To braid or plait our hair, what is the difference? Although many will tell you that braiding and plaiting are the same when it comes to black hair, there are some distinctions between them, especially when braiding our curly or coily hair. Growing up with braids, I did not know there was a difference until I looked into it in adulthood. Let us explore the nuanced differences between braids vs. plaits!
In general, plaits and braids are very similar, but braids are more complex than plaits. The two styles do use similar means of creating the look. However, braiding is a far more complex process that involves creating a specific style with specific characteristics.
There are many types of braids or braided hairstyles, all of them with their own names and distinct methods. However, all of them are protective styles, allowing us to leave our curly and coily hair alone for long periods to maintain hydration and length. Our hair can be fragile and prone to breakage, so keeping it healthy is pivotal in maintaining our look.
Plaiting black Hair
To plait (or braid) your hair, all you do is divide a strand of hair into three sections. Then, you take either the rightmost or leftmost strand and transfer it to the middle of the other two. Continue alternating between the rightmost and leftmost strand. This process is done throughout the head until all the hair is plaited, depending on the style. In some cases, there may be some hair left unplaited for a different look, but this doesn’t mean it is no longer considered a braided style.
Notice how plaiting and braiding in this context are interchangeable. Why? In this case, we are referring to the process of weaving three hair strands together to form a plait or braid. In this way, a plait or braid is a weaving maneuver, not a hairstyle.
Braids are also more tightly knotted, while plaits are looser and less dense. There is a middle ground where they are the same thing in terms of tightness, but typically, looser weaving is considered a plait, and tighter weaving is a braid. It’s a subtle difference, but one to understand nonetheless.
Using these distinctions implies that when you make one big braid, you’d want to call that a plait because “braids” imply a hairstyle consisting of thicker and denser individuals.
Braiding black Hair
When we talk about braiding hair, we mean more than just the maneuver of braiding or plaiting hair. Instead, braiding – or simply, “braids,” – refers to an entire hairstyle that involves many individual braids or plaits. These come together to create a unique statement style.
Braiding our hair typically involves braiding additional external and customarily synthetic hair into your natural hair, extending the length of the braid to various degrees, often to the center of the back or further. Synthetic hair can be any color but typically is bought to match our original hair color. For example, a common color for synthetic hair is “B1,” intended to match very dark and black hair, and this is the color my mother used when braiding my hair as a child.
The synthetic hair is stored in bundles cut to the desired length, stretched out such that the ends are more sparse than the center, and then divided into sections depending on the desired size of the braid.
Braiding our curly or coily hair involves sectioning the hair at the scalp into precise squares, triangles, or other shapes, usually in a brick layout where each section is offset from the row below it. My mom was fond of the brick layout with precise squares. When braiding one of these sections, there are many different ways to start– from knotless braids to the rubber band method. There are countless ways to demonstrate your unique personality through your braided style, so don’t be afraid to experiment!
After the braids are prepared with one of these methods, the synthetic hair is added and braided into our real hair, extending past the point where the real hair ends. In this way, braiding is similar to plaiting in that there are three strands of the original section in which one of the outermost strands becomes the middle strand, alternating between the left and right strands. The similarities end there. These styles are far too complex to call plaits.
When the braiding is finished, the ends of the braids (by the end, the tips are made completely of synthetic hair) get sealed with hot water to soften and seal the ends. In some cases, the ends are burned using a small flame to seal them instead. Both methods are so that the synthetic hair does not unravel and keeps the hair locked in place for weeks.
Finally comes the clean-up, where the braider takes a pair of scissors or a flame to remove flyaways. Flyaways are the little pieces of hair that stick out of the braid along its shaft, and this process keeps the braids looking smooth. After that, we complete the style by laying the edges– or the baby hairs on the forehead and sideburns. These are too small to put into braids. The baby hairs are smoothed with gel or wax, so they lay on the forehead in fashionable waves or curls.
Other Types of Braided Hairstyles
There are several hairstyles typical for straight hair that many call braiding, but I would personally consider those hairstyles plaiting. They are often intricate and involve plaiting hair in ribbed, crossed, or stacked fashions in ways that are not the same as braided individuals. In these cases, I would consider those hairstyles to be plaited. Unlike the braids traditionally found in our Black community, these styles don’t function as protection.
Are Cornrows a Type of Braid or Plait?
Cornrows are a style where the hair is braided with or without extra synthetic hair. However, instead of braiding out from the scalp, the hair is braided along the scalp. The result is a set of braids that lay flat against the head.
But are cornrows plaits or braids? The answer depends on if you’re referring to maneuver or style. When referring to maneuver, braids and plaits are the same, since the three-strand plaiting method is used to create cornrows.
But when we are talking about the hairstyle, then cornrows are only considered braids since they involve the same steps, tools, and methods used when braiding our curly or coily hair. The hair is split into sections– this time, the sections are long rows instead of small shapes– and braided with synthetic hair added periodically to the rest of the natural hair.
What Is The Difference Between Braids And Plaits For Black Hair? Final Thoughts
The question of whether plaits or braids are the same things is complex. First of all, yes– they are the same thing when talking about the maneuver of taking three strands of hair and weaving them together, taking the left or right outermost strand and transferring it to the middle, alternating between the leftmost and rightmost strand.
But when we say our hair is ‘braided’, we are not talking about the maneuver; we are talking about the hairstyle. In this way, plaits and braids are not the same. Plaits refer to the maneuver of weaving three strands of hair together, and braids refer to a multitude of styles that usually involve adding synthetic hair to the natural hair to increase length.
Braids, unlike simple plaits, involve precise sectioning, dipping the braids in hot water, or burning the braids with a small flame to increase the longevity of the style and laying edges (baby hairs).
Braids are a protective style, and plaits are simply a method. Braids are also culturally significant and even have had historical ramifications. They were once used to braid maps into the scalp and also used to braid rice into cornrows to save for later. These practices protected more than just our hair back then. Thus, braids are more than simple plaits, and when we wear them, we are looking back to generations of history.