Traditional forms of nalbinding are used for a wide variety of purposes around the world. One area with a strong continuous tradition of nalbinding is the highlands of Papua New Guinea and West Papua, Indonesia. While one is most likely to be familiar with the Bilums from the region, another usage of nalbinding is found covering some Koteka.
A Koteka is a traditional penis sheath worn by some ethnic groups of Papua; mainly in the highlands. One may also see the koteka referred to as a horim. While often made of a particular gourd, the ones of most interest to this blog are the ones that have an outer layer of nalbound textile.
I have not yet had the opportunity to travel to Papua to see the amazing amount and variety of nalbinding that their traditions have and continue to produce. I do hope to make it to their annual Bilum Festival and Gala someday. And yet, Papuan nalbinding has been collected by colonizers and purchased by modern tourists for centuries and thus found its way into some of the most unexpected places. So much so, that when I once again find nalbinding where I didn’t expect it, I’m not surprised to often find that the example in question is Papuan.
On my most recent trip to Iceland, where I was honored to be able to examine the mitten from Arneiðarstaðir in Iceland, I also took the opportunity to go to several other museums. I picked up a new nalbinding needle at the Saga Museum. But having entirely forgotten about nalbound koteka covers, I was rather pleased and surprised to find nalbinding in The Icelandic Phallological Museum. Probably the last place I expected to find nalbinding. Even more so than finding nalbinding in a Ripley’s Believe it or Not.
The Festive Koteka in The Icelandic Phallological Museum uses both the Simple Looping variant (often called Blanket or Buttonhole Stitch) and a spaced and staggered Cross-Knit Looping variant. The Danai tribe Koteka shown in the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! video has the Simple Looping variant on the sheath itself and what looks like a compound variant (undetermined) in the strap.
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.