I’ve devoted quite a few posts to historical evidence of slip stitch crochet. It is firmly attested in illustrated instructions beginning in 1785 and there are vaguer footprints of it having been around significantly longer than that. One of the more important issues raised by the less certain evidence is the possibility of slip stitch crochet having originated outside Europe and been conveyed into it, rather than the other way around as is commonly believed.
Presenting a particular challenge to the crochet historian, slip stitch crochet ceased to be a mainstream method for the production of fabric about a century ago. Although regional traditions have flourished throughout, slip stitch crochet does not exhibit key visual attributes that are more widely recognized as typifying crochet. The slip stitch fabric structure is therefore vulnerable to misidentification in museum documentation systems. I’ve been calling attention to objects that display all of the hallmarks of slip stitch crochet but were initially catalogued as nalbinding and have unquestioningly been described as such in subsequent publications.
As has also been noted, there is no particular difficulty in producing basic slip stitch fabric using either a crochet hook or an eyed needle. The relevant question is whether the latter implement can realistically be applied to working, say, the full shaped detail of the toe and heel of a slip stitched sock. A particularly interesting illustration of this is a child’s sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, acquisition no. III 16705 (described in detail in a previous post).
It is catalogued as nalbinding of Coptic Egyptian origin. However, there is no other substantive or alleged evidence of slip stitch fabric of such age beyond a small pouch in the same collection (III 16702) with the same catalog attributions [and, as has been called to my attention since the initial posting of this text, a third object in a British collection that I’ll describe separately]. The sock also displays construction features not found anywhere else in the extant corpus of nalbound Romano-Coptic socks, but which are common in crochet. It is therefore a matter of significant historical concern to place the sock in its correct chronological and technical contexts.
It will be compared here to an Iranian cap with the same basic stitch structure, in the collections of the Ethnographic Museum of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin (collection ID I B 182). It was acquired in 1857 and described in 1976 by Sigrid Westphal-Hellbusch and Gisela Soltkahn in an extensive catalog of Mützen aus Zentralasien und Persien (Caps from Central Asia and Persia) in the museum’s collections. There is no indication of the date of its manufacture but the applied technique is identified as nalbinding, as described by Alfred and Kristin Bühler-Oppenheim. It is not clear if this was solely a bibliographic reference to their text on the classification of textile techniques, or if either author had physically examined the cap. Pending that determination, it should be noted that Alfred Bühler-Oppenheim acquired the III 16705 sock for the Basel museum, of which he was the director from 1950 until 1964, and would also have been responsible for its initial description as nalbinding.
The cap is potentially important in mapping the traditional practice of slip stitch crochet in Central Asia. This would, again, be concealed if the technique of its manufacture were incorrectly catalogued as nalbinding. Other than the initial catalog records, descriptions of the stitch structures of both the Basel sock and Berlin cap have been published by a sole further author, Gudrun Böttcher, a major contributor to the atlas of nalbinding stitches. That lends a good deal of authority to her inclusion of the slip stitch in it. However, it does not exempt the underlying analysis from critical scrutiny.
Her report on the sock appears in two articles published in 2004. The first is 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. The second is “Nadelbindung – Koptische Textilien in Basel und Trier” (Nalbinding – Coptic Textiles in Basel and Trier), in the Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, ATN 39. The report on the cap appeared in an article titled “Kappe eines Derwiches in Nadelbindungstechnik” (The Cap of a Dervish in Nalbinding Technique), published in 2006 in the Archaeological Textiles Newsletter, ATN 42.
Böttcher uses the same illustrations of the stitch structure of the sock in both 2004 articles and the corresponding drawing of the cap is nearly identical to it. However, her description of the sock only considers its basic stitching and says nothing about how its shaped details might be produced by nalbinding. Her drawings and description of the cap do consider its full construction, collaterally showing just how contorted the yarn path becomes if it is nalbound rather than made as plain crochet.
Slip stitch crocheters would likely see it as a typical instantiation of their craft, worked downward from the top in the round and ending in earflaps crocheted flat with rows of decreasing length.
Photo: ©Ethnologishes Museum, Staatliche Museen zu Berlin
Photographer: Martin Franken, CC License BY-NC-SA
The face of the fabric on the inside of the earflap is seen more clearly in a detail from the photograph in the 1976 catalog and would most likely have been on the outside of the cap while it was being worked. However, the napped surface now on the public face may be a sign of friction against the wearer’s head rather than deliberate preparation or other cause. If so, the photographs show the cap inside out.
It is clear from the two faces of the fabric that the stitches are looped predominantly into the front edges of the corresponding stitches in the preceding rounds — “front loop only” (FLO) in the current craft vocabulary. It is not equally clear if the yarn is wrapped over the hook from back to front (YO), which had become the standard by the middle of the 19th century, or under the hook from front to back (YU), as shown in the illustration from 1785.
Böttcher’s drawings clarify this. The first one seen below shows what is explicitly labeled as the primary stitch structure of the cap to be FLO wrapped YO. The one after that is her drawing of the sock and shows the identical structure.
For the sake of immediate comparison, here is another drawing from Böttcher’s NESAT VIII article, explicitly labeled as slip stitch crochet (“Häkeln: Kettenmaschen”), which she provides to illustrate how easily it is confused with the admittedly extremely rare form of nalbinding she is otherwise addressing.
In fact, this is the counterpart to the FLO variant seen in the previous illustrations, worked into the back edge of the stitch in the preceding round — “back loop only” (BLO, also wrapped YO). They are the two fundamental forms of slip stitch crochet and appear in the earliest published descriptions of that craft. It is more than slightly difficult to understand how the one illustrates a structure that can only be crocheted while the other is nalbinding.
The illustrations of the FLO variant are oriented here to match the direction of the stitching as it appears in the photograph of the cap. The first two of the drawings are positioned differently in the original publications. If a slip stitch structure is nalbound rather than crocheted, the top and bottom of the fabric exchange positions. Böttcher’s drawings of the cap and sock are therefore rotated 180° from her own presentations, which assume they are both nalbound.
This means that the cap would have been slip stitched starting with the earflaps and it is here that Böttcher’s analysis becomes tenuous. She says that the flaps were made separately from the body of the cap and then sewn onto it. That might be reasonable if the cap indeed were nalbound, but a single-piece top-down crocheted construction is noticeably (if not to say infinitely) easier to produce. When doing so, the border around the edge of the cap that her drawings also reveals, is worked from the tip of the first completed flap to the point where the second flap starts. When that one is finished, the border is worked around the remaining edge of the cap.
Böttcher provides numerous drawings of the earflaps, which would have been worked back and forth in alternate rows using either technique. Here again, if crocheted, all that is necessary is to turn the fabric horizontally at the end of each row and continue stitching — or simply to work backward. She clearly notes that the face of the fabric alternates with the rows, which would be consistent with the way fabric is turned in current crochet practice. She may also have seen the transition between the work in the round and that done back forth in rows as a sewn stitch.
If nalbound as Böttcher describes it, changing the direction of the stitching requires significant gyration. This is compounded by her working the border integrally into each row, rather than around the entire finished cap (further suggesting she may have misread its construction).
However, the puzzling details in this drawing are not restricted to the edge. The direction of the stitches in alternate rows shifts vertically, and the loops in one of the rows are worked under the loop to which they are anchored rather than into it. Stitching under both sides of an entire loop, rather than into only one of its sides, has since become the default procedure in crochet. The knitted attribute of the earlier practice disappeared in that transition and its significance in both structural and systematic regards cannot be glossed over when describing the corresponding structures as nalbound.
The interested reader may wish to take a closer look at the full range of Böttcher’s illustrations via the link provided above. They show additional non-nalbinding-like constructs in an attempt to emulate what would not just be mechanically far simpler if crocheted, but are taken from a cap that could not possibly be more representative of that craft’s slip stitch form. This includes characteristic mistakes that cannot be produced coincidentally by other techniques. The construction detail of the Basel sock is significantly more intricate. It can therefore be expected that the full set of drawings needed to describe it as nalbound would be even more idiosyncratic than those provided for the cap. The sock is otherwise another unexceptional example of slip stitch crochet.