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braid / plait

braid. To weave or entwine together; to plait. A string, cord, or other texture, formed by weaving together of different strands. — Webster, 1882

plait. A braid, as of hair or straw. — Webster, 1882

Laura’s bonnet hung down her back. Her face was red and damp with perspiration. Some locks of hair had come loose from her braids and blew into her eyes. -Laura Ingalls Wilder, manuscript, On the Banks of Plum Creek


This is NOT Laura Ingalls
-just a little girl with braids!

The braiding or plaiting of three or more strands of a material together was useful in that it kept the strands together in an ornamental fashion while adding strength to the whole. In the Little House books, braiding or plaiting is most often mentioned in connection with human hair; specifically, the single braid or pigtails worn by the Ingalls girls. In Little Town on the Prairie (see Chapter 2, “Springtime on the Claim”) Laura implies that she sleeps with her hair in a single braid, which she brushes out and re-braids each morning, coiling the braid and pinning it in place at the back of her head.

Braiding hair usually employs three strands, kept separate by the fingers. These strands (the left, middle, and right) are braided in two steps by (1) bringing the right-hand strand over the middle strand while keeping tension on the strands, then (2) bringing the left strand over the new middle strand (formerly the right-hand strand). These two steps are repeated until the braided portion is the desired length or the hair strands are too short to work with, at which time the whole bundle is tied securely with a ribbon or string. Similarly, the braid can be formed by bring the strands under the middle one; the result is the same.

Braiding a horse’s mane and tail. In Farmer Boy (see Chapter 13, “The Strange Dog”), Almanzo braids the mane and tail of a team to be sold, as part of their special grooming and care. It doesn’t appear as if the horses were shown to the horse-buyer with braided mane and tail, as Wilder writes that they “rippled” and “blew” in the air when driven. Perhaps it was to train the mane or create waves when unbraided. There is a long history of braiding horse hair, from it being done by fairies in the night to scaring witches away. It was definitely done to keep the horse’s hair from getting tangled in farming equipment, but today is popularly done for its looks.



Braiding straw hats. Although Caroline Ingalls braided her straw hats out of oat straw in Little House in the Big Woods, rye seems to have been the fiber of choice. It was sown in the fall and harvested the following June. Tied in loose bundles, the stalks lost their heads to the chopping block, then were scalded to release the green sap. After drying in the sun for several days, the straw was ready to use.

Massachusetts was the center of the “straw bonnet” industry for well over a hundred years, and it’s possible that Caroline Ingalls was simply continuing an art that had been passed down from her Massachusetts ancestors. Even in traditional straw bonnet making, ladies taught their friends and daughters various braids and sewing techniques, and there was a time when the manufacture of braided straw for hats was purely a domestic affair, even if it went to the factory for finishing. Children usually did the cutting, boiling, and laying-to-dry, then everyone took a turn at braiding the straw, which, as Laura Ingalls Wilder mentioned, had been soaking in a tub in order to soften it. If such braid went to a factory, it would be sorted into latticed bins for finishing, but in many cases the process continued in the home, with the braid lapped and spirals sewn into hats, shaping them over plaster forms for a proper fit. Hats in this stage were further smoked, bleached, dried, blocked, and finished, a process Caroline Ingalls abbreviated at home.

Laura Ingalls Wilder describes Ma’s straw braids of seven and nine strands of small or large straws, plus a braid that is beautifully “notched all along the edges,” like the one shown at left. While there are many different ways to braid both seven and nine strands, one option is shown here.

If Ma made such beautiful hats, and Laura learned how to do it, and Pa grew oats in De Smet, why didn’t Laura or Ma make the rough straw poke-bonnet for Laura in These Happy Golden Years? Or did they…?



Dress braid. In the Little House books, dress braid was a woven material or fabric strip sewn on the inside of the bottom of a dress so that it hung down only slightly below the hem and protected the hem fabric from wear and tear. It was also used to stiffen the outer edge of a hem, waist, or sleeve. There were also fancy braids that could be sewn on top of an item of clothing in patterns as decoration.



Braided lamp mat. On her first visit home from Vinton, Mary Ingalls’ gift to Ma was a “woven and braided” lamp mat edged in a fringe of many-colored beads strung on thread. Garth Williams drew Mary kneeling before her open trunk with this lamp mat on her lap. (See These Happy Golden Years, Chapter 15, “Mary Comes Home”) It’s unclear how Ma’s mat was constructed. A lamp mat was useful to protect the table’s surface from being scratched by the metal lamp base, and beading would glimmer and sparkle in the lamp’s light.

The March 19, 1885, Journal of Education reported that included in the Iowa exhibit at the 1885 World Cotton Exhibition in New Orleans were samples of “needlework, beadwork, and fancy lace” made by the girls at the Iowa College for the Blind. Perhaps some of Mary Ingalls’ handiwork was included!


     dress (BW 10; BPC 30-31; THGY 32; PG)
     hair (BW 8; BPC 10, 18, 20, 24, 26, 27, 29, 31, 34, 36; SSL 1, 3, 5-6, 9; TLW 1, 9, 14; LTP 2, 5, 8, 17, 19-20, 24; THGY 2-3, 5, 19, 28; PG)
     hat / straw (BW 12; FB 16, 19)
     horse mane and tail (FB 13)
     lamp mat (THGY 15)
     Martha’s braids pinned to desk (THGY 5)
     onion (BW 1; FB 20) – see onion
     rag rug (TLW 8, 15; THGY 4) – see braided rug
     whip lash (FB 9) – see whip
plait (LTP 2)