Crochet · History · Nalbinding · Structures · Techniques

A Tale of Two Bootees

Note: I examined the pair of Scottish child’s shoes discussed below on 8 April 2019. This revealed details that necessitate significant revision to the description initially provided by Audrey Henshall and my analysis of it. This is discussed further in a follow-up report here.

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An extensive report by Audrey Henshall on Early Textiles Found in Scotland was published in 1952. Its primary scope was “fabrics from the Roman period to the 17th century which are likely to be of native production” but:

“One unexpected item in the collection [of the National Museum of Scotland] is an example of naalebinding or looped needle netting which it is desirable to record though outside the chronological limits of this paper. The naalebinding occurs on a pair of child’s shoes made about 1780. This type of work has been described and discussed fully by Dr Hald1: it is known from the Iron Age in Scandinavia where it was used for mittens and caps and, though, rare, from the Middle Ages in other parts of Europe. These shoes are the only example of the work so far recognised in Great Britain. The fabric is worked with a needle, the stitches being a complex type of chain stitch which works into the former row as well as the current one. The general effect of the Scottish example, for which no exact parallel has been found, is of a fine, firm crochet.”

The footnoted reference is to Margrethe Hald’s Olddanske Tekstiler (Early Danish Textiles), published two years earlier. This played a seminal role in familiarizing researchers with nalbinding (a development described in a previous post). Henshall cites it elsewhere in her text and it is fair to suspect that it influenced her assessment of the shoes.

Since then, one additional nalbound item has appeared in a report on archeologically recovered material in Great Britain. This is the well-known sock found at the Viking settlement in York, described in detail by Penelope Walton in Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate, from 1989. However, she doubts that it was manufactured in England and states:

“The only evidence that this technique was ever practised in the British Isles is to be found in an 18th century pair of child’s bootees in the National Museum of Antiquities of Scotland (Henshall 1952).”

Henshall provides the following illustration of their structure.

henshall-slipstitch

This can be directly compared to Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger’s schematic drawing of slip stitch crochet (discussed in the preceding post).

slip-stitch

One key difference between them is that Seiler-Baldinger illustrates the loops with their legs crossed, producing closed stitches, while Henshall illustrates open loops. The two drawings also differ in the way the legs of the loop pass around the side of the stitch to which it is anchored in the preceding row. Seiler-Baldinger shows them passing in front and Henshall shows them passing behind. This correlates to the distinction slip stitch crocheters make between ordinary and ‘inverse’ stitches, or knitters make between knit and purl.

By showing each row as a separate strand, Henshall’s drawing provides a good schematic illustration of shepherd’s knitting, which when worked flat, is characterized by the yarn being cut at the end of each row. That craft has a strong attested connection with Scotland and it is reasonable to question whether Henshall correctly identified the tool and technique used to produce them. The earliest non-English descriptions of slip stitching with a hook are also from the 1780s. One is specifically about the production of shoes, adding further reason to pose that question.

The structure visible in the photograph Henshall captions “bootee in naalebinding” could similarly serve as a textbook illustration of slip stitch crochet worked with the flat shepherd’s hook explicitly identified with Scottish practice and illustrated in the other 1780s sources. She describes both the technique by which the bootees were made and a pivotal detail of their structure quite differently.

“This pair of child’s bootees of the 18th century is included because of the unusual technique employed to make them. The labels on the soles read ‘supposed to be made about the year 1780. Belonged to Agnes Taylor’s great-great-aunts. 1880.’ The uppers are a red wool fabric, the soles are leather. The dimensions are: length 4 3/4 ins., width 1 3/4 ins., height 3 ins.

The general appearance of the fabric is fine and close, rather like knitting or crochet, worked in an evenly spun red 3-ply wool. The fabric is a simple form of naalebinding. It is worked, with the wool threaded through a needle, in a series of stitches in rows working into the current and previous rows simultaneously. The joins between the lengths of the wool are visible in places either as knots or darned-in ends. The bootees are worked horizontally round and round with two converging lines of decreases on either side of the toe. It is uncertain if the top edge, which is finished with three horizontal ribs, is the beginning of the work. The ribs are formed by working the new row into the centre of the preceding row instead of the edge of it, the edge loops standing up on the outside surface making the ribs. The other edge is folded to meet under the foot and is attached to the sole.”

Notwithstanding Henshall having physically examining the bootees, it is difficult to reconcile her description of their structure and construction with the detail shown in her photograph. It does not appear to illustrate continuous horizontal rounds of stitching nor are the converging lines delimiting the toe clearly formed by decreases. The configuration of the top edge would draw no comment if the bootee were crocheted. The use of shorter lengths of yarn is consistent with both nalbinding and flatwork shepherd’s knitting. However, in the former case one would expect them to be joined in barely visible splices worked directly into the yarn. Darned-in ends are more indicative of shepherd’s knitting.

That craft was still practiced in Scotland in Henshall’s day with little modification, using a flat hook locally termed a cleek. However, the research community had not yet taken notice of it or any other form of slip stitch crochet. In light of the interest that Hald had recently focused on nalbinding, explaining the bootees as having been produced with an eyed needle pulling a single strand of yarn is understandable.

Henshall also illustrates how a slip stitch can be formed in that manner.

henshall-needle.jpg

Even if this is taken to be as viable a technique as is the use of a hook, the contextual support for the bootees being shepherd’s knitting contraindicates any other technique. However, additional objects that crocheters would identify as evidence of their craft have been described as nalbinding. Some of this material was made after the establishment of modern crochet and is therefore of no historical consequence to it.

From the nalbinding perspective there is a further issue about whether the structure illustrated by Henshall and also seen in the piece remaining to be described, has a proper place in that craft’s stitch repertoire. This does not diminish the significance of the objects this post was named for. Admitting to some poetic license in the title, the second bootee it is actually a baby’s sock, noteworthy because it has been associated with Coptic Egypt.

Identifying secondary structural characteristics that might differentiate slip stitch fabric made respectively by nalbinding and crochet is therefore worth some effort. If it can indeed be determined that slip stitch fabric was produced by both techniques, a significant new perspective would apply to the relationship between them. Conversely, the failure to locate evidence specifically indicating the use of an eyed needle would largely eliminate any doubt about the Scottish bootees being early exemplars of shepherd’s knitting, as the child’s sock would also be. The question of the latter object’s age would then become pivotal to dating the advent of that craft.

The first description of the putative nalbound Coptic sock was published in 1955, again predating widespread recognition of slip stitch crochet. However, that attribution is echoed in a later report where the alternatives should have been recognized, and which verifies neither the sock’s age nor provenance. I’ll discuss relevant documents in separate posts.

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More information about traditional Scottish cleeking is given in a presentation held by Louise Scollay at the In the Loop at 10 conference at the Winchester School of Art in June 2018, titled Archive Treasure: Cleekit Gloves, with relevant additional commentary in a following panel discussion.

Crochet · History · Nalbinding · Structures

Slip stitch miscellany

Before focusing on specific objects with slip stitch structures that have been described as nalbinding, here are a few relevant details about the crocheted production of such fabric that weren’t mentioned in the preceding series of posts. In them (Parts One, Two, and Three) we saw how Victorian instructions prescribe cutting the yarn at the end of each row of flatwork and starting the following row with a new length of yarn. All stitches of a given type appear identically on the same side of the fabric and the difference between the front and back faces can be significant.

This also means that any intrinsic procedural advantage there might be in not needing to splice the working yarn at relatively frequent intervals, commonly cited as a differentiating characteristic between nalbinding and crochet was not regularly utilized in flatwork until surprisingly late in the history of the latter craft. (It is not a structural attribute in any case).

The early Victorian texts also say that slip stitch crochet was known and practiced as “shepherd’s knitting” long before the craft was enhanced and renamed. Slip stitching then gradually fell out of use for producing fabric and became an ancillary technique for such things as moving the active loop and joining separate pieces of fabric. Nonetheless, the encyclopedic presentations of yarncraft that were produced toward the end of the 19th describe it in full extent.

One example is the “crochet-slip stitch” in The Dictionary of Needlework by Sophia Caulfeild and Blanche Saward, from 1882 (using a drawing that had appeared in earlier publications by other authors).caulfeild-sscAnother is the “single stitch” in the Encyclopedia of needlework by Thérèse de Dillmont, from 1886. (The direction of the chaining changes between the foundation and first slip stitch rows and then remains constant.)

dillmont-ssc

The same illustration appears in the undated New Edition of the encyclopedia, which is unlikely to have been published before the turn of the 20th century. It is labeled there as a “single stitch or small closed stitch…also known as ‘slip’ stitch.”  However, in contrast to the 1880s instructions for working a new stitch into the back leg of the chain capping the corresponding stitch in the preceding row (BLO; back loop only), the New Edition allows for other points of insertion beyond the (unnoted) front leg of the loop that was the initial prevalent form (FLO).

Put the hook from the right side of the work, through the upper half either of a chain stitch or a stitch of the row below….

The instruction for inserting the hook into the right side implies situations where it is inserted from the wrong side. This has become a mainstay of contemporary slip stitch crochet in the form of inverse slip stitches, which are also found in hybrid knit/crochet fabric from de Dillmont’s day. The basic technique was described by Cornelia Mee in connection with beadwork in Crochet Explained and Illustrated, from 1845.

…insert your crochet at the back of the loop, instead of at the front, as usual, draw the silk through from the front, and take it on your needle, then draw the silk in the common way through both loops.

Although the loose yarn ends that characterize working each row with its own strand are only illustrated with the slip stitch, de Dillmont notes:

The rows are worked according to the kind of stitch, either to and fro, or all from one end. In the former case, the work is turned at the end of each row… If, on the contrary, the rows be all worked one way, the thread has to be fastened afresh each time… At the end of a row, cut the thread and pass it through the last loop; all kinds of crochet work may be fastened off in this manner.

Her illustration of the “plain stitch” shows BLO double crochet (UK) with all rows worked from the same end. This is followed by a “rose stitch” worked under both legs of the loop and turning the fabric at the end of each row — the current standard double crochet. She continues with numerous individually named stitches instantiating many possible combinations of front loop only, back loop only, both loops together; cut rows, turned rows; yarn wrapped over the hook, yarn wrapped under the hook.

dillmont-plain-rose

The first form of crochet to be described in the literature of textile systematics appears to split the difference between these two stitches. The Systematik der textilen Techniken (Systematics of Textile Techniques) by Kristin Oppenheim, published in 1942, clearly states that the double crochet (feste Masche) is worked through the back leg of the loop. The accompanying photograph shows the work turned at the end of the foundation chain but it cannot be seen if the subsequent rows are turned or cut.

oppenheim-blo-sc.jpg

Oppenheim illustrates an isolated chain in the same photographic manner but does not include the slip stitch. She uses schematic drawings for other looped structures, including two taken from non-European objects but labeled with the Swedish term vantsöm (“mitten stitch”; then a common designation for nalbinding) as “Peruvian vantsöm” (Peruanisches Vantsöm) and “South Sea vantsöm” (Südsee-Vantsom).

A successor work, Grundlagen zur Systematik der gesamten textilen Techniken (Basic Systematics of all Textile Techniques), written together with Alfred Bühler in 1948, extends the use of schematic drawings to crochet. It also adds material about vantsöm and disambiguates the photographed double crochet structure by replacing it with a schematic drawing of de Dillmon’t rose stitch, explicitly citing its source.

An expanded edition of the Bühler-Oppenheim Systematik by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger was published in 1973, reverting to the title of Oppenheim’s initial Systematik der textilen Techniken and with a preface written by Bühler. This retains the material on vantsöm, the schematic drawing of the double crochet, and adds similar drawings of other crochet stitches. These include what is presented as a slip stitch (Kettenmasche) worked through the back leg of the loop, although the text says that either leg can be used.

seiler-baldinger-ssc

In fact, this is not a correct representation of the described structure. It shows one chain vertically connected to another but without the full loop-in-loop anchorage that is a definitive attribute of crochet. Seiler-Baldinger replaced it with another drawing that correctly shows the latter property in the second edition of the book, published in 1991.

slip-stitch

It can also be noted that both drawings are in the opposite direction to that shown by de Dillmont, whom Seiler-Baldinger otherwise cites, as well as Caulfeild and Saward. This is reasonable for the 1973 illustration of the stacked chains but wasn’t reversed in the revised drawing. This may simply indicate that the difference between it and the Victorian illustrations went unnoticed but the fabric it was based on can also have been worked in the direction shown.

An English translation of the second German edition was published in 1994 as Textiles: a Classification of Techniques. I discussed the imprecision in the correlation between the glossaries of the two languages in a previous post and included an inverted copy of the slip stitch drawing in another. The related issue of the concordance of the various graphic representations of the slip stitch was deferred to a coming post — this one — and will be considered further from the nalbinding perspective.