17th Century Letter Braids

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.

All three letterbraids require each braider to perform four main braiding moves, compared to the two main braiding moves of the more common square (or round) loop braid. This type of braid was called “Spanish” in the 17th C. English loop braiding manuscripts.

The 17th C. instructions for 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 braiding moves themselves were not described, or described only very generally (‘do the spanish braid, but without the private stitch’ for example).

The other letterbraid that Speiser found 17th C. “instructions” for had no charts, the pick-up moves for making the lettershapes were 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), subsequently came to light in a manuscript now known as the Nun’s Book*, well 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 Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, 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! When I first dove in, I was initially a little discouraged, but luckily it turned out that it wasn’t necessary to understand all the technical details 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 Boutrup’s charts for the 14-loop letterbraid’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 pattern-charts, though. What is completely new is her understanding of which fingers the various columns in the charts 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 pattern charts for the second one (the Nun’s Book letterbraid), and created 2 alternative sets of pattern charts for the first one – the so-called “Verbal Letterbraid.” The original pick-up instructions for its various letter-shapes had been in text only – incomprehensible jargon, for the most part – with no charts.

The Verbal letterbraid was the first of the two 10-loop letterbraids that Joy Boutrup analyzed, and its original obscurely-worded instructions contained a truly mind-boggling red herring! The given lettershapes (as taught) can be produced only if a very odd “mistake move” (as I see it, anyway) is included with each row of braiding. Luckily, this weird move was actually described, though very unclearly, in one of the manuscripts. Not only is the description hard to decipher, but – if you are used to braiding two-layer loop braids – the move itself is so obviously wrong you would never guess that was what the writer really meant. However, a few steps after making this “mistake” move, the mistake is then undone by a subsequent braiding move.

The braid itself, without any letters, can easily be made without doing this peculiar “mistake”, but the given pick-up instructions for making the lettershapes do not come out correctly without this otherwise unnecessary “mistake and correction” in each row of braiding moves! Joy somehow managed to figure out this odd “mistake” move, as well as the nearly-incomprehensible pick-up instructions for each lettershape. She didn’t stop there – she also created two complete sets of easy-to-follow pattern charts for the lengthy text-only pick-up instructions – one set for the braid as it was originally made with the “mistake and correction” moves, and a second, alternative set of pattern charts for making the same exact braid and lettershapes, but without the “mistake” move and its subsequent correction. Because of all her work, we now not only can make the braid, but even have two optional ways to make it – the original method, and a more efficient one, each with its own letter-charts. (I gratefully opt for the second method!)

The next ten-loop letterbraid that Boutrup analyzed – the Nun’s Book letterbraid – had no accompanying braiding instructions in the original manuscript, just enigmatic charts of the pick-up moves for each lettershape with no understandable labels to the columns to explain which loops or fingers they represented, etc. (Letterbraid charts are charts of the pick-up moves, they don’t actually look like the finished lettershapes.)

In this case Boutrup had to deduce or infer the braiding method with no instructions to go by, solely by guessing which fingers the columns referred to, and then finding an order-of-operations for a 10-loop plain-weave braid that would result in comprehensible letter-shapes when following the given pick-up charts. She came up with two possible braiding methods for producing the letter-shapes! One is easier to learn, the other is faster to braid, so they are great options.

But even though she had less information to start with, I would guess that the Nun’s Book letterbraid might have been less of a headache for her to figure out than the Verbal letterbraid, since at least its charts weren’t dependent on a mistake being incorporated into the braiding!

[Update: I now have a tutorial here on this blog teaching how to make the Nun’s Book letterbraid as a solo braider, holding five loops on each hand. Joy Boutrup’s monograph is still the only source for the pattern charts for all the 17th C. original lettershapes, though – my tutorial only provides charts for the 3 “Nun’s letterbraid” lettershapes that I designed myself (for the letters J, U, and Q.)]

Update: Gary Mitchell – with Joy Boutrup’s permission – has posted the pick-up charts for all the Nun’s Book letters of the alphabet on his FingerTips site! They are available here (link will open in separate tab). The print publication has more info, however, including an errata list.

Update 2: For more about complementary pick-up patterning in loop braiding, see my in-progress series of posts and tutorials – go to my upper menu and click on the Pick-up tab.

Learning how to braid the letterbraids:
Caveat: Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th C. Manuscripts is not a set of instructions itself. It’s a scholarly monograph about three sets of instructions found in 17th C. manuscripts, and how Joy Boutrup deciphered them and reconstructed the braiding techniques. Joy Boutrup told me that she and Noémi Speiser expected the monograph to be more of interest to textile museums and historians, than to textile artists/ craftspeople.

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 saga of deciphering and resurrecting these 17th C. techniques from the most minimal and confusing clues. Unlike OEPBforLB, this and the other three supplements in this series all have large color photographs of historical braid artifacts (and in this case, of Joy Boutrup’s reconstructions).

It has succinct, text-only braiding instructions in appendices in the back, along with the patterning charts. The instructions briefly outline the braiding moves of one of the two braiders of a team. They don’t explain how to follow the pick-up pattern charts for the letters – that is covered in the main body of the publication.

The instructions don’t explain how the two braiders combine their two halves into one braid – the “loop exchange move” that must be done in each row of braiding. That’s because team braiding techniques are covered in Noémi Speiser’s 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 from the earlier book.

For those reasons, it wouldn’t be easy to learn how to make letterbraids from the ground up using this monograph alone. It would help if you already have experience in loop braiding as a team, as described in the old English loop braiding manuscripts. However, for the Nun’s Letterbraid, if you’ve learned my solo-braider method, you’ll be able to use that method, along with the Nun’s Book charts to make the rest of the letters.

For the 14-loop letterbraid: if you and a braiding partner follow my 7-loop Spanish braid video-tutorial; and learn and practiced how to loop braid as part of a team of braiders, and have reviewed my video tutorial for following a letter chart in making the Nun’s Book letterbraid as a solo braider, Joy Boutrup’s instructions and charts should be much easier to follow.

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.

The way I braid the 14-loop letterbraid is spelled out (text-only) in an appendix to my 7-loop Spanish braid tutorial (click on “14-loop solo-braider method”). I hold three loops on each little finger, and one loop on each of the other fingers, including thumbs.

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.

*Re the Nun’s Book: The braiding instructions in the Nun’s book were titled “Directions for Weaving Watch Strings”(!) It includes instructions for over 40 braids, and has over 30 braid swatches. Other than the Speiser/Boutrup publication I describe above, I only know of two other articles on the Nun’s Book: one is an in-depth article with color photographs about all the other braids in the Nun’s Book, including instructions for some of them (Noémi Speiser purposely excluded the Nun’s book letterbraid from this article, as it would be covered in detail in her and Joy Boutrup’s soon-to-be-published 4-part European Loop Braiding collaboration).

The article is entitled: The Nun’s Book, 2008.67.1, Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford, UK, published in Strands, issue 16, 2009. Strands is the yearly (print) journal of the Braid Society.

There is also a short on-line mini-article (no photos) about the Nun’s Book in issue 12 of L-MBRIC: Initial Observations on “The Nun’s Book” by Noémi Speiser.
[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”.]
I was able to find a couple of other more recent references to the Nun’s Book: here, and here.]

Last updated July 21, 2020
© 2013–2020 Ingrid Crickmore

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