Buttonhole looping · Examples

Dilly bags

Carrying bags were made by simple looping for a very long time before the advent of the European bourse en feston. Descriptions of widespread local traditions began to appear in the ethnographic literature toward the end of the 19th century, with authors coining their own designations for the newly recognized looped structure. A description from 1908 of small simple looped bags made by the Nguni people in South Africa details their production and says that it is “best regarded as netting without a knot.”

That term matured into its presently recognized (and frequently criticized) form in an article by Daniel S. Davidson in the 1933 volume of The Journal of the Polynesian Society, titled Australian Netting and Basketry Techniques. This classifies simple looping and loop-and-twist as subcategories of “knotless netting” and maps all of its forms into the areas of Australia where they are found, alongside a similar range of “knotted netting” techniques (placing them all under the top-level heading of “netting”).

The first specific item Davidson mentions is the simple looped “dilly bag,” which also appears as an archetype in earlier texts. The following photograph is taken from a post on the CIM:Resource blog:


Regina Wilson describes the production of the dilly bag in a video that was publicly accessible when this post first appeared but has since been restricted. (It was initially at https://www.facebook.com/129175417153247/videos/855499541187494/ .) She credibly presents it as a millennia-old tradition, forming loops without a needle or other tool, and gauging them on the index finger. Of particular interest is the simultaneous twisting and plying of the palm fibers on the thigh, and the use of the same technique to extend the length of the string while the loopwork is in progress.

Wilson summarizes that tradition and discusses a bridge between it and the modern gallery context in a second video, which contains snippets from the earlier one.

Buttonhole looping · Early instructions

French instructions for a looped purse

Élisabeth-Félicie Bayle-Mouillard (writing as Élisabeth Celnart), gave detailed instructions for using a cup mold to make simple looped purses in her Manuel des Demoiselles ou Art et Metiers published in Paris in 1826. They include general remarks about the tool and illustrate them with a specific purse. This has the same basic stitching pattern as the second variant of the Louisiana purse but is covered with a festoon decoration that isn’t found in any of the Dutch instructions. A few sentences in the text from 1826 were revised in later editions and the following translation merges them all.

It is intended to enable the adventurous reader to make the purse and therefore places greater value on clarity than on being rigorously literal. Two details still require separate mention. The one is that the shifting of the stitch pattern in alternate rows to support the festoon decoration in fig. 78 depends on the number of holes in the mold. The original instructions give a useful first approximation but additional tweaking can easily improve it. Also, the instructions emphasize that each block of lilac stitches is square. As with the 1823 instructions, allowance is made for achieving the intended shape by adjusting the number of stitches but nothing is said about the similar use of twisting. (On the basis of other observations I believe that loop-and-twist was an option that simply went without saying.)

Bourse en feston

Take a hollow wooden mold. This is a kind of box shaped like a purse, rounded at the end, with two circular rows of holes at the top where the start of the purse is fastened. These rows are spaced a few lines apart [one line = 1/12 inch] and their purpose is to make the purse shorter or longer. The holes are placed in small grooves and separated from each other at equal distances (fig. 77).


Because this is an old style purse, it is made either in silk and silver, or silk and gold, or gold and silver, or else with two threads of different colors, such as orange and green, blue and white, green and pink, etc. Since it is a mesh of small contrasting squares, the colors are normally matched to complement each other pleasantly. However many people use only one color or use so-called cordonnet thread.

Having chosen the colors of the silk (I will assume green and lilac for the purposes of this description), thread one large needle with the green, and another large needle with the lilac. Use four times the regular length of thread on the one needle this first time (let us assume it is the green but it does not matter which), and from then on double lengths. Take the needle with the green thread and tie its ends together with a good solid knot. Use your left thumb to press the knot into one of the holes in the mold, wrap the thread around it along the groove, and run the needle through the knot between the two strands. Pull this ring of thread tight and wrap it back in the opposite direction without loosening it. Redouble the circle three, four or five times, depending on the size of the thread. End the final round with a simple looped stitch and slide the needle behind it.

Then run a third thread through a hole in the mold. It is not important how this is done since this thread will be removed. Start by tying a knot in it that is too large to pass through the hole. Thread a needle with it and then pass it through the hole from the inside to the outside of the mold. Wrap it around the ring of silk threads from above to below and [return the needle through the hole to] secure all of them. Repeat this in each following hole until you have worked around the mold back to the starting point. Then stop and then cut the excess thread.

This procedure is called attaching the purse and is used for all purses made on a mold. When it is done, think about working the purse. Take the needle with the green thread and make five simple looped stitches around the ring of silk and temporary threads, between the hole where the green thread already is and the next one. Take the needle with the lilac thread and make four simple looped stitches between the two holes preceding the one where the green stitches start. Carry the lilac thread across the green stitches, forming a visible bar, and make another four simple looped stitches on their other side. The bar should be slack and worked with the needle to form a small downward arch. The lilac simple looped stitches need to be loose enough to allow the needle with the green thread to pass through them, which you then do. Make five more green simple looped stitches up to the next hole and a further five after that hole. Then take the lilac thread as before and make four simple looped stitches with it, and so on around to the starting point.

This first round will be a series of small lilac squares between the holes in the mold, with a curved bar of lilac thread crossing in front of the green stitches that separate the squares. The simple looped stitches in the following rounds will be worked inside [i.e. behind] these bars in the order already indicated; four in lilac between ten in green. It is no longer the holes in the mold but the lilac squares that guide you.

The second round is started by passing the green thread through a lilac square (concealing what would be a green bar). Then make five green simple looped stitches [under that square], then four lilac, then five green to form a new square, then five more green to make ten in all, and so on. The successive lilac squares are connected by curved bars that are joined with the following round (fig. 78).

The entire mold is covered in this manner without changing the stitching procedure until the purse becomes a little too wide to follow the curvature of the mold. As soon as this is perceptible, gradually make the bars shorter. Decrease the number of stitches by two green and one lilac as you progress, and then even more. As you near the end this will become insufficient, and some adjacent pairs of lilac squares will need to be worked into one, underneath a corresponding square in the preceding round. This will alter the shape of the mesh but at the end this is not noticeable.

Pay attention to two things when making a purse with simple looped stitches. The first is to adjust the individual stitches so that the mesh is uniform with elements that are all the same size. Do this by tugging the middle of the previous stitch with the tip of the needle when you are about to make a new one. Then look closely to see if the thread runs on a straight line. Where it does not, tighten or loosen the stitch to make it so. Take care to make all stitches loosely enough to permit this sort of adjustment.

The second precaution regards the way a new length of thread is affixed to the one on the needle when it is almost depleted. Doing this badly can cause a number of problems. First, it can cause ugly disruptions in the flow of the mesh, which must always be even and flat. It will also stretch out of proportion and finally rupture if the join between the new and old threads fails. Make a so-called weaver’s knot to prevent this. [A lengthy description of it follows but is omitted here.]

Many people attach a new simple looped stitch to the small bar hidden in the lilac square but this distorts it and makes it heavy and coarse. Others incorrectly work the green silk into the lilac silk with visible stitches that produce a very disagreeable effect.

The number of stitches should not be calculated without considering the specific silk being used. For a mesh of a given size, more stitches will be required if the thread is thin. We calculated an average size, which is the one that is normally used. Fine silk requires too much time and makes large purses too stiff. Gold or silver wire abrades more quickly than silk does when worked into simple looped stitches and much shorter lengths of it are threaded onto the needle. It is of primary importance to keep the two working threads from knotting up or becoming entangled with each other.

When the purse is completed, cut the stitches that attach the first round to the mold, turn it upside down, and pull it free of the mold. If it is then lined, it is usually with satin that matches one of the silk colors but this is a matter of taste. Sew a tassel at the end, with gold or silver thread if these materials were used in the purse, and silk. Steel is even better if the purse is all in silk, especially if that metal is used for the clasp or chain. [Four general ways to close and fasten purses are then described but not included here.]

Buttonhole looping · Examples

A Swedish looped purse

I’m going to take a break from written sources about purses made with simple looping to present an astonishingly well-preserved object. The published instructions discussed so far are all from the early–19th century but some extant purses of the type described in them are a fair bit older. They are consistent with the written documents where they share the name bourse en feston, and have the same general appearance and structure.

With thanks to the Royal Coin Cabinet in Stockholm, Sweden, and their photographer Ola Myrin for providing the following photographs of a purse in their collections (KMK 102 714:2), here is a good example of the genre.


Its characteristic details are the tassels, the braided strap, and the stitch structure. That detail of this purse is similarly representative.


Each vertical element consists of two adjacent loop-and-twist stitches. This structure is worked with two needles, the one with a single strand of two-ply silk (in four different colors), and the other matching its diameter with a double strand of silver-wrapped thread.

Other purses vary in the number of loop-and-twist stitches forming a vertical element and the number of twists in an individual stitch but share the same basic structure. The use of two needles is predominant, most often with silk on the one, and gold or silver on the other, but silk is also seen on both needles. Several colors of silk are often used to form decorative patterns. Although the Stockholm purse was made starting at the bottom (the photo of the stitch structure is oriented to match the illustrations of stitches in previous posts), other purses were made top down as is common to all the written instructions.

Beyond being a pristine example, this purse is unusual (perhaps unique) in the precision with which it can be localized and dated. A slip of paper was found inside it with the following text.

Elisabet Paulson gift med Derecteur Wolf wirkat detta 1693 tilika med det öfriga wirkade i skåpet.

Translating all but the pivotal verb:

Elisabet Paulson married to Director Wolf virkat this in 1693 together with the other virkade in the chest.

In present-day usage — which is not attested until the 1840s — the Swedish word virka (cognate with the English ‘work’) designates several facets of the process of crocheting; virkat is its past tense, virkade refers to the product, and virkning is a general designation both for the craft and objects made by it. Varying with time and place, the same term has named a number of other thread and yarn crafts. It is found in a dialect dictionary compiled during the late 1790s, in the definition of sömma (literally ‘stitch’ or ‘seam’), a common Swedish designation for what is now more widely known as nålbindning (lit. ‘needlebinding,’ often anglicized as nalbinding).

sömma — v. söm (from sömm)  1. sew [sy], sew clothes. 2. to loop [virka] in its own way with a large bone needle. In this way, wool yarn is looped or stitched into mittens, caps, stockings, and socks.

It appears again in the first of the Swedish fancywork journals in 1818 as a designation for tapestry crochet worked from square grid patterns, first attested in Germany only nine years earlier. Notwithstanding Elisabet Paulson clearly having designated what is equally clearly a looped purse as virkad, the text found inside it is commonly read as:

Elisabet Paulson married to Director Wolf crocheted this in 1693 together with the other crochet in the chest.

Some commentators, whether or not they note the difference between its stitch structure and ordinary crochet, take the purse both as evidence of crochet being found unexpectedly early in Sweden, and of it emerging there with an unanticipated degree of sophistication.

There are other instances of crafts designated as virkning being mistaken for crochet solely on the basis of the shared label. These will be considered in detail in separate posts. It will also be seen that the French term crochet has named other crafts than the one currently known by it.

Buttonhole looping · Early instructions

Louisiana purse, 3rd manner

Here are the instructions for the final variant of the Louisiana purse from the 1823 volume of Penélopé.

The third manner with pearls, wire-coil or other beads

“String a long silk thread with beads, pearls, or small cut pieces of wire coil as used to make the gold chain in vol. II, no. 3. Then begin just as in the two preceding instructions. Make 5 simple looped stitches over the thread that is wrapped around the mold. Place the thread strung with the beads, etc., to the right without working into them. Make a stitch with the silk thread over both it and the thread wrapped around the mold. Slide one or two beads, a pearl, or a wire purl up against it and fasten them there with another stitch. Put the thread with the beads back down to the left and make another 5 stitches with the silk thread, until you reach a hole. Make another 5 on the other side of it, another pearl, and so on until done. If you want this purse to be more prominently ornamented, make a separate border for it in silk or beads as in fig. B, working in the round with crochet or knitting on four needles. Then sew the two pieces together from bottom to top.”

Fig. B is an enlarged detail of a decoration that is central to the crocheted Cinderella-style purse and is described further in the instructions for it.

Buttonhole looping · Early instructions

Louisiana purse, 2nd manner

The first of the three Louisiana purses, considered in detail in the preceding posts, is an openwork mesh. This differs from the closed-work stitching shared by the other two. Here are the instructions for the second of the three.

The second manner with gold or silver thread

“Fasten a thread of green cordonnet silk around the mold. Thread a needle with the same thread and another needle with a gold thread. Fasten both threads on the inside of the mold and bring them through the same hole in the top row. With the silk thread on the right-hand side [and working to the right], make 5 simple looped stitches with it over the thread that is wrapped around the mold. Then take the gold thread and make a further 3 stitches with it over both the silk thread on the other needle and the thread wrapped around the mold. With the gold thread to the left, make another 5 stitches with the silk thread until you reach a hole. Make another 5 on its other side, then 8 [sic; should be 3] with the gold thread, and another 5 with the silk. Continue this way until the end of the round, so that between two holes there are always 10 stitches in silk with 3 in gold in their middle.

Depending on the fineness of the silk thread it may be that 5 stitches with it is too much or too little to match the space between two holes. If so, make 6 or 4, but the 3 in gold thread must always be in the middle. Start the second round with 5 stitches in silk, enclosing the gold thread left exposed between the first hole and the first complete stitches. Then make another 3 with the gold thread, 5 with silk, and so on. In this way, all of the gold stitches are joined to the ones in the following round. If you want an especially brilliant purse, work the simple looped stitches in the opposite manner, with 5 in gold and 3 in silk. This does cost a bit more in gold thread but is especially beautiful.”

Depending on how closely this pattern is worked, the one of the two threads that is carried in the loop formed by the other may be visible as a separate straight line running through the loops. This is a definitive characteristic of a common variant of both simple and loop-and-twist looping. Emery calls the included thread a foundation element and categorizes the full structure as looping with “two single elements.”

Buttonhole looping · Structures

Simple looping

Before looking at the two additional forms of looping in the instructions for the Louisiana purse from 1823 (see the preceding post) let’s consider the underlying structure independently of that craft. Irene Emery gives the following illustrated definition in the chapter on “Single Element” structures in The Primary Structures of Fabrics from 1966.


A complete loop is formed (and will be retained in the fabric) if the element crosses over itself as it moves on to form the next loop.

Loop: a doubling of a cord or thread back on itself so as to leave an opening between the parts through which another cord or thread may pass.


Simple looping is built up by means of the stitch on which most of the looped stitches used in sewing, netting, and lace-making are based. The stitch is known in sewing and in lace-making as buttonhole stitch, in rope work as half hitch. Of the countless terms used in one context or another to designate the resulting fabric structure, simple looping is the most widely used, buttonhole looping, fairly common.

The use of the structure is so widespread chronologically and geographically that it is hardly an exaggeration to call it universal, and it ranges in application all the way from heavy rope fender covering and sturdy carrying nets to delicate, decorative laces. It is the basic stitch of the needlepoint laces; it is used extensively for loose net-like structures and for firm close-worked, cloth-like fabrics.


Simple looping (or buttonhole looping) crossed left-over-right.

I’ve translated the festonneerstek (lit. festoon stitch) prescribed in the 1823 Dutch instructions as a “simple looped stitch” (resisting a strong inclination to call it an “e-loop” — a term that reflects the similarity between the cursive lower case form of that letter and the shape of the loop — familiar to loom knitters but not established elsewhere in the craft glossary). The festoon stitch also appears in instructions for looped wirework in the 1822 volume of Penélopé, accompanied by illustrations that confirm it to be the simple looped stitch shown above. Emery also describes a variation of it that is seen in extant purses from the 17th- and 18th centuries. This will be detailed in the next post.

(The reader who is interested in the classification of looped fabric as a topic of its own should note that I’m taking Emery as the starting point for my discussion of it because of her work’s prominence in the literature. I’ll be citing other classification systems where they are better suited to the structures or procedures under consideration, and also commenting on the systems themselves.)

Buttonhole looping · Early instructions

A Louisiana-style purse

From Penélopé 1823; the first of three variant forms of this purse:

“This is made on a turned boxwood mold, as fig. a.


Holes large enough for a heavy needle are drilled through it close to its edge at 1.5 centimeter intervals. A second row of holes spaced 1 centimeter apart is placed a half centimeter below it. The mold should be 7 centimeters in diameter and 10 centimeters long. One can make three different purses on this mold. The first is in chenille, the second in gold or silver thread, the third in beads.

The first manner in chenille

Wrap a chenille thread around the mold over the second row of holes, fasten it as is shown in the pineapple style purse in Part II, no. 1 [earlier in the same volume]. Do not break the thread. Now fasten a thread of spun silver on the inside of the mold, thread a needle with it, and stitch it through the first hole. Wrap the chenille thread around the outside of the mold again. Make three simple looped stitches (festonneersteken) with the silver thread on the needle, between the second and third holes, around both the chenille thread that is fastened to the mold and the separate length alongside it. Proceed in this manner around the mold. Starting in the second round, the simple looped stitches made with the silver thread are placed around the middle of the thread between the first hole and the first stitch. Continue steadily in this manner. Mixing silver and blue like this is especially pretty and done so quickly that the purse can be completed in a single day. As the purse narrows below, if one continues in the same way, its bottom becomes almost entirely silver thread.”

The stitch pattern in this instruction may be difficult to visualize for someone unfamiliar with simple looping. The next two posts will illustrate it more clearly and explain some of the associated terminology.

This purse is one of six described in the source document. Five of them are illustrated on a color plate (explicitly captioned as being for five) but the instructions are incorrectly keyed to the images and don’t indicate which one is omitted. The author provides a subsequent correction that doesn’t mention Fig. A, leaving it to depict the Louisiana purse by default. However, none of the three variant forms of that purse resembles the illustration. This will be discussed in greater detail with the translated instructions for the first of the crocheted purses, which does closely match Fig. A.