Three wise men, riding on camels, followed an Eastern star… so they say.
This last year’s examinations included several examples of nalbound Omani sand socks in addition to the Romano-Coptic Egyptian socks I’ve been concentrating on of late. I spent some time searching for comparables and stumbled across a rare image of sand socks being worn. Searching for more I realized that there is a reluctance to take images of people’s feet (not that surprising given the cultural issues). However, in my searches I was reminded that sand socks are not the only traditional nalbound objects in the Empty Quarter of Arabia. Anti-spitting muzzles for camels are another traditional craft that uses nalbinding quite frequently (amongst other interesting techniques such as ply-spliting, etc.) and it turns out that people are much less reluctant, eager even, to take pictures of camel muzzles than they are of people’s feet.
These camel muzzles are almost always identified as knitting; though I’ve yet to see a knitted one. And while I did see one source that called them crochet (a technique that has some minor representation in modern camel muzzles though not commonly amongst those photographed), none of that particular article’s accompanying photos were representative of anything but nalbinding. This misidentification of technique obscures the living tradition of this ancient craft.
Based on the imagery online, current trends in camel muzzles involve the use of brightly colored acrylic yarn. A more traditional one now in the Pitt Rivers Museum, 2003.9.132, was collected in 1994 and is made of hand-spun yarn. This is similar to the majority of the sand socks I have examined. Those in the Pitt Rivers that were collected between 1985 and 1986 are also primarily hand spun (2003.9.134 .1, 2003.9.135, 2003.9.136, 2003.9.137, as well as the recent pair at TRC, Leiden TRC 2018.2807a-b). Although, the Pitt Rivers also has the brilliant red/green striped pair, 2003.9.138, which are entirely acrylic and the pair acquired in 2011 and now in the British Museum, 2012,6004.5.a-b, incorporates some black acrylic at the cuff of otherwise hand-spun socks.
Our knowledge of historical nalbound artifacts from the Arabian penninsula is so negligible as to be non-existent at this time. However, nalbinding’s general obscurity also means I believe it’s less likely to have been something picked up from travelers or invaders. Nalbinding has a known history in Egypt & Sudan, and current traditions not just in the Empty Quarter, but also further into the Middle East in Iran (I’ll be writing about traditional Iranian giveh in the future).
The search for as many examples of camel muzzles as I could find took me places I never expected. It’s not often that my nalbinding research turns up celebrities. But this search found me glancing through Paris Hilton and Martha Stewart’s vacation photos amongst others.
The nalbound camel muzzles all appeared to be worked at rather large row heights. Between that and the acrylic yarn, in the closer photos it was easy to see the stitch used. I was a bit surprised to find that in each and every case where it was clear enough to see, the stitch used was UOO/UUOO F2, more commonly known at the Mammen stitch (after a single find of the same stitch in Mammen, Denmark).
However, that finding is consistent with the socks I examined as well. I did come across one image, that while it was not clear enough to make a determination from, did appear to potentially be of a simpler compound version than the predominant Mammen. As of yet, it appears the socks examined by Peter Collingwood are of a stitch atypical of current use.
So on this day of Epiphany, the Feast of the Three Kings, I bring you the gift of brilliantly colored nalbound camel muzzles. If you’d like to see more, a simple search for “camel muzzle” will bring up a beautiful bouquet.