The Art of Hair Braiding by Karen Cotton
The African culture of wearing braided hairstyles is a tradition that has been around for centuries. Long before braids became a fashion statement they represented generations of ancestral traditions. The cultural traditions practiced are the determining factor in what the braided hairstyle will be referred to. The braided hairstyles are referenced by many names: cornrows, plaits, french braids, single braids, or braids. Various items can be added to lengthen, beautify, or honor a rite of passage. Hair extensions, string, beads, or creams can be used to create intricate designs of braided styles. Many cultures and ethnicities style their hair with braids to express themselves. While fads may come and go such as hairstyles, braids are an integral part of the African diaspora’s self-expression and cultural identity.
Indigenous people throughout the world have created braided hairstyles to express ancestral traditions. Passed down throughout the generations from mother to daughter and father to son, the braided hairstyle is an important aspect of community identity. For example, The Himba indigenous to Namibia has worn the same braided hairstyles for centuries. The Himba are famous for covering themselves with a paste made from butterfat and a special pigment called Otjize. They apply this cosmetic mixture to their hair called plaits. The boys have one plait while the girls have many textured plaits. Along with traditional headpieces, men and women wear plaits to symbolize one’s status. (1)
Getting the hair braided is not only spiritual but a time to socialize which helps keep the community a tight-knit structure. Light-hearted conversations bond individuals and the painstakingly long hours epitomize love and dedication. The braided hair is not only durable and stylish but extremely functional. Depending on the style, braids can last for a few weeks to several months. Take one look at American pop culture and you will notice the effect African braided hairstyles have on mainstream society.
(My sister Laurnecia)
I have fond memories of braiding my little sister’s hair, and the conversations we had created a lasting bond that still exists today. My sister rocked her braids for all occasions; proms, birthdays, holidays, even a television appearance. I have fond memories of braiding my sister’s hair on an airplane. Yes, on an airplane. We were scheduled to appear on a television show called, “The Queen Latifah Show” (circa Jan. 2001). We wanted to look extra special, and I decided to give us micro single braids. Since I am the braider, I braided my hair, then began to braid her hair. Well, we ran out of time to finish her hair, and we didn’t want to miss our flight to New York. So, it was decided to finish her hair at the airport. The plan was to finish her hair before we got on the plane. Everything that could go wrong to make a person late for a flight happened to us. From our children not wanting us to leave to our cab running late, we barely made it to the airport. We got on board, found our seats, and as soon as the seat belt light went off we got to work. I pulled out my hair braiding supplies and started to braid her hair. People looked at us with utter amazement at how someone could pull off a stunt like this. The people on the plane assumed we were famous because I kept boasting about being her stylist. I proudly proclaimed, “I must finish her hair, she has an important television appearance on a talk show.” The flight attendants didn’t bother us but started asking us questions about the art of hair braiding, and what show we were prepping for. The braids my sister had required the ends of the hair, which is the synthetic portion, to be dipped in boiling water. Needless to say, we didn’t have access to water hot enough on the plane. I didn’t know what else to do, and without hot water, the ends of the hair looked like a lion’s mane. I came up with the brilliant idea to dip the ends of the hair in boiling water when we got to the show. When we arrived, at the show, they rushed us to hair and make-up, (we never stopped running late, lol). I asked the stylist to make sure to dip the ends of my sister’s braids in hot water. Well, I forgot to stipulate the water needed to be boiling, not hot water from the tap. We laughed so hard at the stylist trying to dip, my sister’s braids, in hot water from a coffee maker. Finally, the stylist did figure out how to make the water hot enough. We showed, “The Queen Latifah Show”, how to rock braids the California way. Although this was a funny episode, the stylist informed me she had learned a new skill. We laugh at this incident as if it happened yesterday, and it was almost 20 years ago. Today, I am still braiding my sister’s hair and our bond is tighter than ever. Not only are we sisters, but we are also in the hair business together.
After my television appearance, I began to operate Fastfingers Creative Braid Designs; I currently braid under that name. In 2020, my sister and I created an online hair extension supply store called QualityofHair.com. We offer our customers wholesale prices and quality hair. Our slogan is, “If you want the quality, we have the hair.” What started as a customary practice of braiding hair, turned into a skill that I created into a lucrative business opportunity.
The art of braiding is a lucrative skill to have especially in the quest for self-sufficiency. The economic opportunities for people with exceptional hair braiding skills are numerous. Local community colleges and adult schools offer courses in Hair Braiding techniques, there are courses online too. Beauty Salons and Barbershops frequently hire Braiders for an apprenticeship to fulfill the demand for braids. The demand for professional Braiders creates opportunities for entrepreneurs to open braid businesses, thus generating incomes that greatly impact economic growth. The annual revenue for salons and barbershops in the United States is over 63 billion dollars. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for hair braiders is expected to grow by 8% from 2018-2028. (2) The fashion trend is booming for braided hairstyles and is on the rise. Everyone from celebrities to children has their hair braided: it’s not exclusive to the African culture anymore. If you didn’t learn the skill of braiding through cultural practices, you have the opportunity to learn with me. If you would like to learn how to braid, check out my live online course, https://www.adultclassesonline.com/instructor/karen-cotton/ Creative Braid Designs – Learn how to braid hair using extensions. I look forward to sharing this passion for braided hairstyles with you.
- Wikipedia. “Himba People.” Wikipedia, 2011, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Himba_people. Accessed 17th February 2021.
- Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Barbers, Hairstylist, Cosmetologist. “Occupational Outlook Handbook.” U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2020, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/personal-care-and-service/barbers-hairstylists-and-cosmetologists.htm. Accessed 1 9 2020.