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.
I’m very excited to start this year off by calling your attention to a particularly spectacular and significant pair of nalbound socks. While the known corpus of finds out of Egypt continues to expand as growing interest encourages examinations of those random boxes and unopened drawers that have been languishing, next to nothing was available about nalbinding further up the Nile. And now, not only do we have our first known piece of medieval nalbinding found in Sudan, it’s a pair of compound nalbound socks decorated with intarsia.
These beautiful blue wool socks with yellow and green accents, KH 18868, are currently on display in the “Hidden Textile Treasures in the collections of the Sudan National Museum” exhibition which opened in Khartoum on October 24, 2019 and will run through May 2020. The green crosses on the fronts and yellow crosses on the backs of the ankle shaft are worked as an integral part of the fabric.
The exhibition is curated by Dr. Magdalena Woźniak, as part of her broader Nubian Textiles project.1 I had the honor to meet her last January at the TAES seminar in Copenhagen. She brought this pair to my attention after my presentation, Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, introducing a broader understanding of the wide variety within nalbound finds from Egypt and surrounding regions. In particular, the embroidered crosses on the two socks2 found at Deir el-Dyk caught her eye given the intarsia crosses of this pair.
These Nubian socks were found on the feet of an adult woman buried in the medieval Christian cemetery in Semna South.3 Dating to around the 11th century AD is based on the type of burial and the last architectural phase of the Christian church that was built there in the 9th-11th centuries AD. 4
This extraordinary pair of socks constitutes one of four unique fabrics that were allowed to be transported to Poland for conservation as part of the project.5 Conservation complete, they returned to Sudan in time for the exhibition opening and are now housed in sealed and properly lit display cases for preservation.
Another small picture of the conserved socks on display is included in IKŚiO PAN’s exhibition announcement (in Polish). The further linked description pdf (also in Polish) includes two closer photos, one pre- and one post-conservation, showing the technical front and technical back of one of the integrally worked crosses. (See also link and link). We are currently working on an article with further details.
This will be one of many articles I will be working on this year. Last year, I was honored to have the opportunity to examine a large number of other examples of extant objects. However, the travel required, and life’s demands, meant that I did not have much time to analyze and write up the data I acquired. I look forward to being able to bring together more data regarding historical nalbinding.
Also, a huge thank you to all those that brought me information on finds new and old this last year.
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Today a post came across my feed telling me of the recent excavation of a late Medieval (15th century) landfill in the Hanseatic town of Tallinn, Estonia that includes nalbound fragments. The linked report is the initial summary of the finds and other information collected in the 2018 excavation season.
The collection has not been fully catalogued so there is no precise analysis of the artifacts as of yet. However, 4 items of fragmentary nalbinding were found, now in 21 pieces. Additionally, a knitted cap, which is pictured in the article, and a few knitted socks, gloves, and mittens can be identified out of the 43 knitted items (70 fragments thereof) that were also found in the landfill. These are but a few of the approximately 2000 total textile fragments, primarily woven with some felt.
In this season of giving, I am extremely grateful for those that bring me gifts of information regarding nalbound finds. This year has been made even more fruitful by your sharp eyes and generous spirits.
I had attempted to reach out to the Warrington before I left, but as the timing had been short, I had not been able to make contact. So after my appointment at the Whitworth Art Gallery to view their collection, my mother and I met up with Regina De’Giovanni and, after a quick lunch, we made our way to Warrington to see if by chance the sock I had heard of was actually on display. The Warrington is a lovely museum. If you ever get the chance to go, I highly recommend it.
Thorough examination of the Egyptian displays did not reveal a sock hiding anywhere. But, as they are rather crowded displays, we decided to ask. The lovely young lady on duty said that there was no sock on display. However, if we were interested in seeing it, she had a form we could fill out and she would get it to the collections manager to see if a visit could be arranged. She was surprised that I had the inventory number on me. Given that I would be leaving Manchester in just a few days, we did not expect there was any chance I’d get to see it.
And yet, before we had even finished viewing the rest of the collections, Craig Sherwood found us. He knew exactly the sock I was asking about. It was in a box with some of their other Coptic textiles. He was going to the store rooms the next day and could bring it to the Museum the day after that. Would I be available in two days time? Would I? Luckily our flight out of Manchester was not until Wednesday evening and we had no specific plans for that morning.
It was rainy on that Wednesday and we missed the best train. After finding a place to set up (all the exam rooms were full), we proceeded to have a lovely time discussing Coptic socks and examining the precious little example in their collection. As this sock had not previously had a photograph published, I had very little information about it beforehand. I got to learn what its current condition was, the fineness of the yarn used, and which foot it was for. It had clearly been worn and the dust of Egypt was still on it.
I would like to extend my warmest thanks and appreciation to Craig Sherwood and the other employees of the Warrington Museum & Art Gallery for their assistance and gracious hospitality giving me the opportunity to examine this beautiful blue sock in their collection.
I was honored to be granted permission to include a photograph of the sock in my presentation (shown on the 5th slide), Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, to help round out a visual summary of the variety of nalbound socks from Egypt and the surrounding regions.
Once I got back from Copenhagen and Nantes, it was time to quick turn around and prepare for the presentation at the Textiles from the Nile Valley study group’s conference and associated travel. Unfortunately, this left me little time to work on the blog. That said, I have been gathering lots of interesting information that I will be processing and hoping to share in this and other appropriate venues.
Note: This was a long and involved trip. This is a summary, but it is still quite long. I will be making more detailed posts as to the specific appointments/items as time permits.
There was only a month and a half between the two trips, so I had to immediately start arranging my travel plans and requesting permissions from museums to use photographs of items in their collections in my presentation. Complicating that, is requesting, arranging, and confirming research examination appointments along the way. As luck would have it, almost all of the institutions I approached were able to accommodate my schedule, so this became a very packed trip.
We started off by heading to Nashville, Tennessee. An online friend of mine was being honored and I had been asked to participate in the ceremony. Mom and I had a lovely time exploring Nashville. We went to the Tennessee State Museum. An evening at the Grand Ole Opry (very fun) and some tire pressure trouble (not so fun) with the rental car topped off the evening before we drove out to our hotel near the site.
A slow morning, one of the few this trip, got us to site just before 2pm. We then proceeded to try to not be noticeable as it was supposed to be a surprise. It worked well and I got to spend a lovely evening chatting nalbinding with Muirghein. The temperature drops rapidly when the sun goes down in the Tennessee mountains and we were not prepared. By the time the ceremony actually occurred, I could barely speak I was soo cold. Thankfully, due to the hospitality of the locals, I was not actually frozen. Nonetheless, the heat and water pressure of the shower was greatly appreciated once we got to the hotel.
The next morning involved repacking for Europe. An hours drive to the airport and a quick flight up to Newark brought us to where we were met by my heroic husband. His visit solved several of our issues; how to not take extra luggage to Europe we weren’t going to use there and collecting a few forgotten items. It also solved how to get to JFK for the next flight. A quick dinner and we were off. Except for a minor issue regarding overweight luggage, everything went smoothly at the airport and we landed in London on Monday the 14th. After which we followed our host’s excellent directions to her house, where we were greeted, and inspected, by a beautiful and friendly cat named Clyde.
Tuesday was filled with appointments at the Blythe House. The first was with the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre. My sincerest thanks to Benjamin Hinson for his excellent support during our visit. The lighting was challenging, especially with two of the items in melamine envelopes. However, I did get the chance to see details that I had not previously seen of the purple sock with lacing loops (link), the red and yellow striped children’s sock (link) with its mix of cross-knit and pierced loop variations, the brown sock with many patches (link), the toe cap once thought to be a doll cap (link), and the “bag” that looks like a cat toy (link). Unfortunately, but certainly not unexpectedly, they were unable to pull the pair of red socks (link) off display for me to examine. I did manage to capture some details of them on display as we took a quick trip to the V&A at the end of the day.
My second appointment was with the British Museum’s Textile Study Room. Here I requested, and got to see, their red Egyptian sock (link), a pair of Omani sand socks (link), and some beautiful Peruvian bird and flower bands (Am1931,1123.21.a is the one I most closely examined). The Collections Manager, Helen Wolfe, was kind enough to have brought out another piece of Peruvian cross-knit looping for me to see as well; a lovely fingered turban band of which glorious photos are published in Textiles from the Andes by Penelope Dransart and Helen Wolfe.
I was very fortunate in the timing of this trip as the Blythe House is closing soon and the V&A’s Clothworkers’ Centre and the Textile Department of the British Museum will be closed for a while as they navigate the move to new locations.
Wednesday we headed to the British Museum to the Ancient Egypt and Sudan Study Room. I spent the morning examining several fragments of knitting: some knitted tubes (link & link) and a lovely bit of multi-colored cotton stranded knitting (link) from Nubia. The afternoon was spend examining the colorful child’s sock (link) that recently had its dyes analyzed by multispectral imaging (link to article), the brown cross-knit sock (link), and the compound nalbound sock with embroidered cross (link) that is so similar to the one I examined in the Museum der Kulturen in Basel this last January (link to our visit, but not that particular sock).
At the lunch break we took a quick dash to the Petrie Museum to see the pair of socks they have on display (link). Unfortunately, I was unable to obtain a research appointment as they are booked solid through February which meant I was unable to see their other sock (link). I look forward to the opportunity in the future as there are several places in the UK I still need to see.
Thursday morning it was up early so that we could catch a train to Oxford as I had an 11am appointment with the Pitt Rivers Museum. A quick walk to the storage depot and I got to spend the day examining 5 pairs of Bedu sand socks collected in Oman (2003.9.134 .1, 2003.9.135, 2003.9.136, 2003.9.137). Interesting tidbits include noting that the inside heel of the vibrant red and green striped pair was made using the most glowing orange yarn (2003.9.138) and that the technical front does not appear to have been considered when applying the additional pads. The accompanying paperwork so kindly provided by Nicholas Crowe included the the fact that one of the pairs was made specifically for the collector and thus we know the specific dates of its creation. I was also granted the chance to see the pair of split toe felt socks collected by Petrie (catalog entry link & images link & link).
Friday morning took us to the Ashmolean and The Von Bothmer Centre for the Study of Antiquities; which is currently entered through a fresco in the Pompeii exhibit. Here I met with Liam McNamarra, the Lisa and Bernard Selz Curator for Ancient Egypt and Sudan, to examine the baby bootie and larger brown sock. The brown of the baby bootie is actually purple, so it’s purple with orange and green stripes. The brown sock also revealed a few surprises. Never let anyone tell you they only have a boring brown sock of no consequence. Every single one I have examined has had some special interesting detail to add to our understanding of these objects. Unfortunately, these socks have yet to make it into the Ashmolean’s online catalog as of yet. I did provide a link to one online image in an earlier blog post on January’s visit to the Bolton, New Walk Museum, and Ashmolean (link).
After my appointment at the Ashmolean, we met up with my brother. Having stashed our luggage we went back to the Pitt Rivers to actually explore the collections on display. The Pitt Rivers has to have my favorite ever directions on how to get to their museum. Once in the Natural History Museum, go past the dinosaurs. When you find Darwin, turn left. There you will find the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum. Bring a flashlight and some patience. It is absolutely packed with all kinds of interesting items. The bilums and baskets were of course a favorite, but I was also enamored with the wheat weaving from 1900 and several of the wax votives.
We finished the day with a walk all the way around Christchurch. Unintentional, but we caught the sun setting in the golden hour on a beautiful building covered in red ivy. We attended the Evensong service and then my brother drove us home for a quiet relaxing weekend.
Tuesday morning was an early train to Amsterdam. I have never seen so many bicycles in one place. We took a walk down Niuewendyk were we saw what has to be my favorite T-shirt shop (mashing various genres together in a beautiful and cohesive manner). The Dam square was populated with Santa and Darth Vader as well as a beautiful bubble maker and a great swarm of pigeons. While mom and I often don’t use the audio tours, the one offered for the Royal Palace was excellent. The gift shop left me trying to work out how to bring home a full size umbrella. Didn’t manage it this time.
Wednesday was an appointment with the TropenMuseum. Veerle van Kersen brought these socks brought to my attention very recently and I was lucky enough to have a day free in my travels that could easily bring me to Amsterdam. There was a slight mix up as to what day I would arrive, but Sofie de Weger made time to ensure I had the opportunity to examine them. They are all small children’s socks, but the largest of them has several colors (link). There is also one other complete sock (link) and two toe/heel pieces (link), one of which is very small (link). Not much is known of their provenance as is unfortunately the case for much of the compound nalbound finds.
The day ended with a multi-train and final bus leg trip up to the Northern end of the Netherlands to a small town called Dokkum. We arrived just after 9pm, which unfortunately meant that all the kitchens were closed, but the lights were so beautiful. We took an evening stroll around to see the sights. We saw two lovely windmills and met a very friendly cat that hopped up on a post to be petted. It was a perfect evening. The scent and crisp chill of autumn setting in.
Thursday morning we met up with Harma Peining and her husband before heading to the Museum Dokkum to examine their 19th century hat. More will be forthcoming on that in future articles. We had a lovely visit and a chance to explore the museum as well. Harma and her husband graciously gave us a ride to the train station which cut down on some of our travel time and gave us time to catch up on the way.
An unfortunate delay in Rotterdam meant that we got into Antwerp after 10pm. The delay itself was kept pleasant by some lovely Belgians we met on the platform and it is due to them that we had an easy time catching the bus towards our hotel in Antwerp. A bit of a walk and we arrived. Such a relief to know I didn’t have to pack up again for three days.
Friday morning I sent mom off to explore Antwerp while I finished up my slides for the presentation. The last of the permissions I needed had come in on Thursday and thus it was easier than it could have been. However, getting all the last minute minutia arranged took me through until the afternoon. I finished up just as my friend, Cary Karp, arrived. After giving him a few moments to freshen up, we were out the door to the Katoen Natie headquArters so that I could examine the beautiful pair of children’s socks in The Pheobus Foundation‘s collection. I got a good look at a particular detail I had been confused by in previously published images of the pair. While we were there, Kristin Van Passel, asked us if we’d be interested in examining some knitted tube fragments that are also in their collection. We were able to take a very close look at their structure which was aided by the multicolored patterning of the tubes. When we finished up it was time to join in the conference’s social gathering upstairs. A chance to meet up with old friends (a few) and new (many).
Saturday was spent enjoying the excellent presentations being delivered at the Textiles from the Nile Valley Study Group’s conference dedicated to “Explorers, first collectors and traders of textiles from Egypt of the 1st millennium AD.” Putting names to faces in some cases. The study group does not maintain a website, but the program was uploaded on the Universität Bonn’s website (link). The book table was also fun to peruse and caused some difficulty in how to get them all home. You will notice several new entries to the Annotated bibliography page.
Saturday evening was an optional dinner gathering with conference attendees at a lovely, but loud, restaurant near the water. I got to try more new foods. During the lull between courses, I was able to finish up my theoretical re-construction of what the Dura Europos patterned fragment might have looked like as a complete sock, based on my examinations of other contemporaneous finds. This is the piece Lily had been helping me with earlier in the month.
My evening ended with a quick lesson in how to steam block a sock using a steam iron and hotel towels. After basting in a rough outline of the fragment edges, it was ready for its photograph and insertion into my slides for the morning’s presentation. My presentation, Fringed and patterned: decorative elements in Romano-Coptic nalbound socks, was first thing on the schedule Sunday morning.
The submitted abstract reads: “Approximately ten percent of the recognized corpus of Roman-Coptic nalbinding consists of items with fringe or stitch patterning as decorative elements. This paper will report on the results of a preliminary structural analysis of a number of such objects and place them in a broader museological context. These are three pairs of socks found in Gebel Abou Fedah by F. Cailliaud (1787-1869) now in the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, France and the single sock recently rediscovered in the National Museum of Denmark in an older unexamined lot. These socks will be compared with similar contemporaneous items such as: the image of a sock collected by T. Graf (1840-1903) of currently unknown location, the fragment collected by F.W. Kelsey (1858-1927) now in the Kelsey Museum of Archeology in Ann Arbor, the sock collected by C.T. Currelly (1876-1957) now in the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, and the fragments from Dura-Europos.”
My investigations turned up several more comparables after submitting the abstract, so there were also examples from the collections of The Whitworth Art Gallery (University of Manchester), the Bolton Museum and Library, the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung, and the musée des Tissus et des Arts décoratifs. All of whom were gracious enough to grant me permissions to use images of their collections in my presentation.
Once the Sunday presentations were completed, many of us boarded a bus to Brussels to visit the “Crossroads – Traveling through Middle Ages” exhibit at the Art and History Museum (once known as the Cinquantenaire Museum). I enjoyed learning more about their collections, but my attention was, not surprisingly, held most by the child’s sock (and tunic) on display (link). The exhibit is ongoing through the end of March next year (2020) in case you happen to be in Brussels.
We left Brussels that evening heading up to Leiden in the Netherlands. Another delay in Rotterdam (brake trouble on our train) meant we took a detour past Delft through The Hauge, but as it was already dark we did not get to see much. The morning light in Leiden, on the other hand, was perfect. We decided to forgo finding a bus and took a walk instead to meet up with Diana Lankhof at the Textile Research Centre. Lies van de Wege, the depot manager, was kind enough to open the Centre an hour early as we had limited time before we had to leave to catch the plane home from Amsterdam. I had a lovely time chatting with Diana and Lies over tea and getting the chance to explore TRC’s “Socks & Stockings” exhibit which runs through the 19th of December.
Unfortunately, the time to leave drew quickly nigh and we had to catch our train to Amsterdam to begin the trip home. Schiphol Airport made the process easy and we were soon on our way to New York where my dear husband awaited to drive us the rest of the way home.
This has been a very busy year. While there are still objects out there that I would dearly love to have the opportunity to see, and I am set to present a poster at NESAT next year (schedule), I also need time to write up my reports on all of the items I have been honored to see this year.
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As we were heading to Europe for my presentation in January, we decided to take advantage of the opportunity and arrange to see as many of the Egyptian socks as I could manage in the time allotted. Reviewing my list of the current locations there were a significant number of institutions generally situated around Manchester, UK. As neither my mother nor I had ever been to Manchester, this seemed like the perfect opportunity.
Given the short time frame, I had only managed to arrange visits with the Whitworth Art Gallery and the Manchester Museum (to be discussed in later posts). However, I still wanted to see go to the others on the off chance that the socks would be on display. If not, then to at least see the exhibited collections.
We flew in on a red-eye flight. My brother kindly picked us up at the airport and drove us to the Bolton Museum.
Neither were on display. Nonetheless, the Egyptian exhibit was interesting as was the rest of the museum. We particularly enjoyed the local history and natural history sections.
The next day we headed to the New Walk Museum in Leicester. I’ll be writing a more complete post about that visit separately as their sock was on display.
Then a quick dash up to Oxford to visit the Ashmolean. We had unfortunately gotten off to a late start and thus were very rushed for time when we arrived.
There was a bit of construction so we entered at the side entrance which put us directly into the Ancient Egyptian section.
In 2010, the child’s sock was on display. It was my hope that it might still be when we went this January. However, for the safety and preservation of their textiles, the Ashmolean limits the amount of time any particular object remains on display and the sock had been on display for several years.
Another view (#2), in black and white, that I believe to be of the sock now in the Ashmolean can be seen in the image taken during the 1913-14 excavation of Antinoë for the Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Society that I discussed in my earlier post “Have you seen this sock: Part 2.”
I now find myself in the midst of making travel plans which, amongst other places, will actually take me back to the Ashmolean. This time with a scheduled appointment to see the child’s sock and another Coptic sock in their collection.
The last two days, the 26th & 27th, have been spent in the back rooms of the National Museum of Denmark in Copenhagen examining a cross-knit nalbound sock and the Mammen mantle ribbon fragments. My sincerest thanks to Anne Haslund Hansen and Ulla Mannering respectively for their time and assistance in making these items available for examination.
I first learned of their sock this past January when I was in Copenhagen giving my presentation on preliminary data regarding the finds from Egypt and surrounding regions: Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile. The day after the seminar, there was a group tour of the Egyptian exhibit in the National Museum of Denmark led by the Senior Researcher, Anne Haslund Hansen.
When we were viewing the Coptic Era tunic on display, it was asked if there were any more textiles in the collection. To which the answer was yes. They had a box of Coptic textiles that had not been examined in particular detail yet. Having just mentioned the possibility that there might be unknown socks hiding in old boxes in museum collections, I had to ask if there might be a sock in there. I was still quite surprised when she said yes. Although it is solid brown, it’s quite an impressive sock. It’s primarily whole and has a very dense fringe at the ankle.
The Mammen mantle ribbons I have, of course, known about for decades. From the first images I saw in Margrethe Hald’s book, “Ancient and Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials,” to the high resolution images that were available online for a while in collaboration with the Centre for Textile Research, they have been of particular interest to me.
In fact, the basic stitch used in this find (and in other regions such as Coptic Era Egypt) has been one that I have used when teaching people to nalbind. It’s simple enough to understand and yet complex enough that it makes transitioning to other stitches easier. In fact, it’s the primary stitch on which I based my instruction manual “Nalbinding Made Easy.”
So to say I was excited to be allowed the opportunity to study the ribbons, might be an understatement. There is always something to be learned in examining a find in person. Even though they’ve been permanently sewn to their mounting board, there were plenty of interesting details to be gleaned about their construction.
Detailed reports will be forthcoming, but will have to wait until after I complete my examinations of the three pairs of cross-knit nalbound socks in the collection of the Musée Dobrée in Nantes, France.
The delay since my last post is due to the fact that I was preparing for, and sorting through the results of, my appointments the other week with the Royal Ontario Museum and the Kelsey Museum of Archeology to see the Egyptian nalbinding in their collections.
As I discussed in an earlier post, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Ontario has eleven Coptic socks in its collection. Eight of the 11 socks are primarily whole. The remaining three are fragments, but of sufficient size and construction to indicate that they were actually socks. Five are ostensibly dated to 200-641 CE. The other six to the 4th-5th century CE. None of them have been carbon dated. Not much information was retained as to their find locations. Where noted, they appear to be from the Faiyum.
On Monday, July 8th, I was granted a study block in their workrooms to examine the socks. The number of patches was quite interesting. 910.108.137 tends to photograph as a muddy brown, but in person is a beautiful deep reddish purple.
The Kelsey Museum of Archaeology in Ann Arbor, Michigan also has six fragments their collection that I have not previously introduced you to on this blog. Click here to access their online collections. These fragments were all found in the excavations at Karanis, which is located at the Northern edge of the Faiyum basin. Five of the fragments (by inventory number) are the cross-knit variant of nalbinding. One is blanket stitch. On July 10th, I had the opportunity to study them.
Careful examination of fragments can at times be much more revealing than at first glance. Besides the increases on the toes combined with evidence of the heel flap telling you for which foot a sock was made, this collection also has evidence of a fringed sock and another one with stitch-patterning. I will be going into the details in my presentation currently scheduled for October: “Fringed and patterned: decorative elements in Romano-Coptic nalbound socks.”
Last seen in Egypt during the 1913-14 excavations of Antinoë, the other three socks pictured appear to have made their way to various English institutions. However, where is the 4th?
The original image was taken by John de Monins Johnson during the 1913-14 excavation of Antinoë for the Graeco-Roman branch of the Egypt Exploration Fund. The glass negative of which is now housed in the Griffith Institute. Their online catalog, http://www.griffith.ox.ac.uk/gri/johnson/jo10-13.html, shows the image rotated 180 degrees with the missing sock at the bottom. An excellent overview of Johnson’s role in documenting the excavations, is available here in Elisabeth O’Connell’s article “John de Monins Johnson’s 1913/14 Egypt Exploration Fund expedition to Antinoupolis (Antinoë).” Fig. 104 shows the socks, but there are also many images of other items excavated at that time as well as information regarding several other socks and nalbound fragments distributed by the EEF in 1914-15.
Note: At the time of the excavations, the socks were presumed to be knitted as the differences between the crossed knitting and cross-knit nalbinding techniques had not yet been described.
So if you happen to see this sock (#4 above), please let me know via Contact.
I will blog about the other three socks in future posts.
Antinoë, also known as Antinoopolis, is located along the Nile near modern day El-Shaikh Ebada.
Please note: This is the story of the journey to examine the Tarim beret. The substantive details of the examination will be published in an appropriate venue, but the journey itself was an interesting adventure. It is quite an epic.
This story begins in 1999 in a small town in Western Washington State and it took me across the Pacific Ocean and across much of Asia, alone, to look at an ~3000 year old hat. It was the kind of journey which apparently was just not done and yet; stories are born.
My quest to learn more about nalbinding throughout the world led to me to a then recently published book: The Mummies of Ürümchi by Elizabeth Wayland Barber. In it she describes the beautifully preserved textiles that had been found on and with the mummies of the Tarim Basin and her trip to Ürümchi in 1995 to study them. Quite early on, pgs. 32 & 33, she mentions the man with the ten hats. One of which has since become known as the Tarim hat, or beret. She describes it as having been “made of dark brown wool in a looped technique that at first glance looks like knitting. But knitting, so far as we know, was not invented for another two thousand years. This hat used a needle and thread method known by the Scandinavian name of nalbinding (“needle binding”).”
She included little line drawings showing the side view of the shape,
the top view showing the ribbed pattern in quadrants, and a little
diagram showing a round start of five stitches with a partial second row
demonstrating two Z-cross-knit variant wales and a two course deep
increase. The only other nalbound hat mentioned as such, on pg. 60, is
from Tomb 4. “The tomb also contained a dark red onion dome hat (like that in fig. 2.7) done in spiral nalbinding …”
This of course peaked my curiosity. What did the hat look like? How was it made exactly? That little diagram and sketch were certainly not enough to know how it worked. Fortunately, that year she was out promoting her new book and had a speaking engagement nearby, for relative terms of near involving over a hundred miles. I, unfortunately, could not attend. However, I knew people that could and they were sent with express instructions to report back any information she might provide. During the Q&A session, they did ask her about the nalbound hats, but they reported back that she said unfortunately, while she knew enough about the technique to identify it, she did not know enough about nalbinding to be able to convey the specifics of its construction. And thus the hats remained a mystery.
1999 was an exciting year for me as I will describe in a later post. Suffice it to say, that summer I found myself heading to Taiwan to continue my Chinese Mandarin studies for a year. Much nalbinding research was accomplished (the Academia Sinica is an amazing library). However, the hats of the Tarim basin were still a mystery and as I was so close, and unlikely to be so again, I decided in the summer of 2000 to travel to the Mainland to see them for myself.
I flew to Hong Kong and crossed my fingers that I would be able to get a visa. My plane was set to return home a month later and I could not afford to stay in Hong Kong for the whole time. I had no set itinerary, just a few places I wanted to explore and the desire to see the Tarim hats in Ürümchi on the far side of China. It was while I was waiting in Hong Kong that I got my first glance at an image of the Tarim beret. J. P. Mallory and Victor Mair’s book, The Tarim Mummies: Ancient China and the Mystery of the Earliest Peoples from the West, had just been published and there, on page 214, was an image of the beret. I could see the quadrants and ribbing. The stitch was not clear in the image, but it did not appear to be the cross-knit nalbinding variant.
I figured I would take the train as I had loved taking the train as a child and it would let me see the scenery. What I had forgotten was that riding in a moving, vibrating, vehicle has put me to sleep since I was a baby. I got more sleep on that vacation that I have before or since given the on average 35 hour stretches between places I went to explore. Turns out the Chinese are very polite and will pretend you do not exist until they find out you can “talk,” by which they mean speak Chinese. Nine months in Taiwan had increased my speaking ability to where I was quite comfortable carrying on a conversation so I had plenty of companionship along the way. The Chinese also do not travel alone. It’s just not done. So once they figured out I could talk, I tended to get adopted.
The train took me up from Hong Kong to Beijing where I spent several lovely days exploring with a Swede I’d met on the train. From Beijing I traveled to Hohhot, the capital of the Inner Mongolia province in China. I took a tour where they did come through on their promise of an English speaking guide, but as I understood it the first time (and better) in the Chinese, I chose not to subject us to a repeat of the information. I got to ride a pony across the grasslands, climb the dunes of the Gobi desert* and ride a bactrian camel. From there I went to Lanzhou and was convinced to visit Xining by someone that saw me spinning on the train. In Xining I got to see a towering pile of raw cashmere several stories high. I was introduced to the various colors and to a fiber I’d not run into before from yaks; which are quite tasty by the way.
From there I headed to Ürümchi. I arrived shortly after 7 in the morning on the 14th of June and after getting lost trying to find a recommended restaurant that was not where it was supposed to be, I made my way to the 新疆自治区博物馆, Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region Museum, generally referred to as the “Xinjiang Museum” for short. By the time I went to see them in 2000, the mummies were in their then new gallery alluded to in Barber’s book. Though it appears that it was shortly after my visit that the old building was torn down and replaced with the modern building in which the Xinjiang Museum is now housed. The mummies were in separate cases in the middle of a large room. There were large display cases in the walls. The beret was the third item from the left in the long wall case. Negotiations, which progressed much more smoothly in Chinese than English, were made for me to return one week later to examine the Tarim beret. I then took the evening train to Kashgar; planning to return Ürümchi on the morning of the 21st.
My mother, meanwhile, was very curious as to if her experiments matched the hat. I wrote a quick email to the nalbinding list responding to her request on June 16th from an internet cafe in Kashgar. I mentioned that I was hot and dusty, but happy and excited. There wasn’t any air conditioning in the hard bed train carriages and the metal absorbed the heat. We opened the windows for air, but that let in the dust of the Tarim basin. I described that while I could not see well enough through the glass to determine the exact stitch, it clearly was not cross-knit nalbinding. “The light was too dim and it was too far from the glass for me to make out clearly what it was, just that it wasn’t any of my theories exactly.”
It had been a long hard train ride back from Kashgar, I had gotten severely dehydrated and slept 17 hours straight. I arrived to discover they had not yet pulled the beret from the display, so I got to watch them collect it. It turns out the only entrance to the case was a door on the far right wall. Remembering that the beret was third in from the left wall, I watched them carefully step over the items on display to collect the hat. Then, because there was not room to turn around while holding the hat, I watched him carefully step backwards over the displayed items all the way back to the far end of the display case.
They then placed it on a table covered with newsprint for me to examine. I counted the stitches in the beginning row, examined the increase and pattern structure, noted the strategy to decrease towards the underside, and marveled at the beautiful braided edge inherent in the felt roll that supports its shape. While the technical details recorded will be published later, the structure was not cross-knit nalbinding as had been implied by Barber’s diagrams and the quartered and striped drawing. Instead, it is made of patterned simple looping, sometimes called blanket or buttonhole stitch, with judicious use of spacing between stitches to make the striped pattern. The increasing strategy does mean that there are a few single stitches per row that connect to the previous in a manner to make a single wale of cross-knit nalbinding at each quarter’s edge, but this is a secondary effect, not the primary construction structure.
I also took notes on three other hats, though they were not removed from their cases for examination. The most notable was referred to as the “witch’s hat” given it’s beret-like base and stuffed point displayed on the skull upon which it was found. The base was covered in a fabric made of loop & twist and the point was covered in a fabric made up of loop & twist and blanket stitch bands. I left Ürümchi that same night taking the train to Xi’an. I did not have internet access until the 26th, at which point I sent a preliminary report to the nalbinding email group list.
After visiting the clay warriors, it was time to make the hurried run back to Taiwan. I took a plane to Shenzhen. Then a ferry across to Hong Kong in order to catch my plane. Three currencies in one day as I was running on my last pennies. I spent three days in Taiwan packing up my stuff and then started the journey home.
* The dunes we climbed rose right up off the river’s edge. Our group decided to avoid the crowds, so we were climbing in fresh undisturbed sand that had been baking in the sun all day. I got about two thirds up the dune and couldn’t go any further because my fingers and toes had swollen so much from the heat retained in the top layer of sand. I had to have someone go before me so that I could climb in the slightly cooler layer that their passage stirred up. There is a reason that people wear wool socks in hot sandy areas and it does have to do with insulation.
For more recent information on the Tarim finds & updates to the Annotated Bibliography:
Claßen-Büttner, Ulrike. Nadelbinden – Was ist denn das? Geschichte und Technik einer fast vergessenen Handarbeit. Norderstedt: Books on Demand GmbH, 2012. ISBN 978-3-8482-0124-2.
Nargi, Lela. Knitting Around the World: A Multistranded History of a Time-Honored Tradition. Minneapolis: Voyageur Press, 2011.
Xin, Xiaoyu. “Research on Prehistoric Hats in Xinjiang (2000 BC-200 BC)” Asian Social Science Vol. 11, No. 7. Canadian Center of Science and Education 2015. ISSN 1911-2017 E-ISSN 1911-2025. http://dx.doi.org/10.5539/ass.v11n7p333 Accessed June 3, 2019. Note: The article refers to these hats as “knitted” which is not the only evidence of translation issues from Chinese to English.