Crochet · Examples · History · Structures

Shepherd’s knitting in 1780

A few months ago, I began a series of posts discussing two pieces of child’s footware which might conceivably be the oldest exemplars of what is now generally termed slip stitch crochet that have yet come to light. If their provenance is correctly attributed, they represent two regional traditions, one Northern European and the other North African. The second of those items, a small sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, is described in a previous follow-up report.

The present post similarly discusses my first direct encounter with the primary item in the initial report. It is one of a pair of child’s bootees in the collections of the National Museum of Scotland. My expectations about its structure and design were based on the description and photograph published by Audrey Henshall in 1952, which is cited in detail in that first report. That bootee will now be treated together with the second one in the pair, with the current museum accession numbers H.TWG 4.1 and H.TWG 4.2.

I did not believe that Henshall’s identification of the technique of their manufacture as nalbinding was correct, nor is that attribution (or any other method of production) reflected in the museum’s online collections database. She also described structural attributes of the fabric that could not be found at all during the recent examination.

I conducted this together with Helen Wyld, Senior Curator of Historic Textiles National Museums Scotland, who kindly welcomed me to their Collection Centre in Edinburgh. I gratefully acknowledge that support and am also deeply appreciative of the expertise she brought to our shared consideration of the bootees. The following brief review of our observations is preliminary to an extensive report that will appear in due course.

Published descriptions of the objects in Basel and Edinburgh present them as nalbinding rather than slip stitch crochet. The stitch on which they are all based is the definitive element of the latter craft but is not normally regarded as belonging to the repertoire of nalbinding, Nonetheless, it can readily be made with an eyed needle. I have therefore been careful to focus on that basic structure and its variants without drawing conclusions about the techniques by which they can be produced. I am now going to be less rigorous about that and will explain some details seen in the bootees using terms taken from the glossary of crochet without corresponding reference to nalbinding. This includes the title of this post, which uses the contemporaneous Scottish term for slip stitch crochet — shepherd’s knitting.

The pivotal question is whether the full shaping of the bootees can practicably be effected either as nalbinding or crochet. I wasn’t prepared to consider that further without having physically examined them. Unlike the alleged Coptic sock in Basel, which remains to be dated and its geographic origin reliably identified, there is no pivotal reason to question the information recorded on the labels affixed to the soles of both Edinburgh bootees.

“Supposed to be made about the year 1780. Belonged to Agnes Taylor’s Great-great-aunts. 1886”

Judging from the layout of the labels, 1886 is either the date on which they were prepared or when the information was recorded. It is transcribed as 1880 in Henshall’s report, which is a plausible reading of the label on the H.TWG 4.1 bootee. The final digit on it can be seen either as a 0 or a 6 but the label on 4.2 unequivocally shows the latter. The other contextual information she provided appears extensively in the earlier post and I will only be repeating her illustrations and a few relevant narrative snippets about the fabric structure below.

The most important construction feature that Henshall overlooked was that the bootees were initially made with yarn soles worked integrally into the fabric. They are worn through at the toes and heels in a manner that suggests the leather soles may have been repairs rather than affixed from the outset.

Enough of the fabric in the soles is intact for it to be possible to clarify Henshall’s remark about it being “uncertain if the top edge, which is finished with three horizontal ribs, is the beginning of the work.” As with any other crocheted sock, one that is slip stitched can be worked either ‘toe up’ or ‘cuff down.’ If such an item is visible in its entirety, there is normally little difficulty in determining which alternative it represents. However, the leather soles on the Edinburgh bootees obscure relevant detail, nor is the design of the toe and heel in the bootee commonplace.

The direction in which they were worked is indicated nonetheless by the basic structure of the fabric. Assuming that it begins at the cuff and the stitches were worked from right to left (as is customary for a right-handed worker), each new stitch was formed by pulling a new loop through the front side of the corresponding stitch in the preceding row, wrapping the yarn over the hook from the back toward the front. That ‘yarn over’ is the current default in crochet and normally omitted from stitch descriptions. This reduces the form under consideration to what is commonly abbreviated ‘FLO’ (front loop only), which together with ‘BLO’ (back loop only) are the two basic variants of the slip stitch. The BLO form is seen in the three initial rounds that form the cuff.henshall-bootee-fullThe following swatch shows the two forms oriented as they would be in actual production. The starting edge of crocheted fabric is always below the round being worked, regardless of its position in the finished article. The two illustrations that follow it are also normalized to same orientation.


Henshall provides a drawing that is apparently intended to represent the FLO stitches, albeit worked from the inside to the outside of the sock as what are frequently termed ‘inverse’ stitches. However, she either failed to note, or correctly to render, the crossing of the legs in the individual loops in the actual fabric. (The difference is effected by wrapping the yarn under the hook from front to back — YU — rather than the current standard YO.)henshall-slipstitch

The Basel sock has the same closed FLO structure as the Edinburgh bootees. It is illustrated by Gudrun Böttcher in an article titled “Versuche und Ergebnisse bei der Rekonstruktion von Nadelbindungstextilien” (Tests and Results with the Reconstructions of Nalbound Textiles), appearing in the Report from the 8th North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles (NESAT VIII), held 8‑10 May 2002 in Łodz, Poland, and published in 2004.böttcher-flo-front

Böttcher also takes that sock to have been nalbound but, as does Henshall, she makes no attempt to demonstrate the practicability of that technique for working slip stitches into shaped construction features such as toes and heels.

There is one other significant detail Henshall reports having observed that we could not locate any evidence of while examining the bootees, despite a focused search.

“The joins between the lengths of the wool are visible in places either as knots or darned-in ends.”

The use of shorter lengths of yarn is consistent with both nalbinding and flatwork slip stitch crochet. However, in the former case one would expect them to be joined by splices that are barely visible, if at all. Darned-in ends would be more indicative of the latter case. In fact, on the basis of Henshall’s statement I was expecting to find the yarn ends woven into the diagonal ribs between the toe and back of each bootee.

Their absence doesn’t contraindicate slip stitch crochet but does mean that any portion of the fabric that is worked flat would consist of alternate rows of regular and inverse stitches. It also means that more information about how the ribs are formed needs to be determined, particularly in the areas surrounding their lower and upper ends. The structure of the worn-through portions of the soles also remains to be extrapolated from the surrounding fabric.

2 thoughts on “Shepherd’s knitting in 1780

  1. I have been doing my own brand of research into the history of crochet and have been somewhat frustrated at the lack of modern interest in the subject. I was therefore delighted to come across your blog a few months ago. Up until now, I have not felt qualified to comment but a minor point you make in this post didn’t quite follow through for me. You suggest that the pattern of wear on the crochet soles of the bootee indicate that the leather sole is a repair. I wonder if you could elaborate where exactly the wear has occurred. I have in the past worn knitted slippers with a leather sole attached to the outside (bought fully constructed) and the way the soles wore is similar to the way the lining of many slippers that I have owned has worn. The knitted sole or lining tends to wear from the inside under the big toe and under the heel due to friction with the foot or sock while the more robust outer sole remains intact for longer. I haven’t been fortunate enough to examine the bootees myself but I wonder if there is a possibility that they have worn in the way I describe and that the leather sole could have been added at the initial construction. This of course does not affect any judgement in the nalbinding vs crochet debate but I thought it was worth considering.


    1. Thank you very much for the detailed comments. The wear appears just as you describe it. The real problem in explaining it is that the socks are far too small to have been worn by someone who might wear through them by extensive walking. They are of infant size and it is surprising to see signs of their having been worn by a toddler, much less someone capable of subjecting them to significant wear. An alternative suggestion might be that the wear is a cumulative effect of the socks having been handed down from child to child a large number of times.

      The soles were likely affixed by a separate hand, in any case. The thread with which they are attached appears younger than the yarn itself, nor is there any sign of wear on either the inside or outside of the leather. That’s what raised the question of their being repairs rather than a service requested of a local cobbler or leather worker when the socks had been freshly shepherd’s knitted.


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