Tracking down a ?nalbound? sweater (spoiler: not entirely)

So many people have asked what the process of my research looks like. So this time I am taking notes and if this ever gets published, you’ll see the entire rough process. (Written October 2020 with edits November 2021)

Ever since I started to see the nalbinding community make its forays online, there has always been someone brave enough to make a sweater using the nalbinding technique. They are always fascinating examples of a very impressive amount of work. And yet, body garments for warmth just do not seem to show up in the archaeological contexts. We see lots of socks and mittens and some hats, lots of bags, and many many fragments whose original purpose is just unknown, but no hoods, shirts, or trousers outside of the full body ritual masque costumes of 19th & 20th century Central Africa. (Likely due to the efficiencies of woven cloth for those type garments.)

At the same time, while my most recent focus has been primarily on the Egyptian examples, I am interested in nalbinding worldwide and have been collecting interesting tidbits for a long while now. Some of those were just tantalizing glances at things I did not have ready access to at the time, but for which the world has since become more technologically savvy and interconnected. Objects for which I had perhaps only an out of focus photograph from what was likely a book in a language I didn’t read, are now having high resolution photographs uploaded online and machine translation, while not perfect, is helping to be able to get the gist of what is written about them.

Our Nalbinding Get Togethers* on Zoom, which we began as a social gathering of nalbinders around the world to help alleviate some of the isolation of the COVID-19 shutdown, have given us the chance to meet people across the world. Peruda Florit has been especially interested in Russian nalbinding given her current circumstances. When I first began researching nalbinding, getting information out of the then USSR was extremely difficult from here in the US. I could track nalbinding right up to the Karelian border from the Finnish side, but barely make any headway across. However, over time I had run into the finds from Novgorod and a few other places. Occasionally, I’d get snapshots of images from books etc. Peruda has been having me go through some of those old snapshots to try and find some pieces she may be able to go see in person.

That day, not long after talking about Yuko Hirata’s newest nalbound sweater design, all of which are amazingly beautiful, I thought I’d take a stroll through the old photo files to find some more Russian examples for Peruda. In doing so I ran across this “sweater.”

It’s a picture I collected sometime during or before 2011 of a photograph in a book. Probably found on VK’s nalbinding forum although I don’t remember exactly now. I believe this is the 2nd photo of it I had seen. The other being even smaller and less detailed. The image is not that clear, but the surface texture has the horizontal banding reminiscent of compound nalbound textiles. At the time, machine translation was not very good. I vaguely remember taking the time to translate the caption and look up the saint associated. As I knew that there was an extremely high likelihood of nalbinding in Russia being done at the time of the saint (15th century), I was not too surprised by the concept of it being nalbound. While I was very intrigued, my access to Russian sources was soo limited that I did not pursue it at the time.

With all the amazing sweater designs coming out of the modern nalbinding usage, and the ever present interest in history, running across this particular find again sparked a good bit of interest. My access to Russian speakers is much greater now than it was then. Machine translation, while in no way perfect, is much better and can help narrow down what pieces I want properly translated. And… there are others interested which helps motivate any search.

So step one of the search, I run across a potentially interesting photograph or tidbit of information. In this case, all the wording is in Russian and I’m on my phone (which is currently reducing my ability to find Cyrillic letters). I send the link to Peruda, who kindly transliterates it for me and runs it through the machine translation.

Saint Nilus of Sora’s hair-shirt. So we look him up. Saint Nilus, otherwise known as Nil Sorky, lived between 1433 and 1508. Very interesting. Early for a cardigan styled item of clothing, but hair-shirts don’t seem to have followed standard practices and I don’t know that much about 15th & early 16th century Russian clothing in detail.

A quick poking about by Google search of Saint Nilus of Sora’s name, revealed a new picture of the hair-shirt on display: http://cultinfo.ru/news/2008/5/1096. A bit more and I find a book reference within a Pinterest pin which also has a slightly better quality photo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/531495193517251984/ “Власяница и четки преп. Нила Сорского. Кирилло-Белозерский монастырь // Романенко Е. В. Повседневная жизнь русского средневекового монастыря”

And then, several more interesting hits. This one caused me to exclaim, “Captions, I need captions!” https://xtkani.ru/vlasyanica/ As there appears to be an additional interesting hair-shirt for which I have no date or place information. Peruda then sent me this link, with another image of the more dress-like hair-shirt: https://otzovik.com/review_5601725.html

Having not had much luck in my search using English, I shifted to the Cyrillic for St. Nilus of Sora and the word for hair-shirt. That got me the very interesting link to the Kirillo-Belozersky museum (whose name we had sussed out as likely to have it in their collection via the sources above, but had not yet reached out to) with a very nice photo of the hair-shirt in question that is of such high resolution one can zoom in to see details: https://kirmuseum.org/ru/object/vlasanica-iz-verbluzei-koricnevoi-sersti Much excitement ensued. Of interesting note, the image appears to be reversed from the printed ones above with what had appeared to be the left sleeve now on the right. (It’s not unheard of for an image to be flipped when printed.)

And at this point though, I’m questioning its designation as a nalbound textile.

Zooming into to focus on the rows reveals a texture on all but the bottom most rows that I have seen before, but in slip stitch crochet (SSC), not nalbinding. Looking closely at the neckline and cuffs and I can see loops pulled through loops. While it is possible to achieve that structure with end-led nalbinding as discussed in my NESAT presentation “But it looks like...,” the direction of work would be from the outside edge into the shirt, not working from the body out as one would with the loop-led slip stitch crochet. However, the surface texture was not an exact match for the SSC I had seen before. Both sides appeared to have the same texture, instead of dramatically differing textures, and the rows appeared to alternate between what would be produced by the technical front of back loop only (BLO) SSC and that produced on the technical back side of front loop only (FLO) SSC. It appeared to potentially be a match for working back and forth, instead of in the round or separate rows in the same direction. I immediately sent a copy of the link off to my friend Cary Karp who is researching the history of crochet and is the one that helped me learn to recognize SSC structures and surface textures. Cary tells me that this type of back and forth turned flatwork work in SSC is called a Rib Stitch in the 1840’s Victorian fancy work literature, but as a specialty stitch with nothing in any earlier literature.

Our web search did turn up some information about the provenance of this hair-shirt. It is attributed by legend to Saint Nilus of Sora. However, the first solid mentions are that it was displayed in the Tikhvin Cathedral in the 19th and 20th centuries where it was used for healing.

The Russian term Вязка is often translated as knitting, but in truth is a broader term that might be more appropriately translated as looping as the Russian language does not differentiate between the various looping techniques such as knitting, crochet, or nalbinding. Instead, if one is intending to be specific in Russian, a modifier is added that tells you what type of tool is used.


The Nalbinding Get Togethers (celebrating one and a half years now) are an interesting addition to my research. I used to fill that slot by reaching out to friends that had expressed interest (both casual and academic) in person or one on ones via phone or email/text/messaging. I still do reach out to certain ones specifically, though the in person option hasn’t been available. But as some of my most useful foils aren’t local anyway, those conversations have just continued as they always do.

But my usual process goes something like this: Either I find a hint or mention of a new to me find that might be applicable or I do one of my regular searches to see if something new to me shows up (or I stumble across something as I was looking for something else). I then go see what else I can find out about it. If what I stumbled on originally wasn’t a treasure trove of pictures, I go looking for images as the objects I’m interested in are not clearly and consistently described. In this process I am looking for as many images as possible. Presentation photos, documentation photos, conservation photos, right on down to someone’s terrible vacation photos as sometimes that’s all I can get and sometimes they just happen to capture something the formal ones don’t. I’m also looking for associated diagrams and any analysis that has already been performed. Mining bibliographies for previously published books and articles that relate to the object or its type.

All the while I’m comparing and contrasting with the corpus I already have. I may also start making test samples to help work out or confirm what I’m seeing on the surface structure shown. Then I start talking with others about this interesting thing. In person (my oh so patient husband who doesn’t understand the details, but loves to see me excited about a new tidbit. My mom, who does understand a good bit more) and online via messaging to my sometimes collaborator, to my mentee, to friends, to the get togethers (the group is intended to be a social space and sometimes all we do is chat and work on/show off/encourage our projects, but a big part of my projects is the research and the group is interested in the history of the craft).

Then I start working on in what format I want to share the info (and how detailed) to the broader world: blog post, popular media, peer-reviewed article, seminar presentation (academic or crafting), or multiples of varying depth. I may start formally teaching a particular craft portion at this point as an additional way to find out what words and order best express the concept. Eventually I may end up writing an instruction manual (that’s happened twice, but quite a while ago now as I had a break from the intensive analyzing part and some of the crafting part too due to health issues). And we’ll see where the whole ends up someday, because each new piece adds to the whole as well. I’m working with others on a cross technique standardization of language used to describe the specifics of structural details common across Looping techniques. Trying to see trends that can better improve the overall understanding as so many of these finds are still dated on art historical principles yet without a proper understanding of the specific corpus. Worldwide trends, both historically and where its usage has continued through to today.

Case in point, a comment on a picture that was posted in the Sprang group asking if the item was sprang work (it wasn’t) provided me with a search term that opened up a whole area of current traditional use of nalbinding in South America that I hadn’t known about which I can tie back to historical records of the region and can help with understanding working techniques, direction, etc. Very much fascinating. I’ve lost more sleep again. Bit frustrated at one of the museums because a number of great photos pop up in searches, but they don’t have an organized online search their collection function. Those photos are just from photos they’ve used in illustrating their exhibition announcements etc. A blog post has been drafted, though I don’t know when I’ll finish it. More information has been added to the corpus in my head with very interesting ties across the world.

Sometimes I get the opportunity to see the object in person which leads to object reports for the museums with my aggregated analysis of the object, what’s previously published, and how it fits into the broader corpus, and further potential publications.

I’ve had people comment on how I seem to find so many interesting artifacts. They wonder and ask how do I keep finding so much nalbinding when it is hidden, mislabeled, or in areas one just doesn’t think of nalbinding existing. The answer is quite simple. I keep looking.**


  • * The Nalbinding Get Togethers are currently still occurring each weekend on Zoom at 8pm Eastern Saturdays and 10am Eastern on Sundays. Sessions generally run for two hours, sometimes more. Drop me a note via the contact page for the link or find us on social media (Facebook is easiest).
  • ** If you’d like to help support my continued search, a link to my Patreon is on the side bar menu.

“Coole Socke” – Visiting the Museum der Kulturen, Basel

Back in January of 2019, I had the honor of meeting up with Cary Karp to examine several items that had caught our attention in the significant collection of “nalbound” socks in the Museum der Kulturen, Basel.

They interviewed us and posted a lovely blog post about our visit with additional photographs. Direct link is here: https://www.mkb.ch/de/services/blog/2019/q1/sockenforscher.html

Coole Socke: Ein Hoch auf die Häkelkunst der alten  Ägypter by 
Andrea Mašek
Photo credit: Ruth Decker

While we both had separate reasons for wanting to visit this particular collection, it was the baby sock, Inv. No. III 16705, that brought us to arrange a joint visit as it appeared to be of a structure that has previously been misattributed as nalbound. Much to our amusement, a baby has clearly been in that sock! When I inserted the endoscope to get a picture of the inside of the toe to assist with understanding the structural details (yes, the fabric of this one is still quite flexible), my view was obscured by fuzz.

While there have been delays, Cary and I have been working on writing up our findings regarding the misattributed baby sock (pictured). My reports on the details of the nalbound socks in their collection are also in the works.

As reported in Cary’s blog post shortly after, https://loopholes.blog/2019/01/the-second-bootee/, the baby sock made it into both of our presentations at the TAES seminar a few days later. I’ve already posted the link to my presentation, Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, here. The baby sock shows up briefly on slide 17 at about minute 26:47.   The seminar had some issues with recording causing Cary’s presentation to be in one file with the prior unrelated presentation. Thus Cary’s presentation, The Museological Value of Misattribution, begins at minute 18:47 of that recording with his slides starting shortly thereafter.

We are very grateful to the Museum der Kulturen, Basel for the opportunity to examine these socks.

Cary has also written a blog post and subsequent article on a pair of baby booties from late 18th century Scotland that were also misattributed as nalbinding in the 1950’s: https://loopholes.blog/2018/11/two-bootees/

Earlier I discussed the dangers of insufficient understanding of the the variety of looped techniques and how to differentiate them. I am preparing a presentation for NESAT XIV that addresses the issue of identifying the textile technique used based on the structural details and surface textures (including common surface texture confusions) entitled “But it looks like… methods for differentiating non-woven looped structures.”

More Camel Muzzles

Sometimes one just needs to share one’s notes. After January’s post on Nalbound Camel Muzzles, people were asking to see more of the brightly colored nose caps. I had gathered many more images of camels in muzzles while doing the research than I could possibly use in the post. And truthfully more since, as I too enjoy seeing them and am still curious as to the breadth of their usage. However, the aggregated volume of all those camel muzzles is just too large for another blog post.

Thus, this post is to direct you to my new site page, More Camel Muzzles, where you will find images and video clips, both embedded and linked depending permissions. Each link includes a brief description, including colors and location if known. So far, the images predominantly come from the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Oman, but some appear in images from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Syria. Unfortunately, many of the stock photos do not contain information as to where they were taken. Additionally, we have relatively few photos in general from certain regions, so their lack of inclusion may be due to a lack of access versus a lack of use.

The photos are broken out by category depending on how closely they could be identified. Starting with the nalbound muzzles where the images are close enough and clear enough to identify as worked in Mammen stitch (UOO/UUOO F2), both on and off a camel. Then those that can be identified as a Loop & Twist stitch (more often found across North Africa than Arabia), those identifiable as some form of Simple Looping follow. This section ends with a large collection of muzzles of the same style and appearance as the Mammen stitch muzzles (predominately), but the images are either too far away or insufficiently clear (or I was too tired at the time I added them) to be certain of the stitch determination.

Also included, because they are both interesting and to show how identifiable the nalbound muzzles are, is a selection of Not Nalbound Muzzles. Starting with the Ply-Split muzzles, a technique I first ran into with Peter Collingwood’s publications, this section also contains Crochet muzzles, which all appear to be from Turkey, and a brief selection of other styles of muzzles for comparison.

Now, on to More Camel Muzzles: https://nalbound.com/more-camel-muzzles/

Enjoy!

Nalbound camel muzzles

Three wise men, riding on camels, followed an Eastern star… so they say.

Camel sporting red muzzle in Livestock Market, Wholesale Markets area. Doha, Qatar, March 4, 2013 Photo taken by  Alexey Sergeev. Used according to commonly accepted rules and regulations.

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.

Photo taken on June 22, 2010 by Jarod Carruthers of a Camel in the Dubai Desert. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

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.

Camel and falcon in Qatar's desert
Camel and falcon in the desert in Qatar taken by Ralf Steinberger on March 9, 2012. (CC BY 2.0)

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).

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I love #Dubai ✨🇦🇪 ✨

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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.

Edit: Further follow up is available in this blog post: More Camel Muzzleshttp://nalbound.com/2020/05/25/more-camel-muzzles/

And on this page, which includes many many photos and links to More photos: More Camel Muzzleshttp://nalbound.com/more-camel-muzzles/

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