common silk yarn and embroidery thread these days is spun silk, which is cheaper to produce than reeled silk. It’s not reeled from a cocoon in one long filament. Instead cocoons and/ or silk waste bits from reeled silk are chopped up into short lengths, washed and processed to degum, then dried and spun into yarn, like cotton or wool. Spun silk is rarely labeled “spun”, but is easy to identify by appearance and feel. It’s softer, fuzzier and less shiny than filament silk. It abrades more easily and doesn’t have the same tensile (pulling) strength. It’s easier to work with because it’s not as silky/slippery.
Filament silk thread is available nowadays as sewing and beading thread – sometimes labeled ‘silk twist’ – also in divisible bundles of fine threads called ‘ropes’ for kumihimo braiding. But modern filament silk thread has a tightly twisted construction that looks quite different from the floss-like filament bundles that Noémi Speiser described. Probably the most accurate look for recreating early era silk braids would be to use kumihimo silk (I haven’t tried this), or alternatively, many strands of ultra-fine silk twist thread combined together. This actually isn’t as hard to do as it might sound. You just wind around something several times for each loop. I use my C-clamp as one end and the back of my kitchen chair as the other. (I do own some warping pegs but they never seem to be handy when I want them!) This adds some time to the loop set-up but is not impossibly fussy. Might be best to start with a simple braid or two before tackling a big project, to get used to the logistics. Any roughness to nails or fingertips (take note, guitar or cittern players!) might need to be filed smooth first. I usually tie multi-strand loops at the bottom (where my fingers will be inserted) so they don’t separate while I’m braiding.
[Side note: Jute is also a baste fiber, and is quite strong at first. But its strength is very short-lived. Unlike hemp or linen, jute decomposes very quickly. This fact is covered up by the industry, though you can find some oblique references. According to my mother who was a textile artist, avant-garde textile art pieces made of jute in the 60’s and 70’s all fell apart in a matter of a decade or two, even important museum pieces. There’s a reason it’s used so much for temporary bags (burlap is made out of jute) and in environmental applications where it is intended to decompose quickly.]
© 2019 Ingrid Crickmore