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Upbraid Yourself and Others: The Basics of Braiding

Notes on Medieval Braiding Techniques

copyright © Cynthia Virtue

aka Cynthia du Pré Argent

I hardly need detail the uses of braids! Whether want to braid long hair, or wish to braid cords, belts, flower crowns, or other things, braiding is very useful. As you can see from the pictures of medieval illustrations, braids have been used for adornment and utility for centuries.

Be sure to look up resources for "finger loop braiding" if you want ornamental non-hair braids.  It is an unusual yet very medieval decorative braid method.

I have not found any good pictures of men wearing braids, but I understand that there were cultures during our period where this was not unknown. At any rate, in the modern world, it's very useful for men, as well as women, to braid their hair; not only does it keep the hair out of food and fires, but it cuts down on tangles while sleeping. And it looks good!

Basic Braiding


The `trick' to braiding is to keep the tension on the strands evenly balanced. This only comes with practice. In any braid, but especially in 3-strand braids, there is also the question of overhand or underhand braiding. The only difference between the two is: do your new or active strands cross over the braid above or below the line of the braid? There is not a functional difference, and the only time that you might care is on hair braids that won't be covered by anything else; an overhand braid will look a little more elegant than an underhand braid, because of the transition from smooth head hair to braid.

If you have difficulty braiding hair, use pieces of yarn or rope until you master the basic patterns. 


Three-Strand Braid:

The most common form of braid is the 3-strand braid. The technique is diagrammed below.

For those new to braiding, the biggest question is: how do you hold three strands with only two hands? The answer is that you hold two of the strands in one hand and one strand in the other. As you braid, the `extra' strand is passed between the hands. It's hard to describe in text;  have a friend demonstrate. See the hand illustration in the 4-braid section, also.

Four-Strand and Multiple-Strand Braids:

Four-strand braids (4-braids for short) are an advanced version of the basic braiding technique. Itis not clear if hair braids of more than three strands were used in Medieval times.  Some of the coiled-up braids could be multiple-strands.

Obviously, the problem of strands versus number of hands is increased; you need to be well-grounded in 3-strand technique in order to do a good 4-braid in hair. In addition, 4-braids have a tendency to rotate/twist along their center axis like macrame. It seems as if odd-numbered strands do not have this problem. Keeping the tension even is the best solution--but a twisted 4-braid is also a cool thing! 4-Braid (or more) is also very useful for making bread; it produces a fancy loaf with minimal effort.
4 strand diagram

There are two main ways of conceptualizing the 4-braid; the twist-and-cross method, and the weaving method. Twist-and-cross is the easiest version to use on your own hair. The other is the easiest to start learning. Both produce similar results.


I have diagrammed my suggestion of how to start off the twist-and-cross 4-braid; each hand holding two strands of hair. The left hand should be palm away from you; the right hand's palm should face you.

Ursula asleep with braided hair 1495

Once you are holding the hair this way, rotate your hands to the left so that the left palm is facing you and the right palm is away from you. You now have two sets of identically crossed strands.

Using a complex shifting motion which you'll just have to practice to get correct, cross the strand that is now second from the left OVER the strand that is second from the right. After that, shift your hands so that they are holding the strands in the same palm down, palm up position as at the start. Repeat from above. The diagram without hands shows the pattern that the strands should follow as you go through this maneuver.

4 strand technique

The mnemonic for this process is TWIST (rotate hands left) and CROSS (Cross center left strand over center right strand.) Memorize this and just repeat "Twist and Cross, Twist and Cross..." as you braid, and you should do fine.

Weaving version for 4-braid or multiple-braids:

The "weaving method" of achieving the same end is easier to explain, but I find it much more difficult to do on my own hair. However, you can use it on other people, or non-hair braids, and you can use it to do braids of 4, 5, 6 or more strands. Instead of all this twist-and-cross business, think of it as a weaving process. It is worked from the left or right side, rather than symmetrically. Here is an illustration for the 4-braid and a 5-braid from the left side.

multiple strands

Take the left strand and weave it over and under and over the other four strands. Even out the tension. Take the new left-most strand and do exactly the same thing, including the former left-most strand (now on the right) in the weave. Repeat the process until you reach the end of the hair.

Braiding Things Into Your Hair

Once you've got the basic braid forms down, one of the fun variants is to braid your hair with strands of other stuff. For men, your best `manly' option is leather thongs, although dark colored ribbons look good too. Women can also braid their hair with beads of various sorts; for this purpose, I find the `pearls' sold as "pearls by the yard" are most useful. Make sure that the beads on anything you braid into your hair for historical use look as close as possible to real beads, rather than extruded globs on string. Beads that are meant to be pearls will look more realistic if they are slightly cream-colored, rather than blue-white or iridescent white; other bead colors, such as gold, silver, or black, also work well.  Thrift store necklacess are a good source for beads.

The best results are obtained by treating the new material as if it were one strand of your braid; in a three-strand braid, this would mean two strands of hair and one of ribbon or pearls. If you're using pearls, you can use a single strand of pearls, or you can use several strands to get a thicker effect. Ribbons and thongs usually look best if there's just one of them. Remember to keep the tension even between the hair and the ribbon!
 Dutchess of Urbino - larger version with readable commentary on clickthrough

Over The Head Version:

over the headThe easiest way to braid a ribbon into your hair for two braids, such as to go under a hat: Measure a length of ribbon that is as long as your hair--start at one end of your loose-hanging hair, go up over your head, and back down to the end of your hair on the other side. (See the drawing.)

Separate your hair into two sections; left and right. Use a bobby pin to anchor the ribbon at the top of your head so that one end hangs down on the left, and one end hangs down on the right. Start braiding on one side, using the ribbon as one strand and the hair as the other two. When the first side is finished, braid the other side.

To finish, wrap the extra ribbon around the bottom of the braid and tie it off. If you would like more security, use an elastic and then cover the elastic with extra ribbon. This style will result in two braids and a ribbon that goes over the top of your head, which looks kinda nice, or can be covered by a hat.

Not Over the Top Version:

ponytail versionFor single braids, or braids without the ribbon going over the top of your head, you can start the braid in the following manner. This is also the easiest way to make a braid and tie it off without elastics. Take a length of ribbon twice as long as the hair you are going to braid. Tie it snugly, with a half-knot, around the hair. Separate the hair into two sections; begin braiding. After making about three crossovers, make sure the ribbon is still tied fairly tightly at the top. Continue braiding to where you want to stop. Wind one of the two ends of ribbon clockwise around the braid, and wind the other one counter-clockwise. Tie off.

How To Keep Braid Cases On Your Hair:

braid casesIf you are wearing medieval braid cases, or just want to tie off your braids without elastic, thread a piece of ribbon straight through the finished braid. Crisscross the ribbon down the braid for about 3" or more (or over the outside of the braid casing), and finish by wrapping the ends in opposite directions around the braid and tying it off.  Some people think that braid cases are a bit dubious from a solid history point of view; do a hunt for articles if you're interested in the issue.

Parallel Braid:

 A variant of ribbon braiding produces the Parallel Braid. 

If you keep the hair in two tight columns, and braid the ribbon around them (in a figure 8 pattern), you get a very interesting braid. It is my belief that this was used in some of the Italian hair dressing styles. parallel braid Here is an illustration of how the braid in process will look; I won't diagram the process, as it is fairly easy once you have the basic 3-strand braid technique. The important point is to keep the ribbon flat and loose.  Another option for the Duchess is Italian Hair Taping.

Style Points:

Slubs in your hair:

Slubs!Particularly if you are new to putting your hair up, or if you are putting it up higher on your head than usual, there may be little "loopy sticky up bits," slubs or cow-licks (call them what you will) that interrupt the smooth surface of the hair before it gets to the braid. Sometimes these won't go away, no matter how much you comb the hair. In this case, you can hide them by using a tool such as a pencil or a hairstick. Slide the hairstick into your hair, tangential to your head, an inch or two in front of the slub. Gently pass the hairstick backwards over the slub; the top hair will be smoothed over the slub and hide it.

Braid Ends:

1445 Detail of the Patrons of Cologne, Lochner When you're braiding, you should think about the final effect you wish to achieve; will the ends be tucked up out of sight, or will they be hanging free? If they will be in sight, you should remember that the free end of a braid is basically an ornamental tassel--it's part of the whole effect. As such, my advice is to leave 1-3 unbraided inches at the end of a braid. Not only does it look nicer, but it also makes it far less likely that the ties will slip off the end. If your hair is healthy (as much as an unliving thing can be healthy!) the ends will all end up at mostly the same length, further contributing to the effect of a luxurious tassel.

Final notes:

I highly recommend the information from the Museum of London series on archeological finds from excavations in London. These are actual medieval items that have been found using braiding.  I am not copying them into this web document as I wish to respect their copyright.  However, they are very interesting items, including false hair braids attached to a ribbon circlet, a metal wound-wire circlet and text on  how to do finger loop braiding.

I have not covered any of the French Braid variants here, because I have not encountered any period pictures of braids that look as if they are of the French braid type. If you have seen French braids in medieval pictures, I'd love to get a photocopy of the picture, and then I can teach it around!


Sappho, here, is wearing some kind of braided buns over her ears and under her padded roll hat.
  Sappho playing a stringed instrument
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