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
or wish to braid cords, belts, flower crowns, or other things, braiding
is very useful. As you can see from the pictures of medieval
have been used for adornment and utility for centuries.
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
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
The `trick' to braiding is to keep the tension on the strands evenly
This only comes with practice. In any braid, but especially in 3-strand
braids, there is also the question of overhand or underhand braiding.
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
difference, and the only time that you might care is on hair braids
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
head hair to braid.
If you have difficulty braiding hair, use pieces of yarn or rope
you master the basic patterns.
The most common form of braid is the 3-strand braid. The technique is
those new to braiding, the biggest question is: how do you hold three
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
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
of more than three strands were used in Medieval times. Some of
coiled-up braids could be multiple-strands.
Obviously, the problem of strands versus number of hands is
you need to be well-grounded in 3-strand technique in order to do a
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
do not have this problem. Keeping the tension even is the best
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
There are two main ways of conceptualizing the 4-braid; the
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.
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.
Once you are holding the hair this way, rotate your hands to the
so that the left palm is facing you and the right palm is away from
You now have two sets of identically crossed strands.
Using a complex shifting motion which you'll just have to practice
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
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
that the strands should follow as you go through this maneuver.
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,
I find it much more difficult to do on my own hair. However, you can
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
think of it as a weaving process. It is worked from the left or right
rather than symmetrically. Here is an illustration for the 4-braid and
a 5-braid from the left side.
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
exactly the same thing, including the former left-most strand (now on
right) in the weave. Repeat the process until you reach the end of the
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
option is leather thongs, although dark colored ribbons look good too.
Women can also braid their hair with beads of various sorts; for this
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
as close as possible to real beads, rather than extruded globs on
Beads that are meant to be pearls will look more realistic if they are
slightly cream-colored, rather than blue-white or iridescent white;
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
effect. Ribbons and thongs usually look best if there's just one of
Remember to keep the tension even between the hair and the ribbon!
Over The Head Version:
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
hair, go up over your head, and back down to the end of your hair on
other side. (See the drawing.)
Separate your hair into two sections; left and right. Use a bobby
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.
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
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,
can be covered by a hat.
Not Over the Top Version:
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
of ribbon twice as long as the hair you are going to braid. Tie it
with a half-knot, around the hair. Separate the hair into two sections;
begin braiding. After making about three crossovers, make sure the
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
and wind the other one counter-clockwise. Tie off.
How To Keep Braid Cases On Your Hair:
you are wearing medieval braid cases, or just want to tie off your braids
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
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.
A variant of ribbon braiding produces the Parallel Braid.
keep the hair in two tight columns, and braid the ribbon around them
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.
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
braid technique. The important point is to keep the ribbon flat and
loose. Another option for the Duchess is Italian Hair
Slubs in your hair:
if you are new to putting your hair up, or if you are putting it up
on your head than usual, there may be little "loopy sticky up bits,"
or cow-licks (call them what you will) that interrupt the smooth
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
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
Gently pass the hairstick backwards over the slub; the top hair will be
smoothed over the slub and hide it.
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
free? If they will be in sight, you should remember that the free end
a braid is basically an ornamental tassel--it's part of the whole
As such, my advice is to leave 1-3 unbraided inches at the end of a
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.
highly recommend the information from the Museum of London series on
finds from excavations in London. These are actual medieval items that
have been found using braiding. I am not copying them into this
document as I wish to respect their copyright. However, they are
very interesting items, including false hair braids attached to a
circlet, a metal wound-wire circlet and text on how to do finger
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
pictures, I'd love to get a photocopy of the picture, and then I can
Sappho, here, is wearing some kind of braided buns over her ears and under her padded roll hat.
If you're interested in historical
braids or research,
feel free to drop me a note. Email Author with