Note: I examined the pair of Scottish child’s bootees discussed below on 8 April 2019. This revealed details that necessitate significant revision of the description initially provided by Audrey Henshall and my analysis of it. The bootees are the oldest credibly attributed exemplars of shepherd’s knitting and the possibly of their having been nalbound can safely be dismissed. A recent photograph and a summary review of the updated information appears in my article, the Evolution in Early Crochet: From Flat-Hook Knitting to Slip-Stitch Crochet, in the Winter 2020 issue of PieceWork, pp. 47–51.
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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.
This can be directly compared to Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger’s schematic drawing of slip stitch crochet (discussed in the preceding post).
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.
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 is actually a baby’s sock, noteworthy because it has been associated with Coptic Egypt as discussed in detail in a separate post.
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.