Interview with Professional Braider Karen Ribble: ‘Braided Image’ Renaissance Faire Artist Talks Hair Braiding

Sarah Tennant: So, how exactly did you get into braiding?

Karen Ribble: I learned to braid from my mother and her mother: my maternal grandmother. I do have a funny story about that. My grandmother did all sorts of hand sewing work and crochet. She tried to teach my mother these arts but my grandmother is right handed and my mother is left handed. So my grandmother only knew to tell my mother “Now you watch me and then turn it around.”

When my grandmother went to teach my mother hair braiding she did an inverted corn row type braid so when she told my mother to “turn it around” my mother did a regular French braid. Grandma was not thinking that with hair braiding you do the same thing with both hands. I had the advantage of learning from both of them.

How does braiding fit in with the rest of your life?

I braid at three long running Renaissance festivals a year and a few one weekend shows. It is a very challenging career choice. I find that many traditional people glamorize it and or just do not understand it at all, but it can be very difficult. Income comes in waves and the travel can get old. I have also seen a great many relationships fail because of separation time. It takes a real commitment to make it work.

Can you tell me a little about your situation (partner, children, other jobs)?

I worked my way through nursing school as a hair braider at the fairs local to me. I highly recommend higher education to anyone. I worked for a number of years as a surgical nurse. I stopped nursing when I decided to have my son. Although I have not worked in nursing for several years, it helped springboard me to the level of vendor that I am now. I would not be the hair braider I am now without that background. Most of the successful vendors I know have an advanced education in some field of study. Nothing is absolute, but no education is wasted. My husband works two of the long shows with me. We have made it work for us.

Were there any braids you found particularly difficult to master?

Yes. I found the even numbered strand braids the most difficult to master. They are round. The roundness of the braid can be confusing and if you ever loose your place you may very well have to start over completely.

What’s your favorite braid (to do or to look at)? Do you have a signature braid?

What I call a Crown is my most requested braid style. So I guess if I had a signature braid, that would be it. I do like doing it and looking at it. Although I do not often get the opportunity to braid a large round braid (8 or 10 strands) I really love doing them because they are so unusual. People always come back and tell me about how many people stopped them and commented on their braid.

How long does the average braid take to complete?

10 minutes: That is what I tell people for an average wait time. Most braids take less time than that.

What advice would you give a wannabe professional braider?

Go to school. Keep it clean. Learn to recognize lice and the nits.

Do you feel that braiding is a dying art?

There are hieroglyphs in pyramids depicting people with hair braids. I can get into any time related event with hair braiding because it is timeless. As long as people have hair, braiding will be around. No matter how styles change or come and go there seems to always be a core group of long hair enthusiasts. And as long as there are those, there will always be hair braiding.

What kind of hair do you prefer braiding (long, short, dry, wet, clean, dirty)? Do you refuse to braid hair which does not meet certain standards?

I have been braiding professionally for 21 years now. I think I am past having those kinds of preferences. I find each head of hair a unique challenge. All my shows are outdoors and although I do much prefer braiding dry hair, a rainy day brings its own fun challenges. Wind is the bigger challenge. My advice is, face your client into the wind and make it work for you. Being a registered Nurse gives me a bit of an advantage in recognizing problems. I will of course refuse to braid anyone with lice. It is a problem that has resurfaced recently mostly with children.

Want to learn how to braid hair? Watch this…