The Textile Museum is working to put images of its collection online. Luckily that now includes multiple Islamic Era Egyptian socks. Beautiful photos of the blue and white cotton knitted socks and several compound nalbound socks.
The pilot site does not yet have their complete textile collection, but it does have several stunning examples of blue and white stranded knitting (interlooping) and four nalbound (interconnected looping) socks to add to the list of the Egyptian corpus. There is also one slip-stitch crochet sock that is going to require additional investigation into its provenance.* The catalog data is not necessarily up to date, which is not surprising given the volume and speed with which they are entering the records. They also have several Andean artifacts of interest as well.
Note: The pilot site doesn’t seem to react well to Facebook. So if you are viewing it there, you may get the same sock repeated. Try viewing it via WordPress or a different browser.
The language is Swedish of course. Anna Lilliehöök gives a bit of a tour of the museum and several of the artifacts therein. At around minute 6:50, she brings out a leather sole with a nalbound fragment stitched to it. She speculates that it might be the remains of an insole or perhaps a sock/stocking to which a leather sole had been applied. She tells us that stitch used is Mammen; which is UOO/UUOO F2 in Hansen’s classification. The dating is 1300-1400 CE.
Edited to add this lovely photo taken by Cary Karp. You can even see the fine sewing thread mentioned.
What I find very interesting is that the row appears to follow the edge of the leather sole. That direction under and along the arch does not match the row direction that I see in contemporaneous nalbound socks. So for now, I think I find the insole theory more plausible. Nonetheless, this is a very interesting find as it appears to have been sewn to the leather when the find was whole and new. The concept of an integral insole sewn into a leather turn-shoe is very intriguing.
Searching for more examples of Romano-Coptic socks can lead to many surprises. A quick mention here, a random unidentified image there, the numbers go up as information is found and the numbers go down as disparate pieces are matched together. This is one of those cases where the numbers went down.
Not too long before that, I had run across an image of the bottom of a two-toed nalbound sock that had been saved without any identifying information. Tracking the image down led me to Dr. Margret Maitland, Principal Curator of the Ancient Mediterranean, and Head of the Mediterranean, Africa, Americas, and Oceania Section in the National Museums Scotland in Edinburgh, but no further information on the image.
Then, in October of 2018, I ran across another photo in my Twitter feed. It clearly was the other side of the same sock. And yet, still no identifying information; although it was obvious the sock had clearly undergone conservation since the original image.
By November 2018, my search had turned up a then recent entry for A.1911.315 into the National Museums Scotland’s Online Catalog. At the time, there was only one image of the sock available. However, the catalog entry did note that the sock was from the Hilton Price collection. So where I had thought I might have two socks to add to the corpus, I only had one. The numbers go up and the numbers go down as images show data pieces are not a match, that a mention is not actually nalbinding, or as in this case matches are made between separate mentions. (I am currently tracking around 110 separate items in the Romano-Coptic corpus, but the numbers go up and the numbers go down.)
As I was preparing my presentation, Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile, I reached out to Dr. Maitland to request permission to include a photo of this sock. She was kind enough to forward me twelve beautiful photographs to use in my research. These quickly made it into the online catalog for public viewing as well.
There are, as of this writing, 19 images of the sock available online in the the National Museum of Scotland’s catalog entry for this sock: https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/collection-search-results/?item_id=404856. Several of them are quite close up. The sock clearly shows ridges evidencing a middle, not top edge, connection between rows (excluding in the back and forth short row construction of the heel). This is similar to, though likely not exactly the same connection as, the stitch described as being used in the 13th century nalbound fragment from Müsen, Germany;2 mentioned as it is a mid connection most likely familiar to nalbinders. It is also at least similar to, and quite possibly the same as, the stitch used in five Coptic socks currently located in the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland.3 These are a Mammen/Korgen/Müsen base stitch with an M1 connection: UOO/UUOO M1.4
One might say the sock is inside out, although we do not know which side the maker and wearer intended to be the “right” side. The exterior of the sock is showing the technical back of the fabric as made. Most prominently this is noticeable in the ridging as the ridges of a mid connection are formed on the technical back as worked. The direction of the spiral start on the toe also indicates that the current exterior is the technical back as nalbinding is conventionally worked from left to right and the toe is spiraling right to left. Of the four socks using a visually similar stitch in the Museum der Kulturen, four show the ridges on the outside (two adult split toed socks, one undivided children’s sock, and one undivided incomplete children’s sock) and one has the ridges to the inside (undivided children’s sock).5
On April 7th, 2020, the BBC Scotland posted a ‘One Night in the Museum’ video on their YouTube channel that features the sock for the first minute. It shows some lovely closeups of the toes.
Visitors to the Ancient Egypt Rediscovered exhibition at the National Museum of Scotland occasionally post additional photographs of the sock online as it is now on display. The one below was an exceptionally fine example posted as a response to a tweet of another sock from the Romano-Coptic corpus currently found in the British Museum.
My sincerest thanks to Jennifer Blaikie who posted the link to the “The Lost Sock” blog post where I would come across it and to Kirsten Donaldson Wheal who posted it where Jennifer would run across it. It gave me just the push I needed to finish up this post. If you, dear readers, happen to run across interesting nalbinding tidbits, I’d love to hear about them.
This stitch description has yet to be independently verified. However, it is the stitch most likely recognized by nalbinding craft workers as being a mid connection. Mid connections are unfortunately never specified as to taken from the left or right, but either is possible and distinguishing important. More information on the Müsen fragment is available in: Böttcher, Gudrun. “Nadelbindungstechnik: Mittelalterlicher Textilfund in Müsen – Nachbildunsversuch” in Experimentelle Archäologie: Bilanz 1991 Archäologische Mitteilungen aus Nordwestdeutschland. Beiheft 6. by Staatliches Museum für Naturkunde und Vorgeschichte. Oldenburg: Isensee, 1991. ISSN: 0170-5776
There are very few published photographs of the Museum der Kulturen’s collection of nalbound socks. The largest collection is in this article: Flury-v. Bültzingslöwen, Regina, and Dr. Edgar Lehmann. “Nichtgewebte Textilien vor 1400 / IX. Teil.” Wirkerei- und Strickerei- Technik: Fachzeitschrift für die Fabrikationspraxis und Betriebstechnik der Wirkerei- und Strickerei-Industrie 1955 (5): 38-41.
Böttcher, Gudrun. “Nadelbindung – Koptische Textilien un Museum der Kulturen Basel und un Stadtischen Museum Simeonstift, Trier” in Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, No. 39 (Autumn) 2004. There is another fragment extant that appears to be in this stitch in Finland. It is described in Vahter , T . ‘Tuukkalan neulakinnas’, Finska Fornminnesforeningens Tidskrift X L, 1934: 236-243. See also: Vajanto, Krista. “Nålbinding in Prehistoric Burials – Reinterpreting Finnish 11th–14th-century AD Textile Fragments” in Sounds Like Theory. XII Nordic Theoretical Archaeology Group Meeting in Oulu 25.–28.4.2012. Edited by Janne Ikäheimo, Anna-Kaisa Salmi & Tiina Äikäs. Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland 2, 21–33. ISBN 978-952-67594-7-0 (PDF) ISBN 978-952-67594-6-3 (hardback)
The Museum der Kulturen posted a blog post about our visit to see the collection in January of 2019. https://www.mkb.ch/de/blog/2019/q1/sockenforscher.html While the blog post focuses on another sock in the Museum der Kulturen collection, the images do include a few of the socks mentioned in the background.
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.
If you’ve enjoyed this content, please feel free to help make more research possible… Click on the link below to become a monthly Patron or see the sidebar for a one time gift.
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.
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.
It’s a great video. One minor note I’d like to add. The term “Tarim stitch” is a misnomer as cross-knit nalbinding is not found as a primary construction stitch in the Tarim Basin finds. I discussed this in my January presentation and will be blogging about my summer of 2000 trip to see the Tarim hats in a later post. Cross-knit nalbinding examples show up on multiple continents, with the Andean region being particularly prolific. The oldest example of the cross-knit looping structure is a fragment found with some of our earliest textiles in the Nehal Hemar cave.