I was recently asked which fingerloop braids 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.
My braiding tutorials are also all listed in order of difficulty (the best order to learn them) under the Tutorials tab in the upper menu. That list doesn’t include much historical information about the braids, so this post is an attempt to put them in a more historical perspective, and to provide links to primary sources or other sources of historical information.
Some of the braids I teach are known from 15th C. European manuscripts, some are only known from 17th C. manuscripts, a couple are from equivalent eras in Japan. Some braids I teach are also (or only) known from surviving artifacts from as long ago as the 10th C., but with only a few exceptions European braids older than that don’t survive in the archeological record. [Update: I now also have a tutorial for a two-person loop braid from the European Iron Age circa 500 BCE – 2,500 years ago, known from two fragments preserved in a salt mine.] Some braids I teach are logically inferable for those or other eras, based on the other braids of that era, 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. Click here to jump down to a discussion of historically accurate materials (way down at the bottom of this post).
Braids I teach here that are described in the 15th C. English loop braiding manuscripts* (or known for that period from other sources)
5-loop square braid – “A lace common round of 5 bows.” Also the ‘Edge’ color-pattern for a 5-loop square braid: “A lace bastonne, 5 bows”, and the divided version “An open lace of 5 bows” (divided square braid = 2 small flat braids produced simultaneously, one above the other)
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.
Hollow double braid of 10 loops (“A hollow lace of 10 bows, 2 fellows”)
All “Double braids” are made with almost the same braiding moves, the only differences between them are from turning or not turning the loops when making the 4 main braiding moves. Double braids have 4 loop-transfers in each row, twice as many as a square braid. Traditionally, they are made by two braiders working together side-by-side on one set of 10 to 14 loops. The solid-rectangle double braid is like a combination of two square braids. 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.
8-loop spiral braid, (“Lace Bend Round”.) Variations with other even numbers of loops are obvious, down to a 2-loop non-spiraling version. (see Inferable Braids below.) I have video and pdf photo-tutorials for 2- to 10-loop variations of this braiding method within one mega-post. According to a report by Noémi Speiser in L-MBRIC, the 4-loop spiral braid I teach is described in a bound collection of 15th-16th C. German manuscripts. Speiser describes it rather than giving it a name: “Two loops mounted on each hand are made to cooperate crosswise through one another. RH upper with LH lower, then RH lower with LH upper.”
[Unfortunately, the old LMBRIC site no longer exists as such, but a copy of it can still be accessed, click here to find out how to use any of my LMBRIC links to get to that page via the Internet Archive’s “wayback machine”.]
The French String with Open Edges – This 10-loop double braid requires a different loop-exchange between the two braiders from the one that was taught in the 15th C. loop braiding manuscripts, yet it was apparently quite well-known in the 15th C. – in fact this long-undescribed loop-exchange method was used all over Europe from at least as far back as the 13th C. all the way into the 20th C. (c.f. Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup’s research of actual braided artifacts). In all periods, this type of braid seems to be the one most commonly found as handle-strap purse strings on surviving precious purses from as far back as the 13th C through the (many more) 17th C. museum specimens. As a purse-string, this braid was most often made with ‘side-slit’/ open edges. Because of the different loop exchange, this braid has a more intricate ‘weave’ down its central area than the “thick lace bordered” double braid taught in the 15th C. manuscripts.
On the website Fingerloop Braiding – fingerloop.org – the 17th C. braids called “Purse Strings” with original text that read something like this: “…when you [ex]change put your finger through thers giveing your boe and taking thers” actually were made with this “French String” method of exchanging loops, according to Speiser and Boutrup’s later research findings, not the method given on fingerloop.org (which was the method taught in the 15th C. manuscripts).
The video tutorial demos my solo-braider workaround method for making this 2-person braid, but I include a text-plus-illustration how-to for the traditional 2-person method of performing the crucial unorthodox loop exchange between the two braiders.
Prior to the 15th C. in Europe, this seems to have been the only loop exchange method used between two (or more) cooperating braiders! So this older method is well worth learning if you are trying to accurately replicate multiple-braider braids from prior to the 15th C., and even most purse handle-strings on museum artifact ‘sweet bags’/ coin purses of any era. This loop exchange method is also necessary for making the 17th C. Bucks Horns braid and some other braids in the 17th C. manuscripts. When Noémi Speiser described and taught those 17th C. braids (in Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding), she had not yet realized exactly how their loop exchange was done, so the method she gives there isn’t quite accurate, and probably isn’t as easy as the actual method.
This historically significant loop exchange method is only described in print in Part 1 of European Loop Braiding, Joy Boutrup and Noémi Speiser’s 4-part sequel to Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding. As far as I can tell, no historic recreators seem to have taken note of it, so I hope my tutorial will make it more well known.
15th C. braids I don’t teach (yet) on this blog:
I only have tutorials for a fairly small percentage of the braids in the 15th C. manuscripts. For example, so far I have no tutorials for any twined braids, which was a large category of braids in the 15th C. manuscripts (not called ‘twined’ there – often called ‘bends’ or ‘chevrons’). You can find photos and text instructions for most (or maybe all) of the braids in the 15th C manuscripts on Silkewerk’s fingerloop braiding pages. Most are multiple worker braids, but there also are a fair number of braids for a solo braider.
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 for many of these 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, and the 5-loop flat braid
These can be inferred 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 of many of these turn up on braided museum artifacts.* The original composer(s?) of the three known (and very similar) 15th C. loop braiding manuscripts probably saw no reason to describe the most obvious size variations of a square braid (3, 4, 6 and 7 loops). But the less obvious 8-loop version of a square (or flat) braid requires a tricky strategy for dealing with the extra loop on the right hand, which is carefully described. The beautiful 8-loop flat braid color-pattern Lace Daunce makes it well worth that extra effort.
Flat Double braid – Imo, this double braid variation would be 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’ or Couvert braids). Noémi Speiser describes flat double braids in her book Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, but I don’t see any references in there to historic examples – aside from the 17th C. 3-person Katherine Wheel braid, which is a complex, lacy openwork version of a flat braid that is even wider than a double braid – really a ‘triple’ braid.
Side-slit Double braid – (in OEPBforLB, Noémi Speiser calls this type of braid a two-layer braid with open selvedges, Joy Boutrup refers to it as a double-square braid with open edges.) Only described in the 17th C. manuscripts, but obvious and inferrable from the braids described in the 15th C manuscripts as well. However it doesn’t have to be inferred, since museum specimens exist* from even earlier than the 15th C. (albeit with an older loop exchange method not described in the 15th C. manuscripts). The side-slit or open-edged double braid is similar in shape to a solid-rectangle double braid, but if you use bicolor loops you can get some quite different color patterns.
Other color-pattern variations of notated braids:
Of course these were done “in period”! The few surviving loop braiding manuscripts couldn’t possibly list all the color pattern variations that could be made of all the braids they described, even the most obvious ones. Dyed yarns had been widespread and common for centuries – even millennia – prior to the earliest loop braiding manuscripts, as was the technique of loop braiding, it was not restricted to those who penned the few known manuscripts.
Imo, specific color-patterns given in the old manuscripts for a particular braid type are examples of possibilities, rather than restrictions. 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.
A good example is the solid-rectangle double braid, which was called “a thick lace bordered” in the 15th C. manuscripts. It is only taught in one particular color-pattern: a lengthwise stripe along each edge – i.e. “bordered”. (I usually refer to this pattern as “Edge” – it can be made in any square or double braid of an even number of turned (a.k.a. reversed/ crossed) loop transfers if you use bicolor loops.) This is quite a tricky color-pattern to set up, not obvious at all – it definitely would not be one of the first color-patterns you would happen upon in making this braid! That alone suggests that it wasn’t the only color pattern known or used for this braid. But it is a wonderful pattern and well worth recording how to set up, precisely because it is not obvious or easy to come up with.
To me it seems very unlikely that only one or two color-patterns would have been known or used for any of the braid types (structures), in view of the many centuries and widespread use of loop braiding – as well as 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 be ones the compiler considered useful to record*, or personal favorites. It wouldn’t be practical to cram a manuscript with every conceivable color-pattern variation for each braid type – especially a household book like the three 15th C. manuscripts, in which loop braiding was only one section within a compilation of several others (recipes, cures, etc).
If you are 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 15th C. manuscripts, but it’s extremely unlikely that all the braiders of that era did so. The braid types (structures), along with the dyes or dyed threads available at the time, are guidelines for appropriate color-pattern variations beyond those notated in the manuscripts.
Not all loop braids had color patterns, btw – single-color bands and cords would have been common in any era.
Another problem here for modern readers of those manuscripts who want to re-create period-appropriate braids from them is the naming of braids in those manuscripts. Two superficially different-looking braids may have the same structure and braiding method (say, both be 5-loop square braids), and just differ from each other by their color-patterns, ie how the colors were arranged on the fingers at the start of braiding. Otherwise identical braids with different color-patterns were often given different names in the old manuscripts, which can mislead modern braiders into thinking of them as just as different from each other as two braids with totally differing structures/ over-under textile “architecture.”
For example, in the old manuscripts Lace Daunc and Lace Piole are the names given for two color-patterns for the flat variation of an 8-loop square braid. Both have exactly the same braided structure and method. Those (exact) color-patterns are not possible when making a flat 5- or 7-loop braid, so it makes sense that they were given special attention. Also their method is rather complicated, not a simple expansion of the method for making smaller flat or square braids, since braiding with over 7 loops requires holding two loops on the same finger (if not using thumbs). No flat braids of only 5 or 7 loops were actually described in those manuscripts, but they are examples of strongly inferable braids for that era: they must have been well-known if even the more difficult eight-loop flat braid was known.
Some braid instructions in the old manuscripts don’t stipulate any particular colors at all. (“Hollow lace of 10 bows 2 fellows” mentioned above, for example). So in recreating that braid, one is clearly “free” to use whatever colors one chooses. However, other instructions for a particular braid did specify particular colors and gave the braid a name based on that color pattern. Should that imply that no other color variations were made at the time? Or rather that the one described was a noteworthy example? Or there may be separate (but identical) instructions and different names given for two or more color-pattern variations of the same braid. Obviously the “naming of braids” in the old loop braiding manuscripts followed no consistent rules. In fact two structurally very different braids sometimes shared the same name (“lace endented” is the name given to a particular twined braid, as well as the name for a particular color pattern of a square braid – 2 very different types of braids).
I teach several color patterns that were described in the old manuscripts, but I don’t necessarily use the same colors. Actually, unless you dye your own linen, wool, or silk yarn with period-appropriate natural dyes, it may not be possible to reproduce the original colors. Modern chemical dye colors are very different from the hues of natural dyes. If you are interested in reproducing the colors used in swatches or specified in the texts of the original manuscripts for some of the braids, check the online images from some of the original manuscripts, and investigate which natural dyes were available in the area and period you are interested in.
Another thing to consider is that colors of old braid swatches may have faded, been lost completely, or changed in other ways. Sometimes old dyed items completely change color – like a green turning blue or yellow, for example. That can happen when the original color was achieved by over-dyeing with two different dyes – say blue and yellow to get green – and one of those two dyes ended up being more ‘fugitive’ than the other. (also, see footnote on fiber types*.)
Missing braids in the 15th C manuscripts:
Several historic braids that Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup found as actual artifacts (in museum, church, private, and royal collections throughout Europe) are not described at all in the few known 15th C. manuscripts. Some of these are structurally quite different from described braids, which is a much great difference than a simple color-pattern variation.
One example is a braid from the early 15th or late 14th C. that I call the “Sudarium braid” on this blog (not to be confused with the “Uppsala Sudary” braid – these are two different braids). My post on it is not a tutorial, but does generally describe how two braiders would make this braid the traditional way, and how I make the braid as a solo braider. This braid is about as different as you can get from the other known European braids like square and double braids that it is related to!
A probably more important whole group of missing braids in the 15th C. manuscripts are multiple-braider braids made with the older method of exchanging loops between cooperating braiders that I describe elsewhere. (Taught in my French String and Buckshorns Braid tutorials) This older method results in a different braided structure at the ‘join’ area of the overall braid. No braids with this type of loop-exchange are mentioned in the three 15th C. manuscripts, yet they constitute most if not all the actual multiple-braider artifacts from the 12th C. up to the 17th C. that Speiser and Boutrup found in their research, and in fact all the way into the early 20th Century in one part of Scandinavia. (Speiser and Boutrup believe this method was deliberately omitted from the 15th C. manuscripts!)
Historical re-creators interested in re-creating braids from earlier European periods than the 15th C. should take note that Speiser and Boutrup’s research suggests that pre-15th C. team-braiders likely braided quite different “2 or more-fellows” braids than those of the 15th C. manuscripts – see *endnote.
Braids I teach that are known only from 17th Century manuscripts:
Bucks Horns braid – a 10-loop double braid with a distinctive color-pattern, made with the ‘unorthodox’ loop-exchange method described above (under the French String with Open Edges).
Letterbraids and the “7-loop Spanish” braid are described in 17th C. manuscripts, but not in any 15th C. manuscripts.
As far as I know, I’m the only online source of instructions for these braids. Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup’s publications were my sources, but the solo-braider methods I teach are my own.
Side-slit / a.k.a. open edges are only described in the 17th C. manuscripts, not in the 15th C. manuscripts. However Speiser and Boutrup have documented actual double braid artifacts with open edges in museum and ecclesiastical collections from as far back as the 13th C.* (pre-15th C, these would have been made with the ‘unorthodox’ / archaic loop exchange between cooperating braiders).
Square, flat, and double braids are described in both the 15th and 17th C. manuscripts.
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 they call “the waine/wave“.
New note 12/26/2022:
The 17th C. double braid called “Purse String with the Wave” with original text that read: “…when you [ex]change put your finger through thers giveing your boe and taking thers” actually was made with the Bucks Horn and French String method of exchanging loops, according to Speiser and Boutrup’s later research findings, not the method given on fingerloop.org. The method given on fingerloop.org seems to be what Speiser describes elsewhere as a ‘giving-taking’ method for producing an orthodox loop exchange (the loop exchange taught in the 15th C. manuscripts). “Giving-taking” is when the loop exchange is done not as a separate move, but as part of two of the loop transfers, by each braider transferring a loop directly from the other braider’s hand. It produces the same net result as if the loop exchange were done as a separate move between the two braiders, and is a great alternative way to accomplish that ‘orthodox’ loop exchange. However, according to Speiser and Boutrup’s findings, that was not what the 17th C. text was attempting to describe).
It may be that all the so-called “Purse String” braids in the 17th C. manuscripts were actually made with the Bucks Horn and French String type of loop-exchange method(?) I need to go back and re-read European Loop Braiding, part 1 to find this out!
Braids (and patterning techniques) in my tutorials that may not have been made in certain eras, or not in Europe:
‘Normal’ loop-exchange between 2 or more braiders, also Flat and Hollow double braids: these may not have been made before the 15th C. in Europe. (This is the loop-exchange method taught in SCA classes, and in my Braid a 10-loop braid with a Friend! tutorial, as well as in my solo-braider double braid tutorials.) A different loop-exchange method*, with a resulting difference to the braid’s structure, seems to have been more prevalent prior to the 15th C.
Pick-up patterning done with smaller braids than the letterbraids: Not known from earlier centuries, though they would have been fairly obvious to 17th C. braiders of letterbraids. (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.)
Linking loops alternating with not linking loops to make changing color-patterns:
Two types of linking were described in the 15th and 17th C. manuscripts to produce certain color-patterns. 1.“Changing twice”: exchanging loops twice between braiders at the loop-exchange move, and 2.“Turning twice”: turning a bicolor loop twice – a 360° turn, instead of a 180° turn of the loop, as in the 15th C. braid called Lace Parti of VII bowes (taught here on Silkewerke).
Alternating either or both of these strategies to produce a varying color pattern along the braid is another of the “conscious patterning techniques” that was only described in the 17th C. documents. I totally suspect that some of these varying color-pattern techniques may have been done in earlier centuries as well, though, even though they weren’t described. (It’s much harder to describe these techniques than it is to do them! See Comparison of 15th and 17th C. manuscripts in endnotes).
I teach both types of linking in a flat double braid, and a flat 7-loop braid, whereas I think that in the 17th C. documents they are only described for flat double (2-worker) Spanish braids. It’s the same exact process with a ‘plain’ double braid, and would have been totally obvious to braiders who could do them with doubled Spanish braids.
“Turning twice” in an even simpler flat single-braider 7-loop braid would also have been completely obvious to any 15th or 17th braider who had done it with other braids.
However, the other type of linking, “Changing twice” – traditionally done during the loop-exchange between two braiders – is not very obvious to extrapolate to a simple square or flat braid, or even to other places than the loop-exchange in a two-braider braid.
Though it’s not obvious, this “changing twice” type of linking can actually be done between any two loops that would otherwise pass through/around each other during the braiding process. This can happen at other places than just the center of the braid, where the loop-exchange move of a double braid occurs. (The tall, narrow photo in my sidebar shows an example of “Changing twice” linking done in many places in a 10-loop flat double braid.)
I don’t think this has been described in any of the historical European loop braiding manuscripts, or found in braid artifacts. I demo this in the 7-loop flat braid linking tutorial, as well as in Color-linking in a 13-loop flat square braid. Also, the undulating braids in “Year of the Snake,” are solid rectangle double braids in which most of the “changing twice” linkages don’t occur during the loop-exchange move, but during the various loop transfers. In a well-tightened solid-rectangle braid this can create regular undulating curves. But if the same / equivalent braid were made as a flat braid, any tendency to curve would be cancelled out on each side of center by the opposing/ opposite ‘curving’ on the other side of center.
9-loop Square (and related flat) braid – Known from Finland and China (1900’s) with V-fell braiding (see my tutorial); possible but not likely for most of Europe. That’s because European A-fell braiding requires holding more than one loop on a finger for braids of more than 7 loops, with consequent extra moves. However, 9-loop square and flat braids are possible with A-fell braiding. The braiding method for the two documented 15th C. European 8-loop flat braids Lace Daunce and Piole uses a 9-loop strategy for the loops of one hand. Using that strategy with both hands (2 loops on both the left and the right index fingers) is an obvious way to make a 9-loop square or flat braid using European-style A-fell braiding moves. I also know of a slightly different A-fell strategy that accomplishes the same thing – I use it for unbraiding 9-loop braids made with V-fell braiding moves (2 loops on the little fingers rather than on the index fingers).
However, there really isn’t a lot of incentive to do all those extra moves just for a slightly bigger square or flat braid that doesn’t essentially look much different from a 7-loop version! Especially if you can get together with a partner to braid a faster, easier, stronger and more attractive 9 or 10-loop double braid. But for 8 loops there is an incentive to do those extra moves (on only one hand): the cool color-pattern Daunce/ Dawns, only possible with 8 loops, and not likely as a two-braider braid (see following note).
Square braids of more than 8 or 9 loops: I think the multi-loop square braids I teach would be unlikely (though obviously possible) in past eras, simply because it’s much easier for two people to collaborate on a braid of that many loops. (Braiding partners would have been fairly plentiful in earlier eras – back then loop braiding wasn’t a solitary hobby, it was a widely known craft for making necessities of daily life.) But when two braiders cooperate on a braid, square-type braids are not a likely result. It’s easier and more natural (especially in regard to the tightening) for two cooperating braiders to each braid two transfers, and then exchange two loops to combine their two parts into a single 4-transfer braid (a.k.a. “double” braid). Plus, a double braid is stronger, more interwoven and has a neater appearance than a square braid of the same number of loops.
Double braids of more than 14 loops – In Europe, braids of more than 14 loops were made by three or more braiders, and had other structures than “double” (ie “triple” like the Katheren Wheel braid, quadruple etc). In areas where V-fell fingerloop braiding was the norm, 18 loops would be the theoretical limit for two cooperating braiders (9 loops per braider x 2 braiders). In Japan the theoretical limit would be higher assuming the braiders used hand-held loops, but at that many loops it becomes structurally and aesthetically sounder to move to triple/ quadruple braids anyway.
Double Braids of fewer than 10 loops – It’s unlikely they were made as team braids, even though they would be quite obvious to any 15th or 17th C. team braiders (each braider would just make a 3 or 4-loop square braid rather than a 5 or 7-loop one) – but they would probably think “why waste 2 braiders on a braid of so few loops?”
However imo double braids of fewer than 10 loops are documented in both the 15th and 17th C manuscripts as solo-braider braids: The 17th C. “spanish” braids of fewer than 10 loops are basically double braids made on only one pair of hands. And the 15th C. Thin and broad lace of 5 bows, 1 fellow, as well as the several variations of the 15th C. Hollow lace of 7 bows are also double braids in this sense, even though their braiding methods seem so different. (text instructions on Silkewerk: Thin and broad lace, Hollow lace of 7)
Noémi Speiser points out in Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding that the 15th C. Thin and broad lace of 5 bows, 1 fellow is structurally identical to the 17th C. 5-loop Spanish braid, though made by a more convoluted method. (on p. 59, under “Plain and Mixed Oblique Interlacing”). I’m pretty sure that that the 15th C. Hollow Lace of 7 only differs from the 7-loop Spanish braid in having its two plain weave ridges at the center of the braid, and the two twill ridges at the edges, whereas it’s the opposite for the classic 7-loop Spanish braid, and for the way I teach an 8-loop double braid. Either way, they are all still 4-transfer braids of mixed plain weave (“through 1 loop”) and twill (“through 2 loops”) that can be made as hollow, flat, or solid rectangle braids, and actually a few other shapes as well.
If you make my solo-braider 6-loop double braid, but use only 5 loops and a ‘giving-taking‘ loop exchange, the resulting braid has the same exact structure as that 15th C. Thin and broad lace of 5 bows, and of the 5-loop Spanish braids of the 17th C. manuscripts.
If you make my solo-braider 8-loop double braid (or the 7-loop Spanish braid), but do the “through-1-loop” loop transfers at the center of the braid, and the “through-2-loops” transfers on the far edges of the braid, I think the resulting braid is almost identical to the 15th C. Hollow Lace of 7 bows family of braids. To be truly identical, make my “8-loop double braid” using only 7 loops, and use the ‘giving-taking‘ loop exchange.
(Decide which loops to turn based on the desired end result – hollow, flat, etc.)
Speiser or Boutrup somewhere also refer to a 17th C. Spanish braid of 6 loops. That one is likely structurally identical to my 6-loop double braid. With loop braids, there are often several ways to arrive at the same end result!
Triangle and D-shaped braids – these 2 unorthodox braids might well have been made in any areas where V-fell braiding was practiced, so Asia and India, but not Europe. (For unclear reasons, unorthodox braids made with A-fell/ European braiding moves turn out with a different shape than the V-fell triangle and D-shaped braids.)
Masako Kinoshita seemed to assume that the triangle braid would be the most common unorthodox braid wherever V-fell braiding was practiced. However, she cites a 5-loop example of the type I call a D-shaped braid on a Khanty (Western Siberian) coat (citation is in my tutorial), as well as 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, whereas I can’t remember her citing any actual historical examples of the triangle braid. The braiding moves for the Triangle-shaped unorthodox braid do seem slightly easier than those for the D-shaped unorthodox braid, but I’m not aware of a link or reference to point to a specific example. But the braid is historically very likely just on the basis of how common the equivalent A-fell “Broad lace of 5 bows” is wherever A-fell braiding is practiced (including 6 and 7-loop variants* of the Broad Lace).
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 examples. 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!).
Update re LMBRIC: Masako Kinoshita’s online loop braiding journal L-MBRIC is currently in a state of flux that I hope will be resolved soon. Unfortunately, in the meantime none of the many links to LMBRIC in my posts (including this one) are functioning. However, any of these links can be copied and used in the Internet Archive’s “Wayback Machine” to access their stored copies of L-MBRIC’s pages, see my Guide to L-MBRIC.
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.
[Twined braids 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 they are almost absent from the 17th C. manuscripts. That makes it seem as if twined braids are older, but oddly, Speiser and Boutrup’s European Loop Braiding series of monographs on surviving European braid artifacts from as far back as the 10th C. barely mentions any twined braids! I only noticed a single reference – in Part III on the Bridgettine convent braids. The other three monographs in the series are specifically focused on non-twined types of braids, so that explains why they aren’t covered in detail there, but I assume the authors would at least have mentioned if they had come across many twined braids in their research into old European braid artifacts. Twining is an ancient, worldwide technique – done both ‘on the diagonal’ as braids, and horizontally like woven textiles. Many or most ancient Peruvian flat braids were twined, also a significant number of Japanese braids.]
Braids from the 17th C. manuscripts are another story. I don’t know of any other sites with instructions for braids or techniques that are only described in the 17th C. loop braiding documents. I have video tutorials for three of these (the ‘7-loop Spanish braid‘, the Bucks Horns 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). My site teaches some color-work techniques that were only described in the 17th C. manuscripts: pick-up patterning, and variable color-linking (1, 2), though I don’t teach them using the exact same braids or color-patterns of the 17th C. manuscripts (except for the letterbraids). There are many other interesting 17th C. braids that are so far 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 larger household volume of recipes, cures, and other useful minutiae. 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 (Nature Unbowelled) – 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 black-and-white pdf copy (of the needlework sections, scroll to find ‘laces’). The complete, full-color 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. (Here is Silkewerk’s page about these three sources.)
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, but probably 10. 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.) Probably the two 17th C. manuscripts that fingerloop.org cited (prior to their transcription of the Bindloss manuscript) as their sources for some 17th C. braids were two of these nine manuscripts. Another 17th C. manuscript (the Nun’s Book, also here, and here) was discovered to braiders in 2007, when members of the Braid Society visited the Pitt River Museum in the UK. Previously it had only been known to the Museum by its title, as a work on “Weaving Watch Strings.”
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 describe as clearly how to make the braids (the descriptions seem more like personal reminders to the writer, omitting 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 many 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. A simpler example is the “Crown and Staffe” (= Crown and Edge) double-braid color pattern. It’s really just an alternation down the braid of two patterns: “Crowns” and “Edge”. But in order to braid your way between these two patterns you must turn (or not turn) loops based on the desired resultant color-change, rather than based on the normal “turn-all-loops” rule for making a solid rectangle double braid. I call this turning strategy pick-up patterning. This and several other types of variable braiding moves were sketchily-to-poorly described in all the 17th C. braiding manuscripts, but not described at all in the 15th C. manuscripts.
(Personally, I would guess that skilled 15th C. braiders may well have used “conscious” color-pattern transitions, too. This type of braiding strategy is extremely difficult to describe clearly, even though it’s not hard to do – it doesn’t require any new moves or physical skills. I can easily imagine that the writers of the clear and concise 15th C. loop braiding manuscripts would have zero interest in documenting braiding techniques that are impossible to describe clearly and concisely, whereas the writers of the 17th C. manuscripts were obviously not constrained by that at all! All their instructions were unclear and incomplete.)
The various 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.
The 15th C. loop braiding instructions were written in Middle English, like the English of Chaucer, whereas the 17th C. manuscripts are closer to modern English. But apparently (if you can read Middle English) the earlier instructions are much easier to follow than the later ones, because they describe the whole procedure clearly and completely. I’ve heard of people who have learned to braid directly from the 15th C. manuscripts, which 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.
*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.
Most of those very oldest braids Speiser and Boutrup were able to study had been carefully preserved over the centuries in religious or state treasuries of clothing and textiles. Narrow textiles don’t tend to survive in the European archeological record from earlier than that, they decay fairly quickly.
Update: Réka Tóthné just contributed this reference to an archeological paper on two Iron Age braid fragments found in the Hallstatt Salt Mine site in Austria! Joy Boutrup is one of the study authors. These braids were only recently carbon-dated and found to be from between 756 and 414 B.C.E.!!! (the oddly year-specific date range is due to some kind of necessary mathematical adjustment to the initial carbon dating results). The braids were determined to have been loop braided based on clues such as the way the two strands of each pair stayed in strict order throughout the braid, and the way they ‘turned the corner’ on the selvedges – would only make sense if the paired strands had been held as loops. My summary of the study is here (in comments below)
Update 2: I now have a tutorial on this blog for one of the two Iron Age braids in the study.
In the Middle East, a very rare actual intact cord – a square braid fragment – from 1200-1400 BCE (middle Bronze Age!) 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 it’s unclear how the archeologists made that determination. (No loops were present on the fragment, but loops are rarely present, even on whole, intact loop-braided artifacts, as they are often trimmed off after a braid is finished, or worn apart from use or decay.) 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 suspected 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 Rodrick Owen and the Braids of the Mummies (Pre-Incan loop braiding from areas in and around what is now Peru).
*“Haus zur Kunkel” early 14th C. mural inscription: See the scholarly paper “No Shame in Braiding,” by Beatrix Nutz, which translates this inscription, but deals specifically with some 15th C. German loop braids found in Lengberg Castle in East Tyrol. The paper can be read (or downloaded in pdf form) here.
* 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).
*Examples of historical evidence for inferable braids (These are just some random examples, not a comprehensive list. I’m sure there are many more surviving examples lying unnoticed as trimming and cords in clothing and textile collections in European museums.): 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! These 4-loop 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.)
A 5-loop flat braid is part of a ‘reliquary’ (religious item) at or from Linköping Cathedral, Sweden, 1515. (Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup, European Loop Braiding Part III: Loop Braiding in a Swedish Bridgettine Tradition, 2011. Pages 13,15)
In Issue 7 of L-MBRIC, 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, as she herself admits!)
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 up at the top of this page). 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.)
*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 at all in the few 15th C. manuscripts, but the Side-slit double braid method is a very obvious corollary to the Hollow double braid method described in those 15th C. manuscripts. However, it turns out that side-slit two-person braids preceded the 15th C. 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 different type of loop exchange between the two or more braiders, see next footnote) from as far back as the 13th C. [Part 1, page 33 of European Loop Braiding], all the way through the 17th Century. Flat and Hollow double braids aren’t possible with that older type of loop exchange, only with the ‘standard’ loop exchange that was carefully explained in the 15th C. manuscripts, and may have only arisen around then (see following footnote).
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.)
* Archaic/ unorthodox type of loop exchange between cooperating braiders:
[Update Aug 19, 2020: I just posted two new tutorials for double braids made with this unorthodox loop exchange, including two videos for my solo-braider method, and an illustration for the traditional two-person team braiding method of making the unorthodox exchange.]
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 17th C. anomaly! Instead, it appeared to be the original way all multiple-loop / multiple-braider braids had been made in Europe.
Apparently, 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 was described in the 15th C. manuscripts, 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 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).
The newer type of loop exchange described in the 15th C. manuscripts allows for more variety of double braid shapes, including hollow and flat double braids. 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., that older “unorthodox” exchange method (described in European Loop Braiding Part I) would create more historically accurate double braids than the “2 fellows” braids described in the 15th C. manuscripts. The hollow double braid and the flat double braid (including variations like the 17th C. Cattorn Wheel) cannot be made using that older loop exchange method, and were likely not made before the ‘new-fangled’ 15th C loop exchange method became prevalent. Appropriate pre-15th C. multibraider braids for recreation would be: 2 or 3-person versions of the Broad lace of 5 (from at least the 12th C), or multiperson versions of the 5-loop square braid (known from the 13th C.), including the 5-loop flat or divided variations of a square braid. (However, these don’t actually turn out “flat” or “divided”, because of that older loop exchange method. Instead the braids get ‘tied down’ in the center by the loop exchange method, and come out as double or triple solid rectangle braids with slitted/ 2-layer edges). Some other interesting multibraider braids would also be appropriate, like 3-fellow combinations of ‘orthodox’ with ‘unorthodox’ braids: say, square (or divided) braids at both edges, but a Broad lace of 5 in the center, again with all 3 cooperating braiders using the archaic loop exchange method. Joy Boutrup taught a braid like this in her Braids 2012 class, and it or a similar one is described in Part 4 of her and Noémi Speiser’s European Loop Braiding collaboration.
The more archaic loop exchange method is only described (badly!) in the 17th C. manuscripts – in connection with the Bucks Hornes braid among others. It’s a mystery why braids with this loop exchange weren’t mentioned in the three known 15th C. manuscripts, since based on the historical evidence they must have been common at that time. 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.
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. Silk was probably used much less frequently than linen and wool, but is disproportionately represented in surviving braid artifacts.
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 not quite as shiny as filament silk. It pills and 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 should be filed smooth first. If the bottom of the loops are not knotted, I often tie a little piece of embroidery floss around/ through each loop at the bottom (where my fingers will be inserted) to keep the multiple strands from separating as I’m braiding.
If you will be using kumihimo silk or imitation silk, see Michael Hattori’s helpful video here showing how to untwist it. Kumihimo silk comes in ‘ropes’ of strands twisted together to be more manageable, but they have to be untwisted before dividing the ropes into smaller amounts for braiding.
Side note: Jute is a bast fiber like hemp and linen, and is quite strong to begin with. But unlike hemp or linen, jute degrades and decomposes very quickly. According to my mother (who was a textile artist, and studied textile art under Trude Guermonprez at the California College of Arts and Crafts), avant-garde textile art pieces made of jute in the 60’s and 70’s eroded and fell apart in a matter of a decade or so, even important museum pieces kept in climate-controlled environments. This fact seems to be covered up by the industry, though you can find some oblique references. There’s good reason why historically jute has been used mainly for temporary products (burlap bags are made out of jute), and nowadays in environmental applications where it is intended to decompose quickly.
Last updated Dec 26, 2022
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