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A braid (also referred to as a plait) is a complex structure or pattern formed by interlacing three or more strands of flexible material such as textile fibres, wire, or hair. Compared to the process of weaving a wide sheet of cloth from two separate, perpendicular groups of strands (warp and weft), a braid is usually long and narrow, with each component strand functionally equivalent in zigzagging forward through the overlapping mass of the others.
The simplest possible braid is a flat, solid, three-strand structure in some countries/cases called a plait. More complex braids can be constructed from an arbitrary (but usually odd) number of strands to create a wider range of structures: wider ribbon-like bands, hollow or solid cylindrical cords, or broad mats which resemble a rudimentary perpendicular weave.
Braids have been made for thousands of years and for a variety of uses. For the nomadic peoples of India, North and South America, and the Middle East, large or cumbersome equipment was difficult to carry and so braiding was a practical means of producing useful and decorative textiles. In other areas, such as the Pacific islands (where leaves and grasses are braided) and for many hill tribes, braids are made using minimal equipment. It was only when braiding became a popular occupation in the home or school, as it is in China and Japan, that specific tools were developed to increase production and make it easier to produce more complicated patterns of braids.
Traditionally the materials used in braids have depended on the indigenous plants and animals available in the local area. For instance, South Americans used the very fine and soft threads of the alpaca and llama, while North American people made use of bison fibres. In many other areas vegetable fibres such as grass, nettle and hemp were used. In China, Korea and Japan silk was, and indeed still is, the main material used. In the Americas, the braiding of leather is also widespread.
Early braids had many uses: as costume decoration, animal regalia and camel girths, sword decoration, bowls and hats (from palm leaves) and even as locks (such as those made in Japan to secure precious tea supplies through the use of elaborate knots), and weapons such as slings.
When the industrial revolution arrived, mechanized braiding equipment was invented to increase production. The braiding technique was used to make robes, with both natural and synthetic fibres, coaxial cables for radios using copper wire, etc. and in more recent times, as a covering for fuel pipes in jet aircraft and ships, first using glass fibre, then stainless steel and Kevlar. Pipes for domestic plumbing are often covered with stainless steel braid.
Braids are also used to make rope, decorative objects, and hairstyles (also see pigtails, French braid). Complex braids have been used to create hanging fibre artworks. Braiding is also used to prepare horses' manes and tails for showing, polo and polocrosse.
Prehistory and history
The oldest known reproduction of hair braiding may lie back about 30,000 years: the Venus of Willendorf, now known in academia as the Woman of Willendorf, of a female figurine estimated to have been made between about 28,000 and 25,000 BCE. It is in dispute whether she wears braided hair or some sort of a woven basket. The Venus of Brassempouy is estimated to be about 25,000 years old and shows, ostensibly, a braided hairstyle.
In some regions, a braid was a means of communication. At a glance one individual could distinguish a wealth of information about another, whether they were married, mourning, or of age for courtship, simply by observing their hairstyle. Certain hairstyles were distinctive to particular tribes or nations. Other styles spoke to an individual’s status in society.
Braiding is traditionally a social art. Because of the time it takes to braid hair, people took time to socialize while braiding and having their hair done. It begins with the elders making simple knots and braids for younger children. Older children watch and learn from them, start practicing on younger children and eventually learn the traditional designs. In the US, you see mothers and grandmothers braiding and putting colorful beads in little children’s hair. This carries on a tradition of bonding between elders and the new generation.
Ropes and cables
Braiding creates a composite rope that is thicker and stronger than the non-interlaced strands of yarn. Braided ropes are preferred by arborists, rock climbers and in sport sailing because they do not twist under load, as does an ordinary twisted-strand rope. These ropes consist of one or more concentric tubular braided jackets surrounding either several small twisted fibre cords, or a single untwisted yarn of straight fibres, and are known as Kernmantle ropes.
In electrical and electronic cables, braid is a tubular sheath made of braided strands of metal placed around a central cable for shielding against electromagnetic interference. The braid is grounded while the central conductor(s) carry the signal. The braid may be used in addition to a foil jacket to increase shielding and durability.
Flat braids made of many copper wires are also sometimes used for flexible electrical connections between large components. The numerous smaller wires comprising the braid are much more resistant to breaking under repeated motion and vibration than is a cable of larger wires. A common example of this may be found connecting a car battery's negative terminal to the metal chassis.
A property of the basic braid is that removing one strand unlinks the other two, as they are not twisted around each other. Mathematically, a braid with that property is called a Brunnian braid.
Plaiting (or braiding) with kangaroo leather has been a widely practiced tradition in rural Australia since pioneering times. It is used in the production of fine leather belts, hatbands, bridles, dog leads, bullwhips and stockwhips etc. Other leathers are used for the plaiting of heavier products suitable for everyday use.
Braids are often used figuratively to represent interweaving or combination, such as in "He braided many different ideas into a new whole."
Braiding happens when a river is carrying vast amounts of eroded sediment. Sediment is deposited as islands in the channel causing the river to split up into many winding channels.
In some river and stream systems, small streams join together and redivide in many places. Such stream systems are said to be braided. These are often found in alluvial fans at the outlet of canyons. This is a result of heavy sediment deposition at high flows followed by re-erosion at low flows. See also river delta.
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