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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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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