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Adventures in Braiding, Part I: Tools of the Trade

With show season in full swing, Lorraine Jackson is brushing up her non-existent skills in show braiding and trying out all the tools, tricks, and training available. We will share with you what worked, and what didn’t!

If you think it’s too late or too overwhelming to pick up a skill as meticulous and disciplined as braiding, consider me walking proof that all hope is not lost. I always thought that my poor braiding skills were a matter of just not having a knack for it, and there was no remedy for my “quick and dirty gets it done” personality. But it turns out that good instruction and the right tools can save even my sinking ship.

Starting from Scratch

To begin my better braiding journey, I decided to wipe my slate clean and seek out some quality beginner instruction. I acquired Braiding Manes and Tails: a visual guide to 30 basic braids by Charni Lewis of Storey Books.

Cover art courtesy of Storey Publishing

Cover art courtesy of Storey Publishing

This was an ideal place to begin for a few reasons.

  • Tool Guide Extraordinaire. It shows various methods and tools and how to use them.
  • Braiding Basics Demystified. Lewis takes time to break down the various types of braids, the knots, safety practices, and also preparing a mane for braiding, such as pulling vs. shortening, etc.
  • Braids Defined by Discipline. Hunter braids, dressage knots, various styles of tail braids, and even ribbon braiding for gaited horses and drafts are demonstrated flawlessly.
  • Excellent Illustrations. I followed the guide step by step for things I’ve never tried before, and the graphics were integral to success.
  • Convenient Design. The book is made with a hard cover and holes in the pages so you can hang it nearby while you work, a perk I absolutely utilized.  
Convenient spiral binding, great illustrations, super handy! Photo by Lorraine Jackson, content courtesy of Storey Publishing.

Convenient spiral binding, great illustrations, super handy! Photo by Lorraine Jackson, content courtesy of Storey Publishing.

Getting the Right Tools

Right away I learned that a few braiding tools you can manage on the cheap, and others are worth a little investment.

Things to get on the cheap:

  • sponges
  • combs (plastic for untangling, metal for pulling)
  • spray bottles
  • braiding hook (I made mine out of gardening wire I had handy)
  • A fanny pack or tool belt to keep your goods on you while you braid
Homemade yarn hook, interchangeable with rug hook, depending on preference. Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Homemade yarn hook, interchangeable with rug hook, depending on preference. Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Things worth a little investment:

  • A sharp pair of scissors with a tiny point
  • a rug hook (an alternative to the wire hook that can be a little easier to handle)
  • A seam ripper
  • good quality yarn
  • Essential Braiding Tools by Lucky Braids

When I first started practicing, I used some cheap yarn I had on hand, and that got old very quickly. I learned from all of my instructional tools that good knots require a real tug, and I was repeatedly peeved to get to the end of a braid, sew it in place, tug on the very last knot, and have the yarn snap somewhere in the middle and have to start all over. WORST FEELING EVER.

Having now done a few hundred braids in practice, I personally will only ever braid with Lucky Braids yarn, because it was the only yarn that never broke, not even once. It had just enough elasticity that it was comfortable and easy to work with, but not so much that it was stretching out or breaking like other yarns. It didn’t fray as I worked with it, and it really stayed in well. It costs a little more than craft store yarn, but it will save you hours, and also preserve your beautiful, blood-sweat-and-tears braids to the show ring and back.

Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Battle of the Tools

A lot of tools are an either/or, and I definitely developed a personal preference after trying each method. Here’s how it shook out to me.

Fanny Pack vs. Essential Braiding Tool

Fanny packs have long been the industry standard for braiding, but WHY. Lucky Braids makes a tool that comes with scissors, a rug hook, and a very handy nylon strap that goes around your neck and keeps your scissors and hook in arms reach and safe to drop at a moment’s notice. (The tool also comes when you buy the Lucky Braids DVD, which we’ll talk about more in Part III.) When I braided with the fanny pack I fumbled, dropped stuff, tangled stuff, and swore a lot. So this was a no brainer. WINNER: Essential Braiding Tool

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Using the Lucky Braids tool to cut yarn ends. Note the nylon strap around my neck.

Lucky Braids Braiding Kit. Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Lucky Braids Essential Braiding Tool. Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Rug Hook vs. Wire Hook

The hooks are for the “tying up” portion of braiding, and are used to squeeze into the middle of a braid, catch the yarn ends, and pull through to start your knots. I found that as I got more comfortable, I used both for different sections, and so I actually attached my wire to the nylon strap on the rug hook side so I could switch between them easily. For forelocks and tails, I liked the wire, but for the mane, I preferred the rug hook. Winner: Both

Seam Ripper vs. Scissors

I sew, and I thought for sure I would like the seam ripper more for getting braids out. Maybe if I had a more “industrial” seam ripper I would have liked it more, but I felt like it dulled quickly, and just didn’t feel as safe as even the pointiest scissors in my hand. Winner: Scissors

Water vs. Gel or Braid Solution

I tried using human hair gel (oh dear, no, never, not ever again), a product specifically for making braids clingy (meh, it was fine I guess) and plain water on a sponge. Personally, I preferred just plain water applied with a rag or sponge to get it just a little damp before braiding. It kept the strands together without getting slippery, and I thought it made for the cleanest-looking finished product. Winner: FREE Water!

So you’ve  got your tools and read your book, now what? It’s time to practice our guts out on a trusty steed, and I’ve got mostly normal and a few really weird schemes on this subject …

Fringe button braids, because sometimes baseball is boring. Photo by Lorraine Jackson

Stay Tuned for Parts II and III, and Go Braiding!

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