The word “braid” has many different meanings that change over time and between social groups. For example, a braided fabric once meant material that had faded, but this definition is obsolete now. In the United States, the common use of the word “braid” would be called a plait in the United Kingdom. With global communication becoming commonplace, the problem of terminology increases in importance, as agreed definitions create a common understanding of terms.

International authorities still differ in their opinions. In The Manual of Braiding, Noemi Speiser defines “braiding” as “interworking a set of elements by crossing, interlacing, interlinking, twining, intertwining” (p. 146). On the other hand, Irene Emery in The Primary Structure of Fabrics sees braiding only as oblique interlacing (p. 68). This leaves a problem of classifying such braid techniques as card weaving, making inkles, cords, knotting, knitting, or lucet work. All these techniques as well as structures made using stand and bobbin equipment, free-end braiding, ply-split, and loop manipulated pieces are part of the costume world, though only some would be defined strictly as “braids.”

Some of these techniques used to be domestic skills while others were more specialized methods, made in workshops after long training. In the domestic range come lucet work and loop-manipulated braids. Loop manipulation has a very long history and can be simple as the braids used as ties for clothing or to assemble samurai armor, or it can be very complex and decorative. We know from seventeenth-century household pattern books that these braids were in common use for all manner of things from purse strings to ties for clothing, and by the end of the eighteenth century a lucet was a common tool in most households, making ties for stays and other lacings. Reference has been found in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to the inkle loom, which was developed for the making of garters, sashes, and other necessary ties.

While not always considered braiding, card weaving, which dates far back into European history, is a weaving technique in which the warp threads, running the length of the work, are held by cards with holes at the corners. The textile is made by turning the cards to change the shed, the space between the warp threads, for the insertion of the weft, the threads running across the piece. It makes highly complex and decorative wares that have been found on early garments worn by the nobility and senior clerics. A medieval tomb opened during the restoration of York Minster contained card-woven edgings on vestments. Older pieces have been found in excavations in Verucchio, Italy, where they were used as edging for cloaks. Some of these were used as the starting edge of the garment while others were skillfully woven using the ends of the cloak warp as the weft to incorporate the edging into the garment.

Pieces made on stands with the threads on bobbins are chiefly associated with countries in the Middle and Far East, although they are not unknown in Europe. In Japan, braids made on equipment such as the circular warp loom, or marudai, were used as braids for ties (obijime) worn with kimonos. In Europe, a method for making a braid using bobbins is described by Lady Bindloss in the seventeenth century while Diderot’s Encyclopedia of Trades and Industry, first published in 1751, illustrates two types of stand and bobbin equipment. In the early 2000s, the main use is in Sweden where the craft of hair braiding continues in the making of jewelry, and in many places, in the use of equipment to make decorative pieces traditionally associated with Japan. A technique such as free-end braiding, where the work is attached to a fixed point at one end and then worked in the hand, is still in use. Notable among these are the Dida skirts made from many hundreds of threads, attached to the worker’s toe and then braided in the weaver’s hands into a tubular garment.

Braids have been used for ties such as stay lacing, shoelaces, and points; to secure clothing as braces, belts, and garters; for ceremonial pieces and those with specific meanings such as military braids, and for decoration as in the Miao silk work from China and Khajuja work from the Middle East, while in Peru very old and varied patterns are used to make slings. North American First Nations produced long, wide sashes and belts, often with beads and cross-fertilized with European techniques and ideas. Braids are still being used for some of these things; although in the early twenty-first century, braids for costumes in the Western world are either mass produced or made as individual pieces by skilled makers. Ply-split, a technique originally used mainly, but not exclusively, for animal regalia in India, is being developed for highly decorative accessories, such as belts and bags, for neck pieces, bracelets, and even whole garments. There are also many developments in making jewelry pieces on stand and bobbin equipment.


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