If you grew up in the playhouse ages before today’s tech-savvy world, you should be quick to recall all your fond memories riding a merry-go-round. The ceramic carriers going up and down consistently, sometimes racing against one another while other times galloping joyfully side by side, forming a harmonious spin. This may seem much of a surprise, but the ropes, cords and shoelaces that we call braiding in general and commonly used today are actually made in this same perfect symphony.
Mechanical Processes of Braiding
From as few as three strands, yarn bobbins are placed on a round or polygonal metal plate—think of it as though the turntable on a DJ mixer—driven by multiple horn gears underneath. When the motor system is put to power, these thread carriers start running on their designated track so that each is sprinting but none collides. As the filaments steadily ascend to a higher wheel pulling them altogether, they are then criss-crossed and conjoined creating a cohesive fabric that is flat or tubular in style.
In the end, when inspected closely, the surface of the one-dimensional narrow fabric would look very much like the infinite connections of multiple X marks. When properly fabricated using the right materials, such as DuPont’s Aramid/Kevlar or Nylon 66 fibers, these unimposing minions can suddenly become the Popeye that lifts up a baby elephant. And that is no analogy.
Braiding in History
Plaiting before the industrial revolution is nothing so expedient and advanced as it is nowadays. Instead, braiders needed to rely solely on their hands, with almost zero assistance from any craft tool, and slowly intertwin the fibers collected from different natural resources to put in place a reinforced string or strand as they exert all their human energy.
From as early as the 5th century B.C., for example, archeologists have found prehistoric hunter gatherers climbing up mountain rocks using self-made ladders from holstered ropes, possibly made from natural fibers such as tree barks or hemps (Martínez et al., 2021). Similarly, in ancient carved paintings, Egyptian laborers are shown pulling through the desert a large statue bound in papyrus ropes (Newberry & Fraser, 1895). As such, braiding may not have been as instantly available then but is nonetheless still a popular instrument that helped our forefathers create new ways of living as well as solve their everyday life problems.
Figure 1. Drawing of a wall painting from the tomb of Djehutihotep, showing a man pouring water into the sand. From "Sliding friction on wet and dry sand," by A. Fall, B. Weber, M. Pakpour, N. Lenoir, N. Shahidzadeh, J. Fiscina, C. Wagner, & D. Bonn, 2014, April 29, Physical Review Letters, 112. Copyright 2014 by Physics. https://doi.org/10.1103/PhysRevLett.112.175502
Braiding Applications in Modern Times
Although cordage is still used for hauling large items these days, it has now been adopted in a wider range of situations to include the unparalleled add-on of fashion model wears, the shoe-securing agent of world-class athletes, the sheath for insulating electric cables from abrasion or high temperature, and even the intricate suture that closes up surgical wounds.
Whatever the instances, braiding is now a prime accessory that almost everyone uses, though very often overlooked. Yet, just as history teaches us, despite our constant disregard, there certainly would come a time when we thank the twine that pulls us through.
- Manuel Bea Martínez, Inés Domingo Sanz y Jorge Angás Pajas. (2021). “El abrigo de Barranco Gómez (Castellote, Teruel), un nuevo conjunto con arte levantino en el núcleo rupestre del Guadalope”. Trabajos de prehistoria, 78. https://doi.org/10.3989/tp.2021.12271
- Newberry, P. E. & Fraser, G. W. (1895). EI Bersheh. Part 1. The tomb of Tehuti-Hetep. Egypt Exploration Fund, Vol. 1.