A braid or plait is a structure of hair that is made by weaving three or more strands of hair together. The easiest braid to make is when you weave three groups of hair strands together to form a stronger rope of hair. You can form different types of braids by combining different odd numbers of groups of hair strands such as the two five-strand dutch braids in the picture that have been combined to form one five strand dutch braid, for example.
Hair braiding is at least 5000 years old, if not older. Hair braiding in Africa can be traced back as far as 3500 BCE. It has been a large part of many cultures all around the world including Africa, the Americas, Asia, Egypt and even Europe. In Africa hair braiding was a social event among women. Young girls began by having their female relatives braid their hair, and then they in turn practiced on their friends and younger relatives until they had learned the many elaborate styles of African hair braiding. In renaissance Europe, French braiding was practiced to keep the hair as clean as possible when it wasn't always an option to bathe as often as you might like. In the Americas, Aztec women would take strips of colorful cloth and braid the strips into their hair and wind the braids around their head. Finally, hair braiding in Egypt was done on wigs that Egyptian royalty wore.
Braiding can be more than one thing. In Africa, braiding is still an opportunity to socialize, and in some cases where particular styles are tribe specific, it can have the function of passing down a tradition. In Europe, braiding was practiced to keep the hair clean, and people still do that today when they don't have time to wash their hair. Having your hair braided keeps your hair out of the way while you are working. This was one of the primary functions for hair braiding among many Native Americans along with helping to keep it neat and clean. Native Americans also took it a step further in some tribes by wrapping their braids in animal skin to protect their hair. Hair braiding can also have a cultural function. Among the Hopi tribe, only married women wore their hair braided. In modern times, hair braiding has become a function of style, rather than anything else.
There are hundreds of different types of braids. Some of the most common include the english braid, which uses a three strand plait and starts at the nape of the neck; the French braid which instead of starting at the nape of the neck starts at the hairline and travels back and down weaving strands in along the way; a Dutch braid which is an inverted French braid that weaves strands under rather than over giving the braid an almost embossed look; Swiss braids which are English braids that are then wrapped around the head and pinned down; multi-strand braids which are when the weave is with more than three, five, nine or any odd number of strands and finally Crown braids which are braids that are woven like French braids but around the crown of the head.
Having your hair braided can help your hair look beautiful. It also protects your hair by helping to prevent split ends and can also save you money if you choose to braid your hair yourself or have a loved one do it for you rather than spending time in a salon having your hair done. If you choose to braid your hair on a regular basis, you give your hair a break from the daily washing that can be harmful to your hair.
Braiding doesn't obviate the need to wash your hair. It is important to wash your hair regularly when you have braids, such as cornrows. Braids needn't be tight to be effective. Braids that are too tight can cause headaches as well as damage hair, breaking the hair and pull the hair follicle.