Looped Fabric

The tale of the second bootee

In the last few posts, I’ve been working my way toward the description of a baby’s sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. If correctly dated, it could be the oldest object with a slip stitch structure that has yet been noted. It is described as nalbinding in previous documentation, rather than as the slip stitch crochet it is more likely to be. The sock has also been associated with the textile production of Coptic Egypt, which although rich in both simple and compound nalbound material, would make it far older than any other evidence of slip stitch fabric, regardless of the production method.

This increases the care needed in examining the chronological and technological records, and if necessary, setting them straight. If the colloquial information about the sock’s provenance should prove even roughly to be  correct, it would allow for slip stitch fabric to have emerged around 1,000 years before the earliest firm date in the 1780s that can otherwise be set to it. Radiocarbon dating would immediately rein this in to a more useful interval, assuming that it is not of more recent origin than can be dated with that method, at all.

If it should prove to have been nalbound, slip stitch crochet could arguably have developed as an alternate technique for producing at least that one form of nalbinding. Pending a more precise dating of the sock, this would still suggest an earlier date for the origins of crochet than the one currently accepted. Adding a single new stitch to the already extensive repertoire of nalbinding would be less dramatic but interesting nonetheless.

The third possibility is that the provenance of the sock was misrepresented by the dealer from whom it was purchased, and that it lacks any actual association with either Coptic or early Islamic Egypt. Even so, slip stitch crochet is a traditional practice in Northwest Africa and the sock can reasonably be seen as evidence of its broader range. Again, its radiometric dating might indicate how far back that tradition can be traced, with greater objective potential for shifting perceptions of the craft’s age.

I had been waiting to blog about any of this until I had seen the actual sock and not just photographs of it. That finally happened a fortnight before this post was published, when my friend Anne Marie Decker and I were generously given access to the early non-woven Egyptian fabric in the storerooms of the Museum der Kulturen, by the acting Head of the African Department, Isabella Bozsa.

Anne is better equipped than anyone else I know to identify secondary structural detail that might definitively reveal whether the sock was produced with an eyed needle or a hook. If no such determination could be made, we would then consider stylistic attributes that might indicate the more likely method. There was also a small pouch among the objects shown to us that had the same slip stitch structure, so in fact, there were two pieces that we could take into consideration.

We were unable to locate any detail in either that could only have been produced with an eyed needle, and Anne found something she believed might preclude that possibility outright. However, there hasn’t yet been time for her to confirm this experimentally. All structural details of both the sock and the pouch are otherwise fully congruent with hook-based slip stitching. The sock also differs from comparable nalbound objects in pivotal stylistic regard.

We’ll be preparing a proper report about this as soon as we can manage and I’ll be focusing in greater detail on selected aspects of the history of slip stitch fabric and its structural classification, in separate posts.

Anne and I proceeded from Basel to Copenhagen where we both gave presentations at a conference earlier this week on Current Research in Textile Archaeology along the Nile. My presentation is available here, starting at the 19’04” mark, and includes illustrations and commentary specific to the sock and pouch, as well as other evidence of early slip stitch crochet. (There are a number of options for displaying the presentation and selecting “Slides” is preferable to the default “Screen.” What may seem to be an inordinate amount of hand-waving is an unfortunate consequence of the camera angle.) Anne’s presentation places the Basel objects in a far broader context of simple and compound nalbinding, and is located here.

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[…] reported in Cary’s blog post shortly after, https://loopholes.blog/2019/01/the-second-bootee/, the baby sock made it into both of our presentations at the TAES seminar a few days later. […]