Crochet · Description · Nalbinding · Structures

Drawing pains: the slip stitch

The preceding two posts present formal numerical and graphical procedures for analyzing and describing looped fabric structures. By intriguing coincidence, the first of the cited publications was issued at the time when attested documentary and material evidence of slip stitch crochet was first beginning to appear. Similarly, the later texts were published when slip stitch crochet was shifting from being a primary means for fabric production to an ancillary technique.

It therefore seems appropriate to examine a few drawings of early fabric with a slip stitch structure that are puzzling in one way or another to see if any aspect of the contemporaneous methodologies might make it easier to understand them. I won’t be going near the mathematics of those approaches but will be considering the applicability of some of their procedural details to the analysis of looped fabric.

In suitably adapted terms, a stitch can be described by the path the thread takes through the loop(s) to which it is anchored and the number of times it crosses over itself before moving into the next anchor loop(s) in the preexisting fabric. This is characterized by the location and direction of the crossovers, permitting a point-by-point comparison of two structures that appear to be similar but may actually differ in some important regard. A typical such question is whether a right-handed and a left-handed worker executing the same instructions from the respective points of view produce fabric structures that are true mirror images of each other.

I’ve devoted several previous posts to slip stitch crochet and will start this one with a reprise of drawings from one of them. Nothing will be said that’s not already familiar to a slip stitch crocheter. However, two of the following illustrations were published as descriptions of nalbinding and this review may be worthwhile from the perspective of that craft. It is otherwise intended as a preliminary exercise in the analysis of illustrated structures that are either not associated with extant fabric or in some other regard are questionable representations of the objects from which they were drawn.

The first of the illustrations shown before is a textbook drawing of the “plain crochet stitch,” by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger.


The accompanying text says, “the thread is drawn through an upper stitch of the previous row and through the stitch last formed.” However, in the original German from which this was translated, ‘upper stitch’ is obere Maschenschlinge, which is literally ‘upper loop of the stitch.’ In current craft parlance this is the ‘back edge of the loop,’ normally contracted to ‘the back loop’ and abbreviated as BLO (back loop only). Working through the front edge of the loop is similarly abbreviated FLO.

The second repeated drawing, by Audrey Henshall, illustrates the structure of a child’s bootee in the collections of the National Museums of Scotland, in Edinburgh. It also shows a BLO slip stitch but in contrast to Seiler-Baldinger’s drawing, where the back leg of the loop leads forward into the following stitch, in this drawing it is the front leg of the loop that leads forward.


If the legs here are seen as uncrossed, in the Seiler-Baldinger drawing they are crossed. The direction of such crossings is often indicated using the familiar descriptors for the twisting and plying of yarn.


This gives S-crossings and Z-crossings, with Seiler-Baldinger showing the latter. The alternative is to label them as left-over-right and right-over-left, but those designations depend on the point of view.

The path the yarn takes around a crochet hook and the direction in which the loops are worked determine whether their legs are crossed or uncrossed. The variables are normally designated as right-to-left or left-to-right — RTL and LTR — and as yarn-over-hook or yarn-under-hook — YO and YU. Here right and left do indicate direction unambiguously but YO and YU are less clear. The qualifiers clockwise and counterclockwise are therefore sometimes used instead. However, that also requires an explanation of the point of view.

I’m reluctant to suggest coined alternatives (although this one is not entirely my own) but will note that the S/Z model can also be applied to the direction in which the yarn is wrapped around the hook (or a knitting needle), with YO being an ‘S-wrap’ and YU a ‘Z-wrap’ — YS and YZ. The utility of doing so is worth greater explanation, which I’ll provide in a separate post on the further mechanics of crossovers in slip stitches, but will keep to the familiar abbreviations in the meanwhile.

Seiler-Baldinger’s illustration of the slip stitch structure is oriented LTR rather than RTL as more commonly appears in tutorial contexts. The two forms are mirror images of each other by implication but it is necessary to be certain that they truly are so. Reversing the direction of Seiler-Baldinger’s drawing is easy enough, as shown here by Ella Hildebrand, in a style that more clearly reveals the three-dimensionality of loopwork.


The remaining question is which crossover points need to be inverted to reproduce the illustrated structure in actual fabric. The front and back edges of the loop have the same position in either working direction, leaving the yarn wrap as the only directly controllable variable. As long as we’re dealing with fabric where all rows are worked in the same direction, if the direction of the yarn wrap is changed when the working direction is, everything else falls into place. This was also prescribed in instructions from 1800, describing practice prior to 1780 (discussed further here).

“Hook knitting can also be worked from the left as with ordinary knitting. The only difference is the positioning of the thread. Instead of leading it under the shaft as usual, it is first passed over the shaft and then led under it.”

Since the present-day default for crochet is YO, the reference to YU as being usual before 1780 is significant. In fact, it took a while before crochet instructions regularly prescribed YO as the standard. The earliest known instructions, published in 1785 explicitly illustrate FLO hook knitting being worked YU and RTL, but note that LTR is also possible (fully described here).

Yet another slip stitch variant is seen in a drawing, by Gudrun Böttcher, of a child’s sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. Here a new loop is worked through the front edge of the corresponding loop in the preceding row, YO in the illustrated RTL working direction.


Nalbinding can now be brought into the discussion. Audrey Henshall described the Edinburgh bootee as such in 1952, when the research community was abuzz with interest in recently published descriptions of that craft, and none of its members were writing about slip stitch crochet or could even be expected to recognize it. I’ve explained my reasons for believing that the bootee is, in fact, archetypal Scottish shepherd’s knitting in a previous post titled A Tale of Two Bootees.

Admitting to some poetic license in that title and taking another step toward the telling of the tale’s remaining half, the second bootee is the child’s sock shown in Böttcher’s drawing above, which she also described as nalbinding. There is no question about the slip stitch being readily produceable with an eyed needle, However, it does not follow that higher-level construction details in a garment with a basic slip stitch structure — for example the toe and heel of a sock — can as plausibly be nalbound as they can be crocheted.

Böttcher doesn’t go beyond the drawing of the stitch structure, saying nothing at all about the construction of the sock. However, in an earlier publication from 1997 describing in full detail the only other object she knew to include that structure — a 19th-century cap from Dokkum in the Netherlands — she rejected a priori the possibility of it having been crocheted .

“Its appearance differs very clearly from the nalbound textiles with which I am familiar. However, since in my opinion techniques such as weaving, sprang, knitting, and crochet could immediately be eliminated from consideration, I examined it as nalbinding. To my great delight the ‘sleeping cap’ proved to have been made in the technique of that craft!”

It is even more perplexing that both of the cited articles by Böttcher have the 1991 German edition of Seiler-Baldinger’s book on their reference lists. That text includes the drawing of plain crochet shown at the beginning of this post. After comparing Böttcher’s drawing to it, or any of the other illustrations of the slip stitch here, it is difficult to understand how she could have dismissed the possibility of that structure being anything other than nalbinding.

2 thoughts on “Drawing pains: the slip stitch

  1. As always an interesting and thought provoking post.

    I’d like to note, however, that Henshall’s diagram has not just the change in which leg is forward, but also direction in which it connects to the previous row. This makes it actually representative of the technical back of a RTL FLO YU structure. Or it could be worked as shown by LTR Inverted BLO YU.

    Additionally, I don’t think YO can simply be described as an ‘S-wrap.’ YO is an ‘S-wrap’ in RTL and LTR Inverted structures, but not in LTR or RTL Inverted. I find working with YS and YZ very useful and look forward to seeing your thoughts on it further. I’ve sent you a matrix that will hopefully help us ensure we are talking about the same structure and not getting caught up in our loops.


    1. This post isn’t intended to provide an exhaustive listing of the differences between the illustrated varieties of the slip stitch structure. As noted, their consideration will continue “in a separate post on the further mechanics of crossovers in slip stitches.”

      Getting a head start on one of the details I will be elaborating on, there are only two ways in which a string can be draped diagonally over a rod. Knitters use the labels “Eastern mount” and “Western mount” or apply the procedural terms “leading leg at the front of the needle” and “leading leg at the back of the needle.” Ambiguous reference to clockwise and counterclockwise is also frequently encountered. Crocheters normally just use the procedural “yarn over hook” and “yarn under hook,” and slip stitch crocheters sometimes speak additionally of “reverse yarn overs.”

      What I’m looking for are structural descriptors for the two directions independent of any craft that might have been employed in the production of the fabric or drawing under examination. Borrowing the spinner’s characterization of them as S and Z seems to me to be a good first approximation since it is generally familiar to students and practitioners of the looped arts. However, if math is allowed to leak into the nomenclature there are further options. Whatever label is ultimately selected, the way the designated attribute propagates from loops to stitches and then into fabric, is a separate discussion.


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