Playing with String

I’m not quite sure who Sæwynn, as a persona, is going to be, but I’m thinking that most run-of-the-mill late 9th Century residents of what will one day be England will probably think of her as something like a witch. So, in the tradition of Sir Terry Pratchett’s witches of the Discworld, I’ll need to make sure she always has some string.

Fingerloop braiding is a very old, and nearly universal, method for making cords and ribbons. I first encountered it via Morgan Donner’s excellent video on a basic braid, “Easy Fingerloop Braid“. She references www.fingerloop.org, which is a single article that has broken down several texts (providing transcriptions and translations into modern English) from medieval Europe into instructions for weaving. There are good photographs on the website so that you can see what the results will be, and include projects for one, two, or even three people (with multiple weavers, a single cord is formed, but the weavers pass and exchange loops with one another).

Three braided ribbons: a slender ribbon in black and blue cotton cord, looking like a black ribbon with a stripe of blue dots down its center, a somewhat wider black ribbon with a stripe of big red dots down its center, and a flat ribbon of alternating chevrons, red and black.

From left to right: “A grene dorge of vi bowes” (from circa 1450-75 CE, from the Harley Manuscript 2320, British Library, folii 52r through 70v), which Morgan also teaches in a video: ‘”Fingerloop Braid: A Grene Dorge of VI Bowes“. According to Carolyn Priest-Dorman (Þóra Sharptooth), this is the “grain d’orge” or “barleycorn” pattern. It uses six loops: four for the border and two for the inside strip, which when woven have a “v” like appearance like grains of barley. In this case, I used black for the border loops and then black and blue for the inside strip, resulting in a “dotted blue” pattern I like. (Had I used two blue loops, it would have looked like a center stripe of blue, or I could have added a third color and had it alternate with the blue.).

Next, I did the exact same pattern, but this time I changed two things: I substituted red for blue, and I doubled up the inside strip loops for red (that is, two red loops on my pinky finger), but kept the inside strip black loop as a single loop. It gave the ribbon a little more heft.

Lastly, I went for something a lot more complicated: “A brode lace cheueron of 8 bowes” (also from Harley Manuscript 3230), a ribbon of eight loops. You can see some uneven chevron colors – that’s where I either dropped a loop or otherwise mucked up the pattern which, although it looks fairly complicated, was not all that bad. Because the ribbon wants to curl up on itself, I gave it a very good steaming with a hot iron and that flattened it right out.

I like fingerloop weaving, even though its attestation occurs significantly later than my persona’s time period, because it produces a very neat weave, either as a round cord or as a flat ribbon, for a given length of loops. I’m able to make cord using a lucet, which is more appropriate to Sæwynn as a 9th Century person, but which also requires more skill than I have at the moment to produce a neat cord.

With fingerloop braiding, the difficulty is when you want to produce long lengths (as opposed to making cord with a lucet, which you can do indefinitely): to tighten a fingerloop braid, you pull your hands apart so that the strings are pulled laterally: with extremely long cords, you don’t have the arm width to really tighten it properly. Medieval manuscripts show at least two people at work: a weaver and another person who has a broad chisel-like implement used for “beating” (tightening) the threads, as well as something like a distaff along which the completed ribbon or cord is wound. I don’t have a second person, so I have to keep my cords/ribbons fairly short. They’re good for bookmarks and for tying favors to, I suppose, which is yet another project (gifts to give as thanks to people in the SCA who’ve helped me out).