Basic Braiding Instructions

This page is part of the Fingerloop Braids Website.

The authors offer the reader more than one way to learn each braid:

  1. A transcription of the original manuscript wording.
  2. A translation into modern English.
  3. A modern set of instructions in words (by Zoe) with illustrations of the finished braid patterns (by Zoe).
  4. A set of visual instructions (schematics devised by Lois).
Our students have used either #3 or #4, or both #3 and #4 to learn the braiding moves. We don't deny the best way to learn is from another fingerloop braider, though!

The following video illustrates many of the techniques taught on this page:

Anatomy of a bowe

Strand: One half of a bowe (or one side). Each bowe has 2 sides: a top strand and a bottom strand.
A set of five bowes ready to be braided:

What happens to the bowes to make a braid

Before you begin to make a braid, let's look at how the bowes will move to make the loops interlace.

Imagine that you have put 3 bowes on the left hand fingers and 2 bowes on the right hand fingers. This diagram doesn't show your fingers, just the bowes:

The lowest bowe on the left was taken reversed through the middle of the top bowe on the right.
It then became the top bowe on the right.
The bowes are tied to a sturdy object and your fingers are slipped through them, usually one bowe to one finger. Some fingers are empty of bowes. Your fingers hook slightly to keep the bowes in place. You control the bowes by tensioning them (gently!) with your fingers pulling on them. The Braiding Saint is ready to move the bowes as we show on the left.
She holds the bowes in her top finger crease with her fingers crooked towards her palm to keep the bowes from falling off her fingers.

We are not showing the right hand, which would have bowes on the right middle and ring fingers, with no bowes on the pinky finger or the thumb.

Preparing the Bowes

In the Middle Ages, finger loops are known as bowes. A single bowe is one length of string, folded in half and looped around a finger. No one braids with just one bowe, however. The actual number and color of bowes will vary -- follow the directions given with each braiding pattern. Each string will be twice the length of the finished braid desired plus about six inches. All the bowes for any braid must be the same length or they will be difficult to braid.
  • Cut your strings: Cut 5 strings 46 inches long: 20 inches times 2 plus 6 inches = 46 inches. Suggested material: embroidery floss. You are going to make a braid 17-20 inches long. For this first braid, use one color for all your bowes. Then experiment with using more than one color next time.
  • Knot the strings into Bowes:
    1. Fold each bowe in half individually to prevent tangling.
    2. Gather the loose ends of all the bowes together so the looped ends are dangling.
    3. Tie an overhand knot at the loose ends so all the ends are incorporated into one knot.
To make varied patterns, you'll need to learn some terminology.

Labelling Abbreviations:

A = index finger R = right hand R' = right worker
B = middle finger L = left hand L' = left worker
C = ring finger M' = middle worker
D = pinky finger

Let's label the bowes for the first pattern as you put them on your fingers:

According to our new labelling rules you will have a bowe on AL, BL, and CL. You will also have a bowe on BR and CR.

Schematic diagrams of the braiding moves

The schematics show the bowes on your fingers as if you were looking down at your own hands as they hold the loops. The arrows point to the path your "picking" finger will follow to transport a bowe to its next position. The arrow indicates how to pick up the bowe, reversed or unreversed, depending on where it is positioned. (See reversed and unreversed, next section). NOTE: the thumbs are not shown.
Bowe on right finger
Bowe on left finger
No bowe on finger
Arrow showing path of picking finger through the middle of bowe on finger

Transcriptions and Translations

The original instructions were written in a variety of hands and centuries, the oldest European instructions from c. 1475 CE, the latest from c. 1630 CE (See Sources and Appendix I for the marvelous Middle English transcriptions and translations we worked from.) The letter þ (thorn) was used for our modern 'th'. [3] is used to mark the yogh character. Initials in parentheses ( ) appearing after each set of directions refer to the person who translated that set. In MS 2320 (called (C) in this booklet), fingers are labeled A, B, C, and D. We have continued this labelling choice in our modern instructions, as well as in the schematics.

Reading the pattern instructions

1. a brode lace of v bowes - c. 1475

Note: the lavander thread is the thread used to sew the braid into Zoe's book.


Zoe's drawing illustrates what the braid will look like. In this case it was worked with two colors of bowes. The original instructions do not mention two colors. If you use, for example, green on the R hand and white on the L hand, you get a thin, flat braid with a zigzag of green on a ground of white.




"For to make a brode lace of v bowes: Set ij bowes on B and C ry[3]h, and iij bowys on A, B, C lyfte. Þen schal A ry[3]h take þorow þe bowe B of þe same hond þe bowe C of þe lyft hond reuersyd. þen lowe þy lyft bowes. Þen schal A lyfte take þorowout B of þe same hond þe bowe C of þe ry[3]h hond reuerced. Þen lowe þy ry[3]h bowes, and begynne a[3]en". (EGS)


For to make a broad lace of 5 bowes: Set 2 bowes on B and C right, and 3 bowes on A, B, C left. Then shall A right take through the bowe B of the same hand the bowe C of the left hand reversed. Then low thy left bowes. Then shall A left take throughout B of the same hand the bowe C of the right hand reversed. Then low thy right bowes, and begin again. (LS)

The transcription is taken from the original manuscript - which, in this case, dates from around the year 1475. Since it was in Middle English, we have translated it into modern English.

NOTE: The transcriptions and translations are found in the Appendix for each braid pattern. The Appendix also includes information on which pattern came from which manuscript.

This translation was used to create the modern instructions, which follow. The braiding moves are detailed step-by-step in words. Some steps, such as the walking down of the bowes to position them for the next transfer of bowes is included here but not in the visual schematics shown below.

  • Place 1 bowe each on BCR and ABCL.
  • Move 1a AR through BR take CL REV.
  • Move 1b Walk down L bowes.
  • Move 2a AL through BL take CR REV.
  • Move 2b Walk down R bowes.
  • Repeat.

Basically, by clever dexterity on your part, in Move One you will use finger AR (right index finger) to pick up bowe CL from your left hand, by going through the middle of the BR loop and finding CL a new home on your formerly loop-free AR finger. Keep all the bowe holding fingers hooked as you pull CL through the middle of BR and straighten out your AR index finger. CL is the only bowe that should change positions. You're going to re-arrange the loops on your left hand (See Walking the Bowes, next section.) to free your left hand index finger and then make the same move (mirror image) with the other hand. Repeating these two actions will result in "a brode lace of v bowes-c. 1475".

NOTE: You thumb will always "come along for the ride" with your picking finger to help hold the bowe being moved.

Unless otherwise indicated, instructions telling you to go through a bowe, such as BR above, always mean through the middle of the bowe. When going through several bowes, you will go through the middle of each of them in the order mentioned.

New Skill: Reversed and Unreversed, or How to pick up a bowe

Most of your loop moving will use one of your index fingers (with your thumb as "helper"). When moving a loop from one hand to the other there are twelve different ways to capture that loop. The authors suggest that you limit your bowe moving to just two types of moves. Each variation of bowe pickup can radically alter the type of braid structure you achieve. Here are the two bowe moves we prefer and use in our instructions:

To reverse (REV) your bowe is to flip it upside down so the top strand is now the bottom strand.

Taking bowes Unreversed - (UNREV)

To take a bowe unreversed (UNREV), keep the top strand on top of the finger taking it.

Hand Position

Your hands should be facing each other, palms inward and thumbs up (See Saint's illustration.). The looped ends of the bowes should rest at your top finger joints. (The top joint is the finger crease closest to your finger tips.)

Tension the braid as you work!

Each time you pull one bowe through another bowe, you must tension the braid by stretching out your arms, rather like a butterfly pumping its wings. You will have to practice to get an even tension. At the beginning, the tension is far looser than at the end, when the braiding loops are much shorter and you have greater leverage. Old braids are analyzed in part by the varying tension that is typical of fingerloop braiding. You can lessen the difference by pulling tightly at the beginning and pulling gently at the end when the loops are getting a lot shorter.

Note: Most braids require one bowe on each finger. Later in this in this booklet you will learn patterns for some that call for two bowes on a finger. You will often have fingers with no bowe at all on them. In fact, in these instructions, your thumb is only a helper, not one of the finger "players" we will be keeping track of.

There are some things that could go wrong:

Be sure you pick up the new bowe in the right orientation. Remember that Reversed and Unreversed positions can radically change the type of braid you are making. If you pick up a bowe in a different way than we suggest, you may get a different braid, since you are changing the structure.

As you pull bowes through other bowes, keep your pulling hand palm slightly slanted up and your fingers crooked. This speeds the process and keeps the bowe from falling loose, thus messing up your pattern. Sometimes a bowe drops off a finger. Pick it up and put it on the finger it fell from. It may result in a braiding flaw, but little can be done. Old braids exhibit these types of dropped loop errors.

New Skill: Walking the Bowes

In the transcriptions you will see directions to 'high' or 'low' the bowes. This means to move, or 'walk' the bowes, one at a time, up or down on your fingers. Always walk bowes unreversed (UNREV).

Low the Bowes:

A walk down from Move One: to free the left index finger for the "mirror move", you walk down BL to CL and AL to BL. Then proceed to Move Two.

High the Bowes:


If you have bowes on BCL and you are to 'high' the bowes, walk up BL to AL, CL to BL.

Return to the index.

Webbed by Greg Lindahl