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 leg of the loop,’ normally contracted to ‘the back loop’ and abbreviated as BLO (back loop only). Working through the front leg 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.

An additional complication pertains to the so-called ‘inverse’ slip stitches, where the yarn is held in front of the fabric and the hook is inserted into its back, also reversing the structural effects of YO and YU. (This additionally causes the legs of a new loop to pass behind the side of the stitch it is anchored to, as seen in Henshall’s drawing, rather in front of it as in all the other drawings shown here.)  The qualifiers clockwise and counterclockwise are therefore sometimes used to avoid confusion. However, doing so requires an explanation of the point of view.

I’m reluctant to suggest coined alternatives (although the following 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 legs 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 shown in a drawing, by Gudrun Böttcher, of a test swatch explicitly illustrating slip stitch crochet (“Häkeln: Kettenmaschen”). The new loop is again worked through the back leg of the corresponding loop in the preceding row, RTL, but is now YO.


Böttcher shows a futher variant of the slip stitch in a drawing of a child’s sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. The difference this time is that the new loop is worked FLO, again YO in the illustrated RTL working direction. (The published drawing is rotated 180° here to ease the comparison.)


This now brings nalbinding clearly into the discussion. For some enigmatic reason, Böttcher says that the preceding illustration is of a nalbound structure and alternative “techniques such as…crochet [can] immediately be eliminated from consideration.”

Audrey Henshall also described the Edinburgh bootee as nalbinding. However, that was 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 (the indigenous form of slip stitch crochet) 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. There is no question about the slip stitch being readily produceable with an eyed needle, However, it does not follow that an entire garment with a basic slip stitch structure but also includes shaped construction details such as the toe and heel of a sock, can as plausibly be nalbound as it can be crocheted.

Böttcher doesn’t go beyond the drawing of the stitch structure and says nothing at all about the construction of the sock. However, the article that includes her explicitly labeled drawing of slip stitch crochet also provides an explanation of the general method she used to draw the structures of older pieces of ostensibly nalbound fabric. That’s a blogworthy topic in its own right to which I’ll soon be turning my attention, and will discuss her drawings of the Basel sock further in it (as well as providing full bibliographic details for all of her articles cited above).

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11 March 2019 07:07

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.