Hair can be fussy, uncooperative, moody. When it does not bend, curl or sit on command, it can be frustrating. Hair can be a handful, a time suck, a money pit, a drag. Perhaps no one knows this better than Black women.
Enter, stage left: braids.
And not just any braids. Many Black women are going with a style that has been gaining in popularity: so-called knotless braids, which differ significantly from traditional box braids.
In the old style — notably worn by Janet Jackson in the 1993 film “Poetic Justice,” which helped enshrine the style in American beauty culture — the hair is parted into discrete sections, and strands of synthetic hair are knotted at the roots. Hair stylists who create knotless braids also start by dividing the hair into separate sections, but then comes a change in the process: They braid an inch and a half or more of the natural hair itself, and then they feed the synthetic strands bit by bit into the newly created braid.
Since the hair extensions are not knotted at the roots, those who choose this style will feel very little tension at the scalp. The lack of knots also means there is none of the bulkiness that may appear with box braids. And the newer style leaves the braids flatter. Knotless braids feel lighter, too.
“It’s just so easy to handle,” said Jamilla Dick-Quashie, 42, the director of health and safety at the New York City Office of the Chief Medical Examiner who is also a mother to a 6-year-old. “When I’m putting my hair up in a bun or trying to do a braid style with the knotless braids, it’s so much easier. And I know that I’m not feeling the tension on my scalp — and that’s a big difference.”
Makeda Sandford for The New York Times
As recently as three years ago, the style was not very common, according to hair stylists who specialize in braids for Black women. Now, at salons like Aminata African Hair Braiding in Harlem, a majority of customers are going knotless.
Astou Fall, who has worked at Aminata since 2000, said that she and her colleagues watched YouTube tutorials to learn how to create the style after customers began asking for knotless braids in 2020.
They practiced on a mannequin head for about two months until they had the hang of it, she added.
“The knotless braids, in the beginning, it was more difficult for us, because it’s something that we are not used to,” said Ms. Fall, 37, who is from Senegal. “When we got used to it, we noticed that it was actually a little bit easier for us than the regular braids.”
Without the bother of making small knots at the roots, the stylists found that they could braid more quickly — which meant more customers and more revenue. At Aminata, box braids, whether knotless or not, cost $140 for hair that reaches the back and $180 for waist-length.
Amanda Spence, a client at Aminata African Hair Braiding in Harlem, after a recent braiding session.Credit…Makeda Sandford for The New York Times
The new style also drove demand. In the days before knotless braids ran the Instagram explore page, a customer could show up at an African hair braiding salon without booking a time. Now many hair braiders are requesting that customers make appointments online. Some require a deposit of $30 to guard against no-shows. (Aminata African Hair Braiding is still first come first served.)
For Meagan Louis, who braids hair at her own salon, Soignée BK, in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, said that knotless braids had been good for her business, which she started when the new style was coming into vogue.
She said she had not set out to braid hair full time. After graduating from the University at Albany in 2012 with a biology degree, she worked as a technologist in a medical lab and did hair-braiding after her shifts to supplement her income.
“I would do my 9 to 5 and then, when I come back home, I’ll probably knock out two clients,” Ms. Louis said. “I would do that probably every other day.”
She would do one woman’s knotless braids, and that person would refer her to another client, and soon she had more customers than she could handle.
“It was becoming more full-time than the actual full-time job,” Ms. Louis said.
But Ms. Louis was hesitant, partly because her parents, who immigrated from the Grenadines, hoped that she would become a doctor.
“I was getting ready to apply to medical school,” Ms. Louis said, “and it was just a moment where you decide, ‘Is it even worth it to go another 11 years to become a surgeon, or do you just braid this hair and you can make the same amount?’”
In the end, Ms. Louis quit her job at the lab. The possibility of being able to set her own schedule and spend more time with her daughter and son, now 8 and 4, figured into her decision, she said.
“I make more money braiding hair and have more creativity,” Ms. Louis said. “Science is very strict. It works, or doesn’t. It’s scientific, it’s mathematical. But here you can be creative, you can do what you want.”
Ms. Louis worked out of her home until she opened Soignée BK in February 2020. Then the pandemic hit, which left her unable to see customers for months. During those early months of isolation, she built up her salon’s social media presence. She said that when she announced that she was ready to see clients again, she booked an entire month of appointments within two minutes.
CreditCredit…Makeda Sandford for The New York Times
She now starts accepting new appointments on the 16th of each month at noon sharp, and the month fills up almost immediately. Ms. Louis attributes her success to her speed and neatness. The braids she creates have a uniform look, almost as if they were done by machine.
A scientist at heart, Ms. Louis is particular about making sure that the one side of a customer’s head does not end up with more braids than the other, a common pitfall. She also requires that her customers have at least four to five inches of hair and arrive with it freshly washed and blow dried. (With the older style of braids, there was almost no limit to how short a customer’s hair could be.) Ms. Louis charged $150 for medium-size braids per person at first. Now the price is $350 for the same service.
She says she prefers doing knotless braids, partly because the process is faster. Another advantage of the new style is that it is less likely to damage hair, according to customers and stylists. With traditional box braids, knotted tight and close to the scalp, some women experienced hair loss.
Ms. Dick-Quashie, of the medical examiner’s office, said she chose the knotless style because it is known to be gentle. She began to see Xia Charles, 29, the owner of Braided, a salon in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn.
Ms. Charles, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, said she learned to braid hair from her grandmother starting at age 3. Her skill came in handy when she was a student majoring in economics at the University of the West Indies at Cave Hill in Barbados.
“When I would get tired of eating ramen, I would braid an extra couple of heads just to make some money,” Ms. Charles said. “When I finished university, I went back home to Tobago and I couldn’t find a job, so I started doing hair in my sister’s clothes store on a little cooler chair.”
After immigrating to the United States in 2017, she started to braid hair at a barbershop across the street from where she lived in Brooklyn.
Makeda Sandford for The New York Times
“The barbershop wasn’t the best environment,” Ms. Charles said, “but I appreciated it for what it was, and it was a steppingstone, essentially. I got to learn how they operated in America.”
The knotless style has risen in popularity partly because it creates very little tension at the scalp.
Ms. Charles, the proprietor of Braided, also gives braiding classes and has hired some of her students.
“People want protection, they want ease, convenience — and that is what knotless braids offer,” Ms. Charles said.
After five months at the barbershop, she rented a booth at a salon. To establish a clientele, she started posting photos of her work on social media. Customers came for one of her specialties — stitch braids, which are cornrows where the hair is parted horizontally, beneath the spine of the braid. Like knotless braids, stitch braids start with natural hair and involve synthetic hair being fed into the braid, causing less tension. Ms. Charles’s method is unique, because she parts the stitch with her ring finger as she braids downward.
“Stitch braids take care of your hair,” Ms. Charles said. “Back in the day, they would start with a big bump of synthetic hair, and that would rip your follicles out of your scalp. Now you start with your own hair. Black hair, we tend to get traction alopecia a lot; we have our issues.”
After having some success in her rented booth, she started braiding hair in her two-bedroom apartment. “I operated as though it was a salon,” Ms. Charles said. In 2018, she had a breakthrough after she braided the hair of the reality TV star Tanisha Thomas, who posted the result on Instagram and tagged Ms. Charles. Soon, the rapper Cardi B was among Ms. Charles’s Instagram followers — and then became a customer. Ms. Charles said she still braids Cardi B’s hair on occasion.
“Cardi B tends to get the fishbowl, which is generally just cornrows with your natural hair, and then the extension,” Ms. Charles said. “It does not pull on your hair at all.”
In 2020, Ms. Charles was part of the hair-braiding team for Beyoncé’s “Black Is King” visual album, in which the megastar wore box braids longer than her body.
“The biggest influencers are the celebrities,” Ms. Charles said.
In September 2021, she opened Braided, a spacious salon with paper white walls and large bay windows. She also provides classes in braiding and occasionally hires her students. With business booming, Ms. Charles has purchased her first home — within five years of arriving in the United States, she noted.
To those who say prices have gotten too steep, she says customers don’t mind, as long as the braids are done right.
“It might be more expensive,” Ms. Charles said, “but people are willing to pay, provided that when they take it all out their hair is still intact. People want protection, they want ease, convenience — and that is what knotless braids offer.”