Crochet · History · Nalbinding · Structures · Techniques

A Tale of Two Bootees

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.


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


The difference between them is that Seiler-Baldinger illustrates the stitches as worked with the yarn wrapped over the hook in the standard direction for present-day crochet. In contrast, Henshall wraps the yarn in the opposite direction, under the hook. This is the corresponding standard in Western knitting, and was prevalent in the earliest documentation of slip stitch crochet.

In fact, by showing each row as a separate strand, Henshall’s drawing provides an excellent 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 but nalbinding has no such nexus beyond the bootees. It is therefore 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 under the front edge of the corresponding stitch in the preceding row (FLO), with the yarn wrapped under the hook. This is the normal direction when using the flat shepherd’s hook explicitly identified with Scottish practice and illustrated in the other 1780s sources.


To the extent that the photograph reveals, the bootee appears to be made of one flat trapezoidal section wrapping around the ankle and heel with the rows worked parallel to the sole, and one triangular section for the toe shaped by rows of decreasing length worked perpendicular to the sole. The two sections meet in a diagonal welt on either side of the bootee but its detail cannot be determined from the image. The top is finished with three rounds of BLO slip stitching.

Henshall 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 the overwhelming advantage Henshall had of physically examining the bootees, her photograph does not illustrate continuous horizontal rounds of stitching nor is the vertical structure delimiting the toe clearly a shaping device. 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 under the name of cleekit. 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.


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.

This does not diminish the significance of the earlier pieces this post was named for, telling only half the tale. The other of the bootees is more correctly described as a baby’s sock, that has been associated with Coptic Egypt. From the nalbinding perspective there is a further issue about whether the structure illustrated by Henshall, also seen in the piece remaining to be described, has a proper place in that craft’s stitch repertoire.

Identifying secondary structural characteristics that might differentiate slip stitch fabric made respectively by nalbinding and crochet is therefore worth some effort. Finding attributes unique to each would confirm the application of both techniques. Conversely, the failure to locate such evidence would largely eliminate any doubt about the Scottish bootees being the earliest exemplars of shepherd’s knitting yet noted. This process would parallel the one that led to the recognition of cross-knit looping and twisted-stitch knitting as distinct techniques for producing the same basic structure, which put a clearer chronological focus on the advent of true knitting.

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, an interesting 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 its 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 without the sock’s age or provenance having been verified. I’ll discuss relevant documents in separate posts.

2 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Bootees

  1. Love this series of posts! I have such anticipation for what’s to come. Quick question on the bootee – is the sole a piece of leather? Do you know if that was sewn on after, or were the stitches worked into it as the body was built?


    1. Always glad to hear that these things are appreciated! I had initially truncated Henshall’s description but have now edited the entire text into the post. This includes the info you’re looking for: “The [bottom] edge is folded to meet under the foot and is attached to the [leather] sole.”


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