The first native English instructions for what is now called Tunisian crochet appear in a booklet by Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin, titled Crochet à la Tricoter (“Crochet in the Style of Knitting” or “Crochet on a Knitting Needle”). The publication date is not indicated but an advertisement in the 25 November 1858 issue of a weekly newspaper states that it had just appeared. It would therefore have gone into circulation at about the same time as the instructions by Matilda Pullan discussed in the post before last. However, those were taken directly from German instructions published in January of that year and, beyond calling attention to the craft, are not an original contribution to its development.
The relationship between the German instructions and the English clone is discussed in my article on the history of Tunisian crochet in the Summer 2020 issue of the The Journal of Dress History, The Princess Frederick William Stitch. This also includes illustrations of the first four stitches that accompany the Mee and Austin instructions and, as with the previous post about Pullan’s derivative work, I will be providing further details about each of them in separate posts on this blog.
The present one deals with the first of the Mee and Austin instructions. Perhaps somewhat unexpectedly, they are not for what has since been termed the Tunisian Simple Stitch (TSS). The described structure is often treated as a variant of it but has never acquired a generally recognized name. It is the first of many structurally distinct but unnamed stitches that Mee and Austin present. Continue reading “Cornelia Mee’s simpler Tunisian stitch”→
The January 1857 issue of Godey’s Lady’s Book includes the first in a series of “Full Instructions for Needle-Work of all Kinds.” It describes the basic elements of crochet and provides a good review of the mid-19th-century state of the craft. Without any indication of it being a recent innovation, a now unfamiliar “double chain-stitch” is included.
“This is a stronger and firmer chain-stitch than the ordinary one; and as it resembles braid, it is sometimes termed braid-stitch. When you have done two ordinary chain-stitches, besides the one on the needle, insert the hook into the first of those two, draw the thread at once through them both: then continue to insert the hook in the stitch just finished, as well as the loop on it already, and draw the thread through both.”
I’m still looking for earlier descriptions of it and am not entirely confident that the following drawing of the “double foundation” (doppelter Anschlag) in the July 1867 issue of Der Bazar is the first to have been published. It appears in an illustrated suite of crochet stitches that was reused in numerous subsequent publications — both in authorized syndication and otherwise — and the double foundation as it appears there can safely be seen as an archetype.
The tools and techniques described in detail in the initial wave of 19th-century publications about diversionary fancywork represent crafts in practice at that time. Although some clues are provided about their histories, little can be deduced about their actual ages and origins. The drawing of purse molds from 1842 that provides this blog’s logo is a good case in point.
The pegged form is a support for knitting called a moule Turc (Turkish mold) in the British publication it is taken from and in French instructions from 1826, with little likelihood of the later text having been derived from the earlier one. The name suggests an eastern origin although it may simply be a fanciful coinage. However, the same label appearing in unrelated printed sources beyond the two just cited, plus contextual remarks about the application of the implement to knitting, clearly indicate that peg looms were in established use for some time before being written about.
I’ve devoted an inordinate amount of blog space to slip stitch fabric made with a hook, tracing it back along a number of paths to its first appearance in printed sources in the mid-18th century, and discussing objects made in that manner found in museum collections. I’m going to restore some balance with material and written evidence of European hooked openwork from the same period, starting with an elaborate Robe à la Française in the collections of the Metropolitan Museum of Art (accession number 1995.235a,b), dated to the 1740s.
I saw it in their exhibition Interwoven Globe: The Worldwide Textile Trade,1500–1800 in late 2013. This was about a year before my interest in looped fabric was kindled, and ironically I didn’t take particular notice of a wide strip of chain mesh passementerie providing a prominent yoke around the dress extending to its hem, with a second piece of the same mesh along the hem between the ends of the yoke. In early 2016, my friend Dora Ohrenstein called my attention to their potential relevance to the developmental chronology of crochet. The ensuing discussion cascaded into a seminar on differentiating crocheted fabric from that made with other looped techniques, arranged by and held at The Met in May 2016.
The dress was not accessible for examination alongside the other objects presented to the seminar participants. One of the questions we had otherwise hoped to be able to answer was whether the chain mesh had been affixed to the dress when it was first made, thus conferring the 1740s dating on it, or could have been a later addition. We did get to take a close look at two specimens of comparable passementerie dated to the 18th century. I documented them in detail and let the dress slip out of mind. Continue reading “Diamond mesh”→
I’m currently preparing an article for publication about the broader topic covered by this post. When the article has appeared, I’ll place a link to it here, with the initial text of the post edited to provide supplementary information.
In 1861, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin published a book titled Novelties in Crochet. It includes three illustrated instructions for “crochet à frivolité” that emulate tatting, using an ordinary crochet hook and standard crochet stitches. One is for the “wide festoon edging” shown here (with the written instructions at the end of this post).They published a similar book dedicated entirely to shuttle tatting in the following year, titled Tatting, or Frivolité. Mee’s preface to it indicates that she was thoroughly familiar with that craft.
“I never remember learning the work, or when I did not know how to do it. I believe it was taught me by my grandmother, who, if she had been living, would have been in her hundredth year. I mention this, as I have heard that a claim has been made by some one lately, to have invented the work, which certainly has been known as Knotting or Tatting for more than a century.”
(This post is my own preface to an impending major revision of a research report on knotting and tatting during that period, currently titled Early Tatting Instructions.)
A large loop of the shuttle thread is first wrapped around the fingers of the opposite hand and a sequence of smaller loops is then worked around it. When the desired number is reached, the large loop is closed by pulling the core thread, and the pattern is repeated. This is seen in “star tatting” from the same publication.
The method Mee and Austin describe for crochet à frivolité replaces the running thread with a crocheted chain. The loops that would be wrapped around the core are instead single and double crochets (UK) stitched around that chain. This produces bulkier fabric but its patterns are those of tatting, not crochet.
This provides a good illustration of the tools and techniques of one craft being used to produce fabric intended to resemble that normally associated with another craft, which has its own implements and methods. The structural overlap will range from nothing more than superficial similarity, recognizable by an untrained eye, to full congruence.
The Mee and Austin 1862 Tatting book makes no reference to crochet à frivolité beyond including the Novelties book in a listing of their other works currently in print. It therefore seems safe to assume that they really didn’t regard it as more than a novelty. Nonetheless, a method for tatting on a crochet hook that more closely resembles shuttle tatting, is described as “crochet tatting” (gehäkelte Frivoliteten) in the 1 February 1868 issue of the German women’s magazine Der Bazar.
The same illustrations were syndicated to the US publication Harper’s Bazar, established in 1867, and appeared there with an English translation of the accompanying text in the 22 February 1868 issue. Translating directly from the initial German version:
“Previously the only tatting known was made with a shuttle. In today’s issue, through descriptions and illustrations, we teach how it can be made with a crochet needle… Appropriate needles are of the same diameter along their entire length and fastened either to a wooden or bone handle or screwed into a holder. The hook must be perfectly smooth, with a blunt tip that is 2—3 cm in length, since the entire row of stitches is held on the needle.”
The same method is described again in the 1869 volume of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine and remains in practice, often called ‘cro-tatting.’ The illustrated tool is commonly marketed as a ‘bouillon crochet hook.’
Instead of being worked around a core thread, the loops are wrapped around a crochet hook. When a sequence of them is ready to be closed into a ring, the hook pulls a long loop of thread through the entire row, forming the core that is retained in the fabric. It consists of two parallel strands of thread rather than the single strand of shuttle tatting. The double strand is concealed inside the ring but the use of a hook is revealed by the chained connections between the pattern repetitions. This is seen in a “crochet tatting edging” from the article in Der Bazar and can be compared with the single thread in Gaugain’s star tatting.
The connecting thread can also be embedded in tatting stitches, likewise called a chain. This requires the fabric to be placed between the shuttle and the thread supply, dividing the working thread into two separately manipulable segments. In fact, Mee and Austin claim this to be a technique of their own devising in the 1862 book. (The spool is now commonly replaced with a second shuttle, permitting different color threads on each.)
The difference between a tatted chain and a crocheted chain might not be obvious in a mid-19th-century engraving but is readily apparent in actual fabric.
The loops on the crochet hook illustrated above face each other in pairs termed ‘double stitches.’ There are also ‘single’ (or half) stitches, all wrapped around the core in the same direction. There is no effective difference between a sequence of either type positioned on a long cylindrical crochet hook, and a cast-on row of knittable loops on a hook-tipped knitting needle.
This cascades into an interesting parallel between crochet tatting and yet another technique using a long cylindrical hook, also first described in Der Bazar in 1858. This is the Tunisian crochet that Mee and Austin dedicated five books to, calling it “crochet à tricoter,” spanning the period in which they introduced their crochet á frivolité. By 1868, Tunisian crochet had become extremely popular and it is reasonable to wonder if it influenced the application of the long hook to tatting.
The difference between the starting rows of crochet tatting and Tunisian crochet is that the loops intended for tatting are wrapped directly around the hook rather than first being drawn through a foundation chain. From there, the difference between the return pass in Tunisian crochet and closing a row of tatting stitches is that the former anchors a chain to every second vertical loop and the latter pulls a single chain through all of them.
The pivotal structural distinction is that the row of chains in Tunisian crochet leaves the initial loops suitably positioned for a new row of loops to be knitted into them. The single chain pulled through all of the loops in crochet tatting holds them snugly against each other in a ring, thereby precluding their use as anchors for a new row of knittable loops.
In the context of textile systematics, the tightly-drawn double stitch (aka ‘lark’s head knot’) may have become one of the basic characteristics of tatting by the mid-19th-century, but tatted fabric also includes open loops. Since the thread in a loop-based stitch takes the same path regardless of whether the stitch is tightened to the point that it alternately can be seen as a knot, tatting is categorized as a looped structure.
Irene Emery places it under the heading “knotted loops” in her structural hierarchy. Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger’s classification by techniques categorizes tatting as a form of “meshwork lace” alongside needlepoint lace. Both are a “combination of looping and knotting” and the distinctions between the techniques in that “special class” are “generally denoted by the implements used in their manufacture.”
The list of structures made with eyed needles includes some that are fundamental to nalbinding and it may also be interesting to note that tatting using an eyed needle was described as an easier alternative to working with a shuttle before the publication of the Victorian texts cited here. Seiler-Baldinger makes the additional observation that “tatting is often produced in combination with crochet.”
As Emery explains it:
“Probably the most familiar and prevalent embodiment of the principle of knotted looping is to be found in the fabrics known as knotted netting…although the structure is also found in…mixed (open and closed) textures such as those produced by tatting.”
This brings us dangerously close to the laden term knotless netting that Emery abhors and Seiler-Baldinger avoids altogether. If we accept it for the moment as a synonym for nalbinding, a recently described Swedish novelty in crochet — virkad nålbindning — becomes an intriguing construct. It shares basic procedural elements that Tunisian crochet and crochet tatting also have in common, and might therefore qualify for classification under the oxymoronic heading knotted knotless netting.
The Swedish term virkad nåbindning literally means ‘crocheted nalbinding’ but that label is a pure neologism. It does not have the documented history that crochet tatting does and we have no idea how widespread it may have been or how its putative earlier practitioners conceptualized and labeled it. Nor does the associated fabric come anywhere near as close structurally to what it nominally emulates as crochet tatting does. I’ll be taking a closer look at it in a separate post (and the awkward systematics in yet another).
In the meanwhile, here are the full Mee and Austin instructions for the wide festoon edging in crochet à frivolité. As was customary in their day, the worker is expected to glean quite a bit of information from the illustration and resolve any inconsistencies between it and the written instructions. The main stitching is done in “Boar’s Head Cotton, No. 10” and the decoration and auxiliary joining with “Glacé thread, No. 16.” The stitch names follow UK usage; a single crochet is a slip stitch.
* Make a chain of 12 stitches and unite it, work into the circle 20 stitches of double crochet, make a chain of 23 stitches and unite it to the 4th, work into the circle 32 stitches of double crochet, make 3 chain and repeat from * till 3 large and 4 small loops are made; work a stitch of single crochet into the 6th loop of small circle, *, make 5 chain, miss 2 loops, work a stitch of single crochet into the 3rd, repeat from last * twice more; work a stitch of single crochet into the 6th loop of large circle, make 5 chain, miss 2 loops, work a stitch of single crochet into the 3rd, repeat this 6 times; work into the remaining circles in the same way as before, work 2 stitches of double crochet into the 1st 5 chain of small circle, 2 stitches of double crochet into the next 5 chain, make 3 chain, work 2 more stitches of double crochet into the same place, work 2 stitches of double into the next 5 chain, work 2 stitches of double crochet into the 1st 5 chain of large circle, *, 2 stitches of double crochet into the next, make 3 chain, work 2 more stitches of double crochet into the same place, repeat from * twice more; work into the remaining circles in the same way, work in the centre a stitch of double crochet into each of the 3 chain between the circles; with glacé thread, work the lace stitch in the large circles, as shown in the engraving, and unite the festoons as also shown.
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.
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.
I’m currently preparing an article for publication about the broader topic covered by this post. When the article has appeared, I’ll place a link to it here, with the initial text of the post edited to provide supplementary information.
NOTE: This post initially appeared on April 1st and complies with the guidelines for loop-related humor issued by the Coalition for Responsible Loopography.
* * *
The term ‘slip stitch’ has figured prominently in the preceding suite of posts, designating the definitive element of plain crochet. The same label is used for something quite different in knitting, where a slip (or slipped) stitch is a loop that is moved from the holding needle to the working needle without knitting a new loop into it.
I’ve therefore taken care to refer to a ‘crochet-type’ slip stitch whenever the distinction was not clear from context. Thus far, that has only been needed in the discussion of fabric that slip-stitch crocheters would immediately recognize as a product of their craft but which has been described as nalbinding in a few archaeological publications (but noted as highly atypical of that craft by the two authors who have done so, also commenting on its resemblance to crochet).
Another cluster of posts examined the confusion that once attached to the relationship between ‘cross-knit nalbinding’ and ‘closed-loop knitting.’ These are also structurally identical and can only be differentiated if fabric that can have been made by either technique includes further detail specific to only one of them.
Open-loop knitting can also be produced using different tools. Those most widely employed for hand knitting are knitting needles and peg looms, while both home and industrial knitting machines use hooks. The eyed needle of nalbinding is not part of this array since the intermeshing of loops by pulling the free end of the yarn successively through those loops inherently crosses their legs and closes them.
By definition an eyed needle can pull a single strand of yarn along any path it can physically traverse. However, turning a meandering length of yarn into stable fabric requires some form of underpinning where the curve inflects, until the loops are fixed into stitches. Beyond the need for an initial foundation, closed loops can be self supporting but open loops cannot to any practicable degree. Working them requires the additional support of, say, knitting needles.
One might therefore suspect that there is a fundamental flaw is this drawing of what is presented as “needle knitting” in Odhams Encyclopaedia of Knitting from 1957, by James Norbury and Margaret Agutter.
The cited source of that term is an article on “Peruvian ‘Needleknitting’” by Lila M. O’Neale, published in an issue of the American Anthropologist from 1934. Ongoing controversy about the appropriate designation for what at least in craft contexts is now widely called calling nalbinding, was fueled by Daniel S. Davidson in the same journal a few months later with an article titled “Knotless Netting in America and Oceania.”
One of the weaknesses of the term ‘needle knitting’ is that it also designates true knitting done with needles in contrast to work on a peg loom. Another is that true knitting involves the working of one loop into another with the tool(s) positioned between the fabric and the yarn supply. The yarn is worked into the fabric loop by loop in what might be called a ‘loop-led’ technique. In contrast, when using an eyed needle the yarn is interposed between the tool and the fabric and the entire working length of the yarn is pulled through each loop. Techniques doing this can similarly be termed ‘end-led.’
A core problem with ‘knotless netting’ is that leading the end of a piece of yarn through a loop that it has just formed creates a knot by any conventional definition of that term, even if it isn’t pulled tight. There is also a form of netting that is truly knotless and commonly termed knotless netting in industrial contexts. This suggests ‘loose-knot netting’ as a more precise alternative, assuming there is good reason for regarding it as netting to begin with.
It is hardly an appropriate descriptor for the dense fabric that characterizes the Nordic nalbound mittens that provide yet another generic designation for both the technique and the family of stitches produced by it — vantsöm — literally meaning ‘mitten stitch’ in Swedish. That label appears frequently in museum catalog records for socks made in the Nile valley which are commonly, although often questionably, associated with Coptic Egypt.
As a general principle, it is best to avoid categorizing something in terms of what it is not. Unfortunately, labeling end-led looped structures as knotless netting has become too entrenched for it simply to be waved off. However, since all but one of the variant forms sharing that designation can’t be knitted either, the concept of ‘knitless’ would be equally applicable. (The exception is the doubly inappropriately labeled ‘Coptic knitting,’ which procedurally is neither knitting nor historically particularly Coptic.)
This suggests the euphonious albeit ambiguous ‘knitless knitting.’ It might suffice to leave that as a mirthful curiosity. As it happens, however, there is substantive evidence of that very practice in New Kingdom Egypt, three millennia before the first description of what has thus far been assumed to be a purely abstract fabric structure.
It is illustrated with particular clarity by Montse Stanley in The Handknitter’s Handbook, from 1986, as an unknitted precursor to a true knitted structure.
She describes it somewhat circuitously as a “non-interlocked succession of yarn waves,” avoiding the clearer alternative of knitless knitting for unstated reasons that are presumably rooted in an aversion to Davidson’s earlier knotless netting.
Whatever the explanation for her labeling may be, the structure itself also appears in a painting of the goddess Imentet on a mummy case from Luxor, Egypt, dated 1000-970 BCE, on display at the National Museum of Denmark, in Copenhagen.
This detail is from Imentet’s torso and the following one shows her head proximal to archetypal forms of open and closed looping.
The one on the left unequivocally represents the basic element of true knitless knitting. Subject to the considerations discussed above, such fabric cannot be produced with an eyed needle or otherwise end-led. The one on the right is a loop-and-twist structure, which unlike simple closed loops, cannot realistically be worked into fabric with knitting needles. It therefore either provides evidence of peg-loom-based knitless knitting, or what in extension of Harley Davidson’s terminology might be called ‘knitless knotless netting.’
In either case this painting provides the earliest illustrations of both unknitted knittable structures and unbound nalbindable structures yet noted. Their juxtaposition in a single image provides concrete evidence of the contemporaneous practice of the two forms of loopcraft at a far earlier date than has yet been recognized.
* * * *
The photographs of the mummy case shown above were taken through a glass case in a public exhibition and I wasn’t able to find a camera angle that permitted a view of the entire object without a reflection of the display lighting. The museum doesn’t have a digital image available online and here’s the best I could do on site.
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).