Letter Braids of the 17th Century

14-loop letterbraid, made by Ingrid Crickmore from instructions in European Loop Braiding part II--"17th Century Letter Braids" by Joy Boutrup

14-loop letterbraid (Ingrid Crickmore). Cotton embroidery floss and silk knitting yarn. Click twice on photo for more detail.

Around the turn of the 21st Century, Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup somehow managed to resurrect the braiding methods for three 17th C. loop braided alphabet braids from total oblivion (two different 10-loop braids, and a 14-loop braid). The old manuscripts that described them must have been useful to the braiders who originally wrote them, but are completely unintelligible to a modern braider or weaver.

The three braids are all 2-layer braids, made by two braiders working together, holding bicolor loops, and using the loop braiding equivalent of complementary pick-up patterning in weaving. Here, the ‘pickup’ is done by turning specified bicolor loops over on their fingers before doing the braiding moves. Turning a loop over drops the background color, and lifts up the contrast color that will form part of the letter-shape. The pick-up pattern areas are the only connection between the upper and lower layers of the braid.

The 17th C. manuscripts on one of these braids – the 14-loop letterbraid – included pattern charts for each letter of the alphabet and for several other symbols. The charts apparently were meant to indicate which loops should be turned light or dark-side-up for each braiding cycle of unknown moves. Exactly which loops, however—and even how many total loops were in the braid—was unclear.

The other letterbraid that Speiser found 17th C. “instructions” for had no charts, the braid was described in text only. (It was in fact a 10-loop braid, as Speiser had first assumed for the charted letterbraid, which turned out to be a 14-loop braid.)

The third letterbraid method (for another 10-loop braid), was found in a manuscript known as the Nun’s Book*, after Noémi Speiser had already published her attempts to decipher the first two known letter braids. (in Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, 2000.)

Eventually, Speiser’s student and associate Joy Boutrup finally figured out all three letterbraid methods, including the “new” Nun’s Book letterbraid. Boutrup’s ground-breaking monograph on these three letter braids was published in 2009 as Part II of a four-part supplement to OEPBforLB, written in collaboration with Noémi Speiser: European Loop Braiding, Investigations and Results, 2009-2011. Part II is subtitled: Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th Century Manuscripts.

After reading Noémi Speiser’s account of her struggles with the 17th C. letterbraid manuscripts in her loop braiding opus OEPBforLB, I was extremely excited to say the least when I found out that this huge mystery had been solved and that a whole publication was coming out on it! It was a bit daunting when I first dove in, until I gradually realized that I didn’t have to understand everything Boutrup discussed in order to get the gist of the way the charts worked, and how to incorporate them into the braiding instructions in the appendices.

Joy’s charts for the 14-loop braid’s letter-patterns are slightly revised versions of the originals, laid out in mirror-image symmetry that better reflects the left and right hands of the two braiders. They are not fundamentally different from the original charts, though. What is completely new is her understanding of which fingers the various columns in the chart correspond to, as well as her understanding of the braid’s structure and braiding method (which are independent of the patterning charts).

She also figured out the braiding methods for both 10-loop letter braids, improved the alphabet symbol charts for the second one (the Nun’s Book letterbraid), and created charts for the first one – the so-called “Verbal Letterbraid.” The original 17th C. instructions for its various letter-shapes had been in text only–incomprehensible jargon, for the most part—without charts.

The Verbal letterbraid was the first of the two 10-loop letterbraids that Joy Boutrup analyzed, and its 17th C. instructions contained a truly mind-boggling red herring! The original manuscripts’ letter-shape instructions only work if a very odd “mistake move” (as I see it, anyway) is made in each row of braiding. A few steps later in the row, this “mistake” is then undone by a subsequent braiding move. The braid itself (without any letters) can be made without doing this “mistake”, but the letters as taught will not come out correctly unless the otherwise unnecessary “mistake and correction” is performed. Joy not only managed to decode this odd mistake move, she also translated the lettershape instructions to how they must be done to make the letters without those “mistake and correction moves”. So there are two optional ways to make this braid–the original way, and a more economical way, each with its own letter-charts.

Even though the second ten-loop letterbraid–the Nun’s Book letterbraid–had no accompanying braiding instructions, I would guess that it might have been less of a headache for Joy Boutrup to figure out, since its charts weren’t dependent on a mistake being incorporated into the braiding!

Despite its title (Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th C. Manuscripts), the monograph is not in fact a set of instructions. Instead it is about three sets of 17th C instructions, and how Joy Boutrup decoded them. It’s definitely not a “how-to” or instruction manual. A lot of it is devoted to a detailed, technical analysis of each braid’s structure. It does contain very succinct braiding instructions in appendices in the back, with no illustrations. The instructions briefly outline the braiding moves of one of the two braiders, but not how to follow the color-changing charts, as that is covered in the rather dense main body of the publication. The loop-exchanging moves that the two braiders do to combine their two halves into one braid are not outlined either, as that is assumed knowledge from Noémi Speiser’s earlier book (Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding). The letterbraid monograph was written as a supplement to Old English Pattern Books for Loop braiding, and doesn’t duplicate information included in the earlier book.

For those reasons, it wouldn’t be easy to use this book to learn how to make letterbraids from the ground up, unless you already know how to loop braid as part of a team of braiders, and (for the 14-loop braid) have followed my 7-loop Spanish braid video-tutorial. Rather than an instruction manual, it’s a great resource on the heights that loop braiding had reached by the 17th C, and an amazing account of Joy Boutrup’s success in deciphering and resurrecting these 17th C. techniques from the most minimal and confusing clues. Unlike OEPBforLB, this and the other three supplements all contain “eye-candy” in the form of large color photographs of historical braid artifacts (and in this case, of Joy Boutrup’s reconstructions).

My video tutorial for the 7-loop Spanish braid teaches the braid that each of the 2 cooperating braiders would be braiding and combining together to make the 14-loop letterbraid.

I made that tutorial so the 7-loop Spanish braid could be more widely known (it’s a great braid in itself, and not hard to learn if you already know how to braid a 7-loop square braid), as well as to help any braiders attempting to use Joy Boutrup’s monograph in braiding the full 14-loop letterbraid as a team. I myself still haven’t braided letterbraids as a team, only with my solo-braider workarounds, so details may need to be fine-tuned and worked out as you go. But my tutorial should have some useful tips.

My solo method for the 14-loop letterbraid is spelled out (text-only) in an appendix to my 7-loop Spanish braid tutorial (click on “My 14-loop solo-braider method”). It requires holding three loops on each little finger, and one loop on each of the other digits, including thumbs.

[update] I have since made a video tutorial for my solo braider method for the ten-loop so-called “Nun’s Book Letterbraid.” My method requires holding a loop on each digit, including thumbs, but doesn’t require holding more than one loop on any digit.

I make these letter braids solo by holding the loops of the left braider on all five fingers of my left hand, and the loops of the right braider on all five fingers of my right hand. For the 14-loop letterbraid, my little fingers each hold three loops. The loops perform the same ‘through’ and ‘around’ moves, in the same order, as in the traditional methods. (Though I do the two braiders’ moves sequentially, not simultaneously!) See also my “Too Many Loops” info page.

Joy Boutrup makes these letterbraids both solo and as part of a team. Her own solo-braider method for multi-loop braids is hand-held loop braiding, using loops attached to kute (handles). She does not teach this in the monograph, however.

In Braided Tunes, I show examples of an 18-loop letterbraid that I extrapolated from the 17th C. 14-loop letterbraid.

© 2013–2017 Ingrid Crickmore

See full copyright restrictions and permissions at the bottom of the sidebar (if you are on a small screen, the ‘sidebar’ may appear somewhere other than at the side). Content of this website may not be posted or “reposted” online, sold, or used in fee-based workshops without my permission. It may be shared off-line with certain restrictions – see full copyright info.

*Re the Nun’s Book: The only in-depth article I know of on the Nun’s Book is in Strands, issue 16, 2009. Strands is the yearly print journal of the Braid Society. The article is by Noémi Speiser, entitled: The Nun’s Book, 2008.67.1, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UK. The section of the Nun’s Book on braids was called something like “weaving watch strings” (!) It included many braid swatches and instructions, not just this letterbraid. Speiser’s article on it includes color photographs of pages from the original manuscript, as well as descriptions and instructions for some of the braids. No photos or info on the letterbraid, however – Speiser left that to be described by Boutrup in Part II of their collaborative 4-part work (reviewed above).
A short mini-article on the Nun’s Book is in issue 12 of LMBRIC: Initial Observations on “The Nun’s Book” by Noémi Speiser.

Info pages:
Page 1: About Loop Braiding
Page 2: A-fell, V-fell, Slentre, and hand-held loop braiding
Page 3: Too-Many-Loop Braids
Page 4: Unorthodox Braids
Page 5: Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding
Page 6: Alphabet braids of the 17th Century (this page)
Page 7: About Me
Page 8: Terminology
Page 9: L-M BRIC and the Illustrated Instruction Series – an unofficial index to Masako Kinoshita’s loop braiding site.

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