Travel Log – or why it’s been quiet

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.

The chicken in the gift shop spoke to me, but there was no room in the luggage. Photo credit: Ruth Decker

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.

Our friendly inspector, Mr. Clyde. Photo credit: Ruth Decker

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.

The display case in which the red socks, 2085&A-1900, appear is in a different location than when I first saw them on display in May of 2014. Photo credit: Ruth Decker

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).

Capturing my own photos of UC16766 at the Petrie Museum.
Photo credit: Ruth Decker

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).

My brother and I at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. We had such fun opening all the drawers.

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.

Monday morning it was back to London and the British Museum to meet up with Joanne Dyer for a delightful chat about her work with multispectral imaging for dye analysis as done on the British Museum’s colorful child’s sock and my work on understanding the sock within the context of the broader corpus of Romano-Coptic Egyptian socks. https://twitter.com/JoanneDyer_BM/status/1186351417419796480

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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.

All of a sudden the pigeons took off and swirled through the air. Dam square, Amsterdam.

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.

One of the windmills of Dokkum. Photo credit: Anne Decker

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.

Sunday morning before my presentation. Photo credit: Ruth Decker

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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Dura-Europos Fragments

The most famous of the Dura-Europos fragments is the beautifully stitch patterned cross-knit nalbound fragment, Inv. No. 1933.483, in the Yale University Art Gallery, showing a opposing leaf pattern bordered by repeats of a pomegranate like shape. Its original function is unknown, but the conservation efforts made the three remaining integral lacing loops visible. (Update 1/7/2020: The patterned fragment has evidence that confirms what remains is that of the heel cup/ankle shaft of a sock.)

Photo credit: Yale University Art Gallery – Public Domain
Source: Knit Textile Fragment | Yale University Art Gallery

The particular fragment pictured above initially caught my eye back in the late 1990’s. I had gotten my first copy of Richard Rutt’s A History of Hand Knitting. The chart he included for a knitted simulation did not match the image of the actual object provided on page 30 with the precision that I desired. I spent many many hours pouring over that image and charting out stitch by stitch the nalbinding pattern the year I was in Taiwan (1999/2000). I also spent a good bit of time consolidating a list of references to track down and discovered that the Academia Sinica library had an amazing Humanities and Ethnography collection. This collection included a copy of R. Pfister and Louisa Bellinger’s 1945 article on the “knitting” in The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II which included a black and white image that was clearly post cleaning/conservation.

Increase/decrease diagrams from my 2000 cross-knit nalbinding handout.

My class handout I initially created in 2000 included not only diagrams of the possible increases and decreases and my chart for the specific pattern found in Inv. N0. 1933.483, it also included my initial attempts at using the images of the Dura-Europos fragment to illustrate the specific increases and decreases used in extant Roman Era cross-knit nalbinding. It continues to be a favorite piece for this purpose as it includes so many examples thereof in the formation of its stitch patterning.

Reviewing surface structure similarities after my presentation at the 39th International Medieval Congress.

In 2004, I was honored to present “Nalbinding or Not?: Some Structural Differences between Nalbinding and other Textile Techniques” at a DISTAFF session during the 39th International Medieval Congress in Kalamazoo, Michigan. The patterned Dura-Europos piece proved to be an excellent example for demonstrating what cross-knit nalbound increases and decreases looked like in an actual object and how they differed from the corresponding shaping of a knitted object.

Here is a copy of the handout from my presentation.

A sample testing out the pattern I charted from Inv. N0. 1933.483 made while listening to presentations at the 39th International Medieval Congress.
Cross-knit looping being produced by both crossed/twisted knitting and the cross-knit nalbinding variant.

The cross-knit looping structure can be produced by two different techniques, either cross-knit nalbinding or crossed/twisted knitting. They both produce a fabric of the same basic structure. However, they are worked in opposite directions. The clues as to which technique produced the fabric are in the shaping (increases/decreases), pick-ups, and mistakes. The preferred spiral working direction also differs between the two.

More information regarding the stitch patterned fragment, Inv. N0. 1933.483, along with a downloadable full size image is available on the Yale University Art Gallery’s site. The record for the two “ribbed” fragments, Inv. No. 1935.556, that were also found at Dura-Europos is available here. The electronic records were created from historic documentation that does not necessarily reflect their current knowledge about the objects, thus they are still listed as having been knitted.

The Yale University Art Gallery also has a permanent exhibition on the Dura-Europos excavations and as part of that has a very nice online feature outlining the historical background and excavation history with images and maps of the excavation: http://media.artgallery.yale.edu/duraeuropos/

I would like to thank the Yale University Art Gallery for providing such excellent photos in their online collections. I am also very much looking forward to, and very grateful for, the opportunity to view the fragments in person later this month. They continue to play a pivotal role in the study of the nalbinding technique and the structures it produces.

Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile

On January 21st, 2019, I was honored to give a presentation entitled Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile at the Textile Archaeology of Egypt and Sudan’s (TAES) seminar on “Current Research in Textile Archaeology along the Nile” at the Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen. They recorded the presentations and posted them online. A direct link to mine is located here. This presentation focused on the over 110 extant nalbound artifacts, primarily socks, that have been found in Romano-Coptic Egypt and surrounding areas. They are now located in museums throughout the world.

This presentation was intended to be an introduction to the breadth of information that can be gleaned from examining the corpus as a whole: the diversity of nalbinding variants, the colors and shapes of the objects, their shaping and construction, the find locations up and down the Nile, along the Eastern desert and in the Western Oases, etc.

Abstract:
Extant Romano-Coptic nalbinding from the Nile Valley and surrounding regions provides one of the most statistically significant populations of such material, consisting of over 100 specimens.

The technical variant used in approximately half the objects is misleadingly called Coptic or Tarim stitch. A preferred established term is cross-knit looping and personal examination of the Tarim basin finds has not revealed its presence there. The misnomer derives from the misinterpretation of a brief note in a broader work, compounded by unawareness of the variant’s oldest known occurrence from the Nahal Hemar cave.

The term Coptic stitch reflects a greater understanding of naming conventions for nalbinding variants. However, recent research indicates that multiple finds labeled as Coptic actually date to the Roman and Late Roman Eras. The nominal association with the Coptic Era is additionally misleading because half of the designated corpus displays a range of more complex variants.

This paper addresses the terminological imprecision, confusion about underlying fabric structures, and effects of provenance irregularities. It also presents an initial collation of available images and mapped locations of the Egyptian finds as part of a comprehensive catalog of nalbound objects prior to 1600 currently being compiled.

Image may contain: Anne Marie Decker, sitting
“An acclaimed independent researcher in her element made a marvelous presentation yesterday.” Photo by Ruth Decker

This post was specifically to collate posts regarding the presentation. However, I plan to write up a bit of my experiences leading up to the deciding to do the presentation and the preparation therefore in a future post. I also want to write up one on the trip surrounding the seminar and presentation as I was lucky enough to arrange several visits with museums to see extant items in their collections (reports on which will be forthcoming in their appropriate venues).