Laces, Braids & Cords
The humble ‘string’ has long been used to close openings, connect garments and generally fasten things together. Where a single length of string may well work, over time a huge variety of methods have been developed that not only add strength but also colour and decoration to a string. Some methods are more suited to a particular purpose or time frame than others, and this article will discuss some of these.
One of the earliest terms for these fastening string has been the word ‘lace’. It is where we get our shoelaces from, and why we lace a corset. These early uses meant that the laces usually needed to be strong, which is why they are rarely only one length of thread. When specifically used for clothing and armour the term ‘points’ is also common.
However, many of these strings are not confined to being used as ties. They could be couched onto garments for decorative trimmings, flatter versions could be used as garters, belts, and other smaller straps, they could be used to hand tassels, make bookmarkers, even hang a pendant from (the neck ‘lace’).
Most plaits and braids are created by a working repetitive moves - usually first in one direction, then in the other. The key is to break down the moves and to try not to become overwhelmed by what may appear to be a complex process.
You will need a ‘fixed point’ - someplace to attach your elements as you work. Where possible, measure each ‘end’ to the same length - this can be achieved more easily by using a warping process - that is winding the chosen thread between two fixed points, spaced as far apart as required for your chosen technique. Long plaited braids can benefit from using bobbins to hold the excess thread while you work, but are not necessary.
Threads to use will depend on many factors, not least the detail that you are trying to achieve. Wool and silk are the most obvious choices, and different weights and types will result in very different looking plaits, braids and cords.
One of the simplest ways of creating a multi element lace is to simply plait. Yes, the three strand hair plait that most of us learnt as children is the perfect way to create a neat and strong string, with the added benefit that three colours can be used if required. Many people overlook this simple plait, thinking that it is too plain for most costume uses, yet it is worth remembering that an image of Saint George in the Trinity Altarpiece by Hugo van der Goes shows his armour secured with a three colour, three strand plait. Simple, effective and colourful, and good enough for a Saint!
There are other forms of plaiting that have been uncovered in digs using 4, 5, 6 and eight strands. Plaited braids can be tubular - useful when needed as drawstrings or similar - or flat - which can be used as belts or garters amongst other things.
It will probably be helpful here to include some basic terminology. An ‘end’ is a length of thread (occasionally referred to as a ‘ply’), while an element is the section of a braid or cord. So, the plait discussed above is a three element plait, but that element itself could be made up of say, four ends in each - which would be analysed as having 12 ends in total. (4 ends x 3 elements = 12 ends). Adding extra ends to each element will help to thicken any plait, braid or cord.
A warp is a group of threads of the same length. You can of course use a rule to measure out individual lengths, but this is not practical when working with longer lengths or lots of threads, for instance when you wish to make twisted cords. One of the easiest ways to get matching lengths is to wind your thread between two fixed points.
Use the following formula as a general measuring guide for plaited braids: required finished length x 1.5 = length of elements
Spun (Twisted) cord
Use the following formula as a measuring guide: required finished length x 3 = length of elements
Twisting many ends together to create a thicker cord is the basis of all thread spinning, and can create a very strong and decorate thread. However, twisted cord doesn’t stand up to being tied and untied frequently as well as other methods, so is not ideal to use as clothing points and as such tends to survive as purse drawstrings and couched decorative elements on embroideries and other trims, and as hanging loops for tassels. It is a good technique to learn however, as it can also be utilised to create more period accurate thread weights to then use in plaiting and braiding, and is invaluable for clothing trim.
The key to understanding spun or twisted cords is to understand the direction of twist. The cords will only stay together if each time the elements are combined they are twisted in the opposite as they were previously. Measure your warp group of threads. Each group is an element. Try to have an even number of threads in each group - that way the group will have a loop at one end without the need for knots. The individual threads in each element group are called ends.
Attach one end of the group of threads to a fixed point. Put a dowel into the loop and twist. Twisting towards the right - clockwise - will give an 'S' twist This is because the threads go around in the same direction as the centre line of the letter s Twisting towards the left - anticlockwise - will change the direction of the threads to a Z twist - going in the same direction as the centre line of that letter.
Secure both groups of threads to a fixed point Using a dowel, twist the first group of threads together in a clockwise direction. Ensure that the threads are held taut as you twist. Twist together tightly until the threads slightly kink onto themselves when relaxed. Keeping the group taut, tape the end securely to your work surface Now, twist the second group of threads together - again in a clockwise direction. Take both twisted groups of thread and now twist them together in an anticlockwise direction. Ensure that the groups are held taut as you twist. Twist together tightly. Secure the ends together - a piece of tape wrapped tightly around the ends is a fast way of doing this remove the dowels, and release the cord Any excess twist will now spin out.
The lucet is a two pronged tool which has a very hazy origin. It is generally thought that it is a Viking tool, as many two pronged items have been uncovered in early excavations and named as lucets, though there are no known examples of the strings made by this method in any early periods. The dates of these finds seem to wane in the late 12th or early 13th centuries, with later items dating to the Georgian & Victorian periods. The Oxford English dictionary states the earliest written use of the word is about 1650 as a ‘lady’s lace loom’. Visually, the lucet cord resembles both an eight strand plait and a five loop fingerloop braid. Because of this, it is just possible that extant braids that are encased in tassels or aiglets may well be made using a lucet. However, the lucet cord is not actually as strong as it seems. Ultimately it is still made of only one end of thread, (with the exception of modern variations), and can be broken more easily than the other two. For anyone looking for an ‘authentic’ method of lace making prior to the late seventeenth century, I would recommend steering clear of the lucet - unless the ends of the lace will be fully hidden. (image of three types for comparison)
Trollen or wheel disc braiding is another method often used to create really quite lovely strings. It is also a technique which has no evidence of being in use in Europe until about the eighteenth century. The whole theory seems to have come about by a find in Scandinavia of a notched disc, which, researchers came up with ideas of how it may have been used, and turned to the Japanese method of braiding as a theory. It turns out that the disc in question was a navigational aid, and no other similar item has been found, nor, to my knowledge, has any extant braid using this method. It is another technique best avoided for period costume.
Fingerloop braiding was perhaps one of the most ‘popular’ ways to create a variety of different strings. manuscripts survive which give ‘recipes’ or a whole range of braids, these date from the fifteenth and seventeenth centuries and include braids worked with two or more people. and finds of fingerloop braids are earlier. The resulting braids are strong, as they are made up of many elements, and decorative. There are limitations however, to the length that one person can create on their own - the tension in the braid is achieved by spreading the arms, so unless someone is available to help, the length is restricted. As the name implies, the braids are worked using loops. These loops are held on the end of the fingers, and moved from one finger to another in a set pattern to create the design. With practice, the simple designs can be worked up very quickly, and is perhaps one of the reasons so many extant pieces are found.
Tablet weaving can be used to create very very strong woven cords. Both flat bands - in other words ribbons, and tubular weaves are seen. However, if you are familiar with tablet weaving, the tablets are turned, and the weft passed through. Instead of going back and forth as would be normal, the weft always enters the shed at the same side, and is pulled to cause the warp threads to close up as a circle. It seems to have been more common during the medieval period to use tablets threaded through two holes. Strings made in this way have been found as drawstrings, rosary cords, and seal tags.
Likewise, plain weaving - sometimes known as inkle weaving, because of the type of loom often used, is perfect for flat ribbon weaving. Using flat ribbons as points becomes more common during the Elizabethan period, and using a loom to weave these produces a fine and very flexible ribbon. Again, this is a more specialist technique which should be discussed on it’s own, but if you do already weave, try to use the finest thread that you can when trying to achieve something light and flexible like a modern day ribbon. Thicker threads are fine for use as trim or girdles, but won’t create a pretty ribbon suitable for tying in a bow!
While it may seem time consuming, learning and having at least one of these items in your skill arsenal will really help to add that finishing touch to your period costume and accessories.
Barrett, Gina Making Braids & Cords (DVD book) Windy House Publishing ISBN: 978-0-9546618-8-5
Benns, Elizabeth & Barrett, Gina Tak V Bowes Departed; A 15th Century Braiding Manual Examined, Soper Lane. 2005
Barrett, Gina The use of the Lucet in the 15th century , Soper Lane
Barrett, Gina Victorian Trimming and Embellishment ideas, Your Wardrobe Unlock’d
Collingwood, Peter The Techniques of Tablet Weaving. Robin & Russ Handweavers Inc 1996
Swales, Lois and Zoe Kuhn Williams. 'Finger Loop Braids'. The Complete Anachronist #108. Milpitas, CA: The Society for Creative Anachronism. 2000
Egan, Geoff; Pritchard, Francis Medieval Finds from Excavations in London, c. 1150-1450: Dress Accessories. HMSO London 1998
Crowfoot, Elizabeth, Pritchard, F., Staniland, K. 'Textiles and Clothing c. 1150-1450-Medieval Finds from Excavation in London'. London. 1996
This article was first published on Your Wardrobe Unlock'd, 2013