On Monday, May 20th, 2019, I was honored to be allowed to examine the cross-knit nalbound fragments found in Dura-Europos, Syria and now housed in the collections of the Yale University Art Gallery as inventory numbers 1933.483 & 1935.556.
The fragments are dated to pre-256 CE as that is when Dura-Europos was sacked and never re-occupied. As described in Yale’s online catalog, they are both of wool, though the ribbed fragments are of a finer gauge than the patterned fragment. The patterned fragment is currently a kind of beige with some possible staining. The ribbed fragments are also currently primarily beige, but with stripes of red, yellowish tan, blue & purple, and hints of green. Inv. # 1935.556 is actually composed of two separate fragments. They are stored unfixed to their backing boards in glassine wrapping to protect them from the light.
Time will be needed to process the data collected, analyze it, and prepare it for publication in appropriate venues. However, early indications are that there is likely evidence that will tie these examples even closer to the broader Roman Egyptian corpus.
I would like to extend my warmest thanks and appreciation to Dr. Lisa Brody, Associate Curator of Ancient Art at the Yale University Art Gallery for her assistance and gracious hospitality giving me the opportunity to examine these exceptional fragments in their collection.
Additional sources that discuss the Dura-Europos finds: (to be updated)
Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. London: B T Batsford Ltd, 1987 ISBN 0713451181; reprinted Loveland, Colorado: Interweave Press, 1989 ISBN 0-934026-35-1, Library of Congress Catalog Number 87-46353; pgs. 28-30.
Pfister, Rudolf and Bellinger, Louisa. "The textiles: Knitting," Rostovtzeff, M.I., et al. The excavations at Dura-Europos Final Report IV, Part II. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1945, 54-5.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The myriad of theoretically possible stitches in nalbinding can be quite exciting. Nonetheless it is very important to exhibit caution, especially when “finding” new stitches in the wild. A solid understanding of all looped structures is necessary to avoid accidental and injudicious co-opting of the natural structures of other looping* and knotting techniques. Not all end-led structures are nalbound structures.
Over time, I will be addressing the issues surrounding properly and clearly defining nalbinding (doing so by what it is instead of what it is not). I will also show how surface structure can both assist with and obscure identification of technique. Additionally, how to spot those higher level construction structures which help differentiate the specific technique used to create a particular base structure. This means that there will be an amount of not directly nalbinding related posts as we explore other looped textiles enough to get an understanding of how exactly they differ from nalbinding. As we’ve noted throughout the study of nalbinding, it is easy for objects to be miss-classified as an entirely different technique and structure by those that are insufficiently familiar with the possibilities available within the family of non-woven looped textiles.
For example, Cary Karp has pointed out in his blog, in the post Crochetedness vs. nalboundness, how incorrectly co-opting slip stitch crochet structures into the nalbinding atlas of stitch variants has obscured and made difficult the study of that technique’s history and transmission. Given that nalbinding has long suffered under this same issue of miss-classification/identification obscuring its history, it behooves us to exhibit caution to avoid doing the same to our looping cousins.
* While all loop-led structures can technically be produced via end-led means, those means may not be at all practical or reasonable.