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: A bit more and I find a book reference within a Pinterest pin which also has a slightly better quality photo: “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!” 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:

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: 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.

But it looks like… NESAT XIV 2021

I was honored to be able to present “But it looks like… methods for differentiating non-woven looped structures” at this year’s North European Symposium for Archeological Textiles (NESAT) conference. There were soo many very interesting papers, posters, and excellent discussions. I posted the abstract a few weeks ago, but I’m pleased to announce that my recording of the presentation is now uploaded and available for viewing on YouTube: Additional supplementary content, including short demonstration videos and other structural details, is available on my “But it looks like…” page at:

But it looks like… methods for differentiating non-woven looped structures as presented at NESAT XIV on August 25th, 2021.

NESAT XIV was originally planned for May of 2020 in Oulu, Finland. Restrictions on travel due to COVID-19 led to delays, but we were finally able to hold the conference online via Zoom the week of August 23rd-26th, 2021. The presentations were pre-recorded and the scheduled sessions allowed for some excellent discussions. We got to learn about many amazing textiles and some very fascinating advances in textile science. A few of the videos are being made public and links to them are located here:

Conference proceedings are planned to be published in 2022 in Monographs of the Archaeological Society of Finland. I am looking forward to some excellent papers being included.

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