Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding

Noémi Speiser is the author of two classic braiding references:
Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, 2000. Self-published [Now out of print, unfortunately.], and The Manual of Braiding, 1991. Self-published [was out of print, has now apparently been reprinted by a Swiss publishing house!]

See end of page for a description of Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup’s later 4-part follow-up to Old English Pattern Books: European Loop Braiding – parts I, II, III, and IV, in which they describe and analyze a huge variety of loop braided artifacts dating from as far back as the 10th C. up to the 20th C. (note: terminology and concepts covered in OEPB are not defined in detail in these monographs, since they were written as companions to Speiser’s earlier work.)

Speiser also wrote a short, introductory how-to on loop braiding:  Loop Manipulation Braiding Basic Instructions, 2002published by Jennie Parry, and also out-of-print. It may have only contained instructions for one braid (?)the 5-loop square braid done with the European A-fell method, which is taught in many other places, including on fingerloop.org

The Manual of Braiding is the textile world’s ultimate reference, as well as manual, on braiding. It fills in the many “holes” about braided structures that exist in Irene Emory’s “Primary Structures of Fabrics.”  (As Speiser herself points out!)

It covers every known textile braiding technique in the world, plus several “braiding-like” techniquesa totally incredible variety. Beyond the structural analyses, she also gives hands-on suggestions for creating these. I’m sure most textile libraries and guilds have a copy, though it is somewhat obscure because of being self-published.

The book isn’t impressive-looking – it’s a large, thick, spiral-bound paperback with no color pictures, though plenty of very clear drawings and diagrams, and an extensive section of black and white photographs. [Update: the reprint is hardback with an attractive cover, not spiral bound]

However, the scope of what this book covers on braiding is amazing! If you are mainly interested in a single topic, say ply-split braiding, you can probably find more detailed single-topic books on it. On the other hand, many of the braids and techniques covered, along with their ethnographic references, are ones I haven’t seen anywhere else – and I’ve been on the lookout for references to braiding techniques for more than 15 years. Tons of fascinating and very useful information and ideas.  This book is very dense and very fun browsing for any textile geek.

The Manual does include a large section on loop braiding, but if your main braiding interest is loop braiding, I highly recommend Speiser’s Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding. It has much more detailed braiding instructions for many more loop braids, covers both the 15th and 17th C. loop braiding manuscripts, and is more relaxed and readable than the concentrated loop braiding section of The Manual of Braiding.

Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding is the most complete reference book available on loop braiding, as well as a very interesting account of Speiser’s research into loop braiding. It includes instructions for all the braids in the (then known) 15th and 17th Century European manuscripts on loop braidingwith the exception of the “letterbraids”  which have since been decoded by Speiser’s student Joy Boutrup.  Many or most of these are braids that require more than one braider working together to make them, but there are plenty of single-braider braids as well.
(At least two old manuscripts with loop braiding instructions have come to light since OEPBforLB was published: The Nun’s Book [17th C.], and Natura Exenterata  a.k.a. the Serene document [from stylistic and historical analysis, this is apparently a 17th C. handwritten copy of a 15th C. original], as well as some documentation in German.)

Like the Manual of Braiding, OEPBforLB is a large-format, self-published, spiral-bound paperback with black-and-white illustrations that include many diagrams and drawings. No eye-candy, but a lot of buried treasure. At the time Speiser published these, it was prohibitively expensive to self-publish with color photos.  A black and white drawing or diagram can give very clear structural details about a braid, but it can’t convey how beautiful it is, so unfortunately the reader might have less incentive to try it.

The more abstract sections on braid theory and structure are great resources but not light reading, however the braiding instructions themselves start from the most basic, beginning level and are written succinctly and clearly, and illustrated with very clear black and white line drawings.

Track plans: Don’t be scared off by Speiser’s “track-plan” diagrams above each of the instructions! They aren’t necessary at all for following the braiding instructions. They may become interesting later, however, if you get curious about the structure of these braids, and how that structure relates to the braiding moves. This charting system may be the only braid notation system that accurately represents the 3-D structure of braids made in two or more layers – though it can also be used to represent single-layer braids (more on my info page about track-plans.)

OEPB is also a textile mystery-story – a saga of how Speiser noticed both the old braids, as well as the obscure manuscripts that turned out to be describing them, in separate museums and private collections, and managed to put them together – deciphering the manuscripts, and figuring out the braid structures they described. This wasn’t easy! The 17th C. loop braiding manuscripts were the first ones she came across, and they were written with almost impenetrable terminology, and with most of the necessary background information completely omitted – apparently considered obvious by the writers.

The 15th C. loop braiding manuscripts, which Speiser investigated later, were much easier to understand, and confirmed most of her earlier interpretations.

Most of OEPBinstructions, historical info etcis very  readable, and even funny at times. It has a more personal ‘voice’ than The Manual of Braiding, which is like an encyclopedia on braiding condensed into one book, so is understandably drier and more concise.

If the more abstract and technical chapters in OEPB seem too dense, just skip them and go back to them later. This book has plenty for anybody who’s really interested in loop braiding, and it will keep having plenty. There’s always more to find out from it.

Note: My copy came with an errata sheet inserted that corrected some minor and some important errors in the text. If you get a used copy that does not contain this errata sheet, contact me. (my contact info is under “About” in my header menu)

My few criticisms:
Speiser’s numbering system for the chapters and illustrations is very complicatedit always takes me a while to process her combination of Roman, Arabic, and alphabet symbols.

There’s no index. Often I have tried to go back and find something that I know I read somewhere in the book and have ended up having to leaf through much of the book to find it. For example, the individual braids of the old manuscripts are not listed by name in the table of contents, so if you want to locate the instructions for, say “the hollow lace of 7 bowes” you are not likely to find them quickly and easily.

As someone who frequently cites this book in writing, I have to complain that the title is too long!  To me, Old English Loop Braiding Books, or maybe Loop Braiding Deciphered would be more descriptive, and easier to cite.

The sequels:
These were published as four separate stand-alone monographs, to be purchased separately.

European Loop Braiding: Investigations and Results–Parts I, II, III, IV, by Noémi Speiser and Joy Boutrup, published and edited by Jennie Parry, 2009-2011

These four volumes (magazine-style with firm paper covers, not books) are supplements to Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, with new historical research and discoveries. Joy Boutrup, a student and colleague of Noémi Speiser, did much of the research and writing, in collaboration with Speiser. Periodical/magazine-format publications, A-4 size, with color illustrations. [Note: loop braiding methods, structures, and vocabulary previously covered in OEPBforLB are not explained in these supplements; they are assumed as prior knowledge.]

Available together or separately from BraidersHand in the U.S. In the U.K. they may (?) be available from the publisher (Jennie Parry). These are just the sources I know of, they may be carried elsewhere as well.

These monographs delve into European loop braiding history stretching back several centuries before and after the 15th C. manuscripts. They are based largely on the authors’ research of actual braided artifacts in museum, ecclesiastical, state, and private collections. One of the oldest complete purses with loop braided handles they examined is a gorgeous example from the late 900’s, shown in Volume IV. A few other examples of complex multiple-braider braids have been found dating back to around the 11th C. Narrow textiles rarely survive that long, so it’s very likely that European loop braiding had its start long before that, especially considering the complexity of some of the earliest known examples.

Interestingly, Scandinavia seems to have been a hotbed of loop braiding both early and late, with complex, archaic 3-person braids still being made there as recently as the 1930’s.

[Outside the purview of this series, there is evidence of loop braiding in China from up to two or more thousand years B.C., and I’m guessing that loop braiding may have an equally long history in Europe, though actual braids don’t last that long in the archeological record. Some of the oldest Chinese evidence is from microscopic rust-tracings of long-since disintegrated braids found on armor in ancient tombs. (cf. Mari Omura, “Archaic Braiding Techniques” in Threads that Move, proceedings of the international Braids 2012 conference)]

These monographs were  written as supplements to Old English Pattern Books, so they don’t define any terms or cover information already covered there. This is a ‘stopper’ if you really want to understand the content, and don’t have access to OEPB. The technical bits will only be comprehensible if you are familiar with the earlier book. Unlike OEPB, these monographs do have full-color “eye-candy” photographs, several full pages of them. They are not instruction books, however the authors describe braids clearly and completely, so many of the ones they describe are learnable if you have already learned the braids and terminology in Old English Pattern Books for Loop braiding, and the unorthodox exchange of Vol. I (and have a partner or two to braid with!).

Part I: Orthodox and unorthodox exchanging of loops in co-operation
Much historical information about very early multiple-worker European loop braids, extending back centuries before the earliest known manuscripts. The focus is on a peculiar and unorthodox method for two cooperating braiders to exchange their loops in linking their work together, which results in a visible groove/ pattern anomaly down the center of the braid. This method apparently was very common throughout European loop braiding history, yet in the known 15th C manuscripts it was completely omitted (perhaps purposely, the authors suggest!). I wrote more about Parts I and II in a review for the Braid Society newsletter, since reprinted in Issue 13 of LMBRIC (scroll partway down that page to find the review).

Part II: Instructions for Letter Braids in 17th Century Manuscripts
See my info page about this monograph17th C alphabet braids.

Part III: Loop Braiding in Swedish Bridgettine Tradition
The Bridgettine Convent in Vadstena, Sweden was instituted in 1384. A small group of nuns were in charge of the textiles of the convent church. About 40 liturgical textiles have been preserved, several with associated loop braids. Great photos of these!

Part IV: Track Plans as a Tool for Analysis; and Applications of Loop-Manipulation Braids
Opening section is on Speiser’s “track-plan” system for analyzing loop braids, with several examples. Truthfully, I don’t know that this explanation will make the system any clearer if you haven’t already grasped it from Speiser’s earlier books. But it does present several examples.

Then follow several analyses and beautiful photos of extant loop braids and objects incorporating loop braids from various European museums and collections. Fascinating, especially since some of the braids have structures that were not recorded in any of the known loop braiding manuscripts. There are no step-by-step instructions for these. However, many of their methods are clear from the descriptions, as long as you are familiar with the terminology and braids in OEPBforLB, the mysterious “unorthodox exchange” discussed in Volume I, and have a partner (or two) to braid with.

More highlights from Part IV: This volume has a lot of wonderful nuggets of ideas and information, such as: A detailed comparison of various ingenious historic patterns / methods for forming braided purse-strings (historic re-creators should love this!); an explanation of how two workers can braid around a pre-existing core consisting of a cord or string – from instructions in the old manuscripts – think loop-braided paracord!  [This technique can be extrapolated easily to a single braider, in fact even a simple 5-loop square braid can be braided around a flexible core! – someday I might make a tutorial on this]; an analysis (finally!) of what I call the Triangle braid: the V-fell version of the common 5-loop unorthodox braid known as the Broad Lace of V bowes in the old loop braiding manuscripts. The V-fell version is very interesting because even though it has the same exact structure/ over-under “architecture” as its more well-known A-fell counterpart, it turns out with a completely different shape and appearance. (I ramble on about this in The Mystery of the Broad Lace’s Sisters)

Last updated Dec 24, 2022

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