I am pleased to announce the publication of the article “Three objects catalogued as vantsöm in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, Switzerland,” in the Archaeological Textiles Review No. 64 (2022).
It was coauthored with my friend Anne Marie Decker after a joint visit to the museum to examine the described material. Anne has made a corresponding announcement of the publication on her own blog, Nalbound. The complete ATR volume in which the article appears is freely available for downloading here, and this blog’s document repository includes an offprint. Here is the abstract:
The looped structure termed a slip stitch in the craft glossary of crochet can be produced both with a hook and an eyed needle. These implements are not equally amenable to working that structure into complex constructs such as the toe and heel of a sock. This article describes the examination of three objects that have been misidentified as nalbinding. Two of them are certain to have been crocheted and the third is highly likely also to represent that technique. The provenance of the objects is recorded as “Coptic Egyptian” on anecdotal evidence and without ascription of specific dates. If scientific dating were to establish that any of them approaches even the youngest age this might imply, the accepted date for the advent of crochet would require major revision.
Many of the stitches that crocheters regard as fundamental to their craft were described in non-English publications before the Victorian fancywork press had begun to roll. Naming conventions differed both across and within language boundaries, as is still witnessed by the misalignment of the UK and US glossaries. Diffuse nomenclature also attached to Tunisian crochet when it was added to the documented repertoire in the late 1850s. Stitch clusters didn’t even begin to acquire a differentiated set of labels until the end of that century, in surprising contrast to the structural intricacy of the clusters themselves.
Several aspects of this are seen with instructions for a “Crochet Afghan or Carriage Blanket” in an anonymous booklet titled Knitting and Crocheting, published in Boston in 1884 or 1885. (It is undated but includes an advertisement citing a trademark registered 17 June 1884, and the digitized copy shows the Library of Congress accession stamp, 21 Sept. 1885.)
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, an unillustrated and 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.
Soon after placing yesterday’s post about the Chronology of loom knitting online my attention was called to a significant error in one of the points it made. Socks can be knitted on a peg loom both downward from the cuff and upward from the toe. The knitted tubes made in Egypt beginning around the 5th century CE and the fully shaped socks that began to appear there several centuries later can therefore all have been made either on a loom or with knitting needles.
This assessment remains subject to modification pending the identification of construction details, secondary structural attributes, and production mistakes that are specific to the respective techniques. The difference between cross-knit nalbinding and true knitting in early Egyptian practice was identified in that manner. Insight gained about needle knitting during that discussion should easily seed a similar comparison with loom knitting.
I’ve modified the initial wording of the preceding post accordingly but anyone with particular interest in the topic may wish to reread it.
The German periodical Der Blatt had a leading role in the publication of variant forms of the “ordinary Tunisian crochet stitch.” The first two appearing there are described in the post before last and depart markedly from what is now known as the Tunisian simple stitch (TSS). A variant presented in the 1 January 1862 issue differs from it so extremely that it would likely not be seen as derived from the TSS if the instructions didn’t say so.
It requires two long cylindrical hook-tipped tools. One is an ordinary Tunisian crochet hook, characterized by a ‘ball’ at its non-hooked end, and identical to the type of hook-tipped knitting needle used in pairs for flatwork knitting. The other is hooked at one end and tapered at the other to match the smooth tip of an ordinary knitting needle. This is identical to the hook-tipped needle used in sets for knitting in the round.
The designers at Der Blatt would have had a reasonable expectation of their readers being able to obtain the prescribed tools. However, if hook-tipped knitting needles were commonly available to the target audience or in trade under another designation, the instructions would presumably have named them directly. Later instructions also specify a form with hooks at both ends, indicating that the need for altering stock Tunisian hooks or knitting needles was not an impediment.
The 1862 instructions use the hook/point and hook/ball needles together to make a “shell stitch” (Panzerstich) that was published with three other “new crochet stitches,” all modifying the TSS by varying the structure of the return chain. They significantly alter the standard form of that chain in different ways but the shell stitch is alone in the extent of its proximity to knitting. As was frequently the case with newly devised variations of the Tunisian stitch, it is only illustrated with a swatch.
Because of its unfamiliarity, a second illustration shows the fabric stretched open and the juxtaposition of the two hooks.
Here are the instructions:
“This stitch differs from the other Tunisian crochet stitches in two significant ways. Namely, it consists of pattern rows that alternate between one and two passes, and is made with two different wooden hooked needles. The one of these two crochet needles, which should be on the heavier side, cannot have a knob at its lower end, which has to be pointed like a knitting needle. The other needle is a wooden crochet needle with a knob at its lower end to prevent the stitches from gliding off, but has to be smaller than the needle without the knob by almost half. In order to highlight the distinction between the individual pattern rows, they are worked in two contrasting colors [here blue and white]. The pattern row that is worked in one pass only is always crocheted from right to left with a double strand of yarn and the hook without a knob. The following pattern row, which includes two passes, is made with the thinner hook and a single strand of yarn. The forward pass in this pattern row is also worked from right to left, as with knitting, using both needles…
1st pattern row. After making a foundation chain with the blue yarn and without cutting it, use the hook without the knob to pull a loop of the doubled white yarn through each stitch in the foundation chain. These loops remain on the hook to form new stitches. At the end of this pass, cut the double yarn and work the,
2nd pattern row with the blue yarn that was left hanging at the starting edge of the fabric, using the thinner hook. In the first pass a loop is pulled through each of the double stitches in the white yarn in the preceding pattern row, by inserting the hook into the back of the stitch as is clearly shown in the illustration, and removing the stitch from the hook so that the double strands on either side of that stitch cross over each other as shown in the completed rows of those stitches. The second pass is crocheted from left to right just as with the second pass in a pattern row of the ordinary Tunisian crochet stitch, and the blue yarn is left hanging until the next pattern row that uses it.
3rd pattern row. Again place the double white strand on the hook without the knob and crochet from right to left, by pulling a new loop through the opening between the vertical parts of each stitch in the preceding row. These loops remain on the hook to form new stitches.
4th pattern row as the 2nd, 5th pattern row as the 3rd, and so forth.”
The tip of the heavier hook is not illustrated but the direction in which the loops of double white yarn cross over it follows from the customary crocheter’s practice of beginning a stitch by wrapping the yarn over the hook from back to front (YO). In contrast, the thinner hook is shown ‘grabbing’ the blue yarn from above without a YO. This is equivalent to wrapping the yarn under the hook (YU), and seats the loops on it in the opposite direction.
However, as drawn, the paths taken by both the blue and white yarn around their respective hooks are the same, also consistent with the orientation of the blue stitches in the fabric. Since the white loops are twisted as they are worked into stitches, their orientation in the fabric is the opposite of that on the hook.
The instructions emphasize that the use of the hook to twist the white stitches “is clearly shown in the illustration.” However, if the YU is correctly represented, the leg of the blue loop moving toward the tip of the hook should be on the back of the hook rather than on the front. The express statement of accuracy makes it difficult to dismiss the inconsistency in the path of the blue yarn as the result of an initial YU being drawn where a YO is intended. That would be the most straightforward explanation, nonetheless, and is also supported by the orientation of the blue stitches in the fabric. However, the illustrated fabric structure can also be produced in a manner that applies both the YO and the YU techniques.
The instructions twist the loops in the white yarn by inserting the righthand hook into each of them from behind. However, if the white loops are YU rather than YO, they will be twisted by inserting the righthand hook into them from the front. The inconsistency in the drawing can therefore be resolved by swapping the illustrated YU forward pass from the blue to the white yarn, and the YO forward pass from the white yarn to the blue. A proof-of-concept swatch made in that manner can be compared with the initial woodcut.
Another detail of the described procedure requires comment. Cutting the yarn at the end of each row worked flat, and starting the next row with a new length of yarn, was a common attribute of flatwork crochet throughout the 19th century (readily seen in an array of stitches in the 15 June 1867 issue of Der Bazar). However, one feature of the Tunisian crochet stitch is that it permits flatwork without need either for cutting the yarn or turning the fabric. The illustrated shell stitch discards that advantage and the doubled white yarn leaves twice the usual number of dangling yarn ends to be dealt with.
Given the numerous variant Tunisian stitches that were otherwise available, it would be reasonable for readers of Der Blatt to wonder what the one that required a special second hook and additional finishing was good for. In direct response to numerous queries received from readers who posed that very question, the illustrations and narrative explanation were reprinted in the 14 November issue of the same annual volume. Nothing was added about its visual effect but its heading was extended.
“Panzerstich for application in men’s shawls, jackets, carriage blankets, etc.
Despite this, Der Blatt never published instructions for any garments using it (that I’ve managed to spot). Their designers continued to explore special-tool variants of the TSS, producing instructions (to be discussed separately) that call for the now familiar double-ended Tunisian hook before the end the century.
Anyone following this discussion with tools in hand will soon note that the hook on the tip of the righthand needle makes it trivially easy to slip an unworked loop onto it from the lefthand needle and then knit it into a stitch, crochet style (ambiguity intended). It may therefore be simpler to separate the actions that overlap in the illustration, first moving the loop of white yarn onto the righthand needle, and then working the loop of blue yarn into it.
The 1 January 1864 issue of the German biweekly magazine Der Bazar (discussed at length in the post before last) includes instructions that prescribe the use of a flat crochet hook in a form that is essentially identical to the one shown in the earliest known description of that tool, published in 1785. It is called a “shepherd’s hook” in numerous texts from the early 19th century.
The 1864 instructions present it for use with a “velour crochet stitch” (Velours-Häkelstich) that had previously been described in the issue of Der Bazar from 8 Jan 1861. Quoting from the initial wording, the stitch is:
“…made primarily in wool…using an ordinary crochet hook of a gauge appropriate to the material. However, the hook has to taper towards its tip, which must be narrower than the shaft.
Make a normal foundation and crochet as follows: Wrap the yarn four times around the hook as for a quadruple crochet stitch, push the spiral tightly together and a bit further back on the hook. Insert the hook into the next stitch and pull a new loop both through it and the entire spiral… Repeat this along the entire length of the work, stitch by stitch.”
It is illustrated as part of a belt.
The ordinary tapered hook in use at that time is illustrated in a potpourri of crochet stitches in the 15 June 1867 issue (and reproduced in numerous unaffiliated later publications). One of them is a double-crochet-based (UK) “solid shell” (feste Muschen) that also requires the yarn to be pulled through four loops in a single motion.
The 1864 instructions for the velour stitch, which describe its central element “appearing as a loosely knit shell” (lose gestrickt erscheinenden erhabenen Muschen), are effectively identical to those from 1861 (where the shell is a “bulge” — Bäuchen). However, they also specify how the taper is utilized on a flat hook.
“With the right index finger, push the spiral about 1.5 cm back on the hook and hold it firmly there.”
The structural detail of the flat hook is explained in a manner that indicates continuity with the 1800 and 1833 descriptions cited above.
“The velour crochet stitch is most easily made using a wedge-shaped pointed crochet hook as shown in the illustration. This hook is completely flat, only as thick as the back of a knife, and where it is not to be had in steel, is made from hard wood or ivory.”
Its application is shown with a woman’s shoe.
The velour stitch and flat hook are illustrated again in the 15 Jan 1865 issue with another woman’s shoe (also showing the floats between the elements made in the light-colored yarn on the reverse side of the fabric).
The range of materials in which flat hooks were produced, listed in the 1864 text, indicates that they were not simply a niche curiosity. The same illustration of the hook appears in 1865. The copy available online has a pencil sketch of a more pointed tip under the original illustration. This demonstrates reader awareness of the importance of its precise shaping and an interest in calling the attention of others to it.
The instructions from 1864 also make reference to a “spiral post stitch” (Spiral-Stäbchenstich) illustrated in the same issue. The differences between it and the velour stitch are described and immediately visible in the illustration. The fabric is worked with a Tunisian crochet hook, anchoring the stitches to the return chain rather than directly to each other, giving a more open structure. The yarn is wrapped around the hook five times, rather than four, adding additional flexibility.
The spiral post stitch is presented as a “very original variant of the Tunisian stitch.” Since it is produced using a cylindrical hook, there is reason to wonder why the four-wrap form requires a tapered one. Need for offsetting the additional tightness of the velour stitch provides at least a partial answer, and the shell stitch from 1867 is also intrinsically looser. (Four-wrap and longer spirals are otherwise a definitive attribute of what is now termed bullion crochet, and even longer spirals are a mainstay of crocheted tatting — all made using a long cylindrical metal ‘bullion hook.’)
However, the velour stitch also appears in instructions for a child’s shoe in the 1March 1864 issue of the Swedish women’s magazine Iduna, where it is called a “pineapple stitch.” It is likely to have been inspired by the earlier shoe in Der Bazar (and may even reflect an editorial relationship between the two publications) but is primarily made with the Tunisian simple stitch.
The instructions explicitly prescribe the use of the same cylindrical wooden hook for both the Tunisian and pineapple stitches, using an illustration of the hook taken directly from Der Bazar (highlighting that it is made of wood by showing its cross-section).
A separate hook is used for the sole, which is “crocheted with a heavy steel hook, back and forth with ordinary stitches.” The German description from 1800 of the mid-18th-century industrial use of a flat hook for slip stitch crochet footwear raises a question about whether the steel hook might have been a flat hook. Either way, there is contemporaneous documentation of that tool in Sweden and it is likely that the designer of the shoe was aware of it as an option for the pineapple stitch.
This gives three different implements attested for making the velour/pineapple stitch: an ordinary tapered crochet hook, a cylindrical Tunisian crochet hook, and a flat shepherd’s hook. The choice among them would have been a straightforward matter of individual preference. As a Tunisian stitch, the five-wrap spiral post is obviously restricted to a long cylindrical hook. There is also an upper limit to the number of equally sized wraps that can be effected with a tapered hook, varying with the degree of the taper.
The designs in Der Blatt treat the flat hook as advantageous when yarn is pulled through up to four loops or wraps at the same time. This extends the documented use of such tools beyond the realm of slip stitch crochet. In light of the flat hook’s long-standing Swedish nexus, it seems a fair guess that it was at times used for the stitches presented in the preceding post. If so, the distinction between flat hook crochet at the urban worktable and in rural tradition becomes all the more diffuse.
The initial categorization of the use of a shepherd’s hook as a form of knitting also extends to Tunisian crochet. Both the Tunisian crochet stitch and the long hook are described in terms of knitting in the 23 January 1861 issue of Der Blatt (where the method was introduced three year earlier).
“The Tunisian crochet stitch, [is] widely known as a form of knitting [Strickerei] with a…so-called ‘knitting hook’ [Strickhaken] (a long crochet hook with an even diameter and a knob affixed to its one end).”
The additional description of the shell as a knitted construct, alternatively produced on a knitting hook or a shepherd’s hook, further highlights the discrepancy between 19th-century notions of both procedural and structural classification and those of the present day. It is often pointed out that the conceptual framework is language dependent, and that several languages other than English do not have separate words for crochet and knitting. In that light, it may be of more than coincidental interest that the Oxford English Dictionary defines crochet as “A kind of knitting done with a hooked needle; material so made.”
The post before last discusses the appearance, in ordinary crochet, of structural elements taken from the long-hook crafts of Tunisian crochet and crochet tatting. It focuses on Swedish practice in the second half of the 19th century and one of the source documents is the Handbook of Women’s Handicraft (Handbok i fruntimmers-handarbeten) by Hedvig Berg, published in 1873-74.
Berg is atypically rigorous when categorizing fabric, tools, and techniques. In a discussion of the use of a crochet hook for making types of lace that are normally produced with other tools, and where the difference between crochet and the namesake form is clearly visible, she includes the label “imitation” in the name of the crochet stitch. For example, she calls the first presented type of crochet lace “Guipure crochet” but the one following it is an “Imitation of Valenciennes lace.”
The 1873 publication is also where the Swedish term krokning (hooking) is first attested as a designation for the family of stitches now normally termed Tunisian crochet. It is introduced in a chapter on “Crochet with wool yarn.” The section on krokning includes one stitch labeled as ordinary crochet but commences by placing a number of loops on the hook in the manner that typifies Tunisian crochet. (The current repertoire includes stitches made with this technique but a number of structurally interesting older ones have fallen out of use.)
A related stitch is described in a Swedish publication from 1864, appearing side-by-side with ordinary Tunisian crochet in a child’s shoe. This is also discussed in the post before last, showing the illustration again here.
The hybrid technique is used for the cuff and the same method recently reemerged in what was presented as a nearly forgotten variety of Swedish crochet. An article titled “Crochet Historic Mitten” (Virka historiska vante) appeared in the 21 October 2011 issue of the Swedish weekly magazine Land. The banner photograph is captioned:
Proud Crochet Pros. Ulrika Andersson and Elsie-Britt Sondell-Wärnersson show mittens crocheted in a technique they saved from being forgotten — crocheted nalbinding.
Excerpting pivotal snippets from the article:
The adventure with crocheted nalbinding began in the 1970s when staff at the county museum in Jämtland came across a mitten they didn’t understand. It looked as though it were nalbound but in a different way, and if Elsie-Britt hadn’t seen it, it would likely have been discarded… Elsie-Britt says, ‘I immediately saw that it was crocheted but didn’t know how, so I asked if I could borrow it to examine more closely at home.’
She was permitted to borrow it until the following morning only if she promised not to damage the object. After a wakeful night she had solved the mystery. Elsie-Britt is somewhat reticent about how she managed to decode the stitches but it apparently involved some creative ‘poking’ among them. The mitten was then returned to the museum fully intact. After the discovery Elsie-Britt brought her friend Ulrika in on the secret… Ulrika says, ‘It’s like nalbinding, a bit limited, but a lot of fun and much easier to learn. It’s also an advantage not to need to splice the yarn as is necessary with nalbinding.’
The article then presents Ulrika’s instructions for a pair of mittens crocheted with the stitch pattern Elsie-Britt extrapolated from the original mitten. In the interim, Ulrika had contacted Ullcentrum (Wool Center), a regional yarn producer with special interest in traditional Swedish yarncraft. They, in turn, consulted with the National Association of Swedish Handicraft Societies about an appropriate designation for was subsequently called virkad nålbindning (crocheted nalbinding).
Ullcentrum included it among the crafts they display at public events, such as the Sewing & Crafts Festival in Stockholm, where it is also taught. They first showed the crocheted mittens there in February 2012, where a visitor to their stand, Elsa Hällberg from Arbrå (in the province of Hälsingland, directly southeast of Jämtland), recognized the stitch. On seeing them she said, “…but I crochet mittens like that…my mother and grandmother taught me how to do it…”
The stitch Elsa reported is less complex than the one described in the initial magazine article but they are unquestionably related. Ulrika added it to her documentation with the name “Arbrå pattern” (Arbrå-mönstret), and labeled that of the Jämtland mitten as the “Original pattern” (Originalmönstret). At the same time, she presented an intermediate pattern of her own devising called “Crochet simple nalbinding” (Virkad enkel nålbindning). Her instructions for mittens using each of the forms are available on Ravelry: the attested one from Arbrå, the deduced Original, and the hybrid Simple.
This video shows how the Original pattern is worked, with the first stitch in a start-up form, and the following ones all fully in pattern.
Four loops are first placed on the hook in a manner that provides the vertical bars used as subsequent points of insertion. The Swedish narration emphasizes that the two loops closest to the tip of the hook need to be elongated, as do Ulrika’s instructions. The need for loops not pulled closely around the hook is shared by slip stitch crochet, where it is met by using a flat tapered hook. In fact, explicit instructions for the use of that tool for making the four-bars-on-hook pattern in the cuff of the slipper shown above appear in an earlier German publication, to be discussed in detail in a separate post.
Returning to the Swedish mittens, the wording of what started out unambiguously as a crochet stitch pattern is less precise in the compiled description of the variants. That text can be read to suggest that, despite fundamental procedural and structural differences, crochet nalbinding and ordinary nalbinding are forms of the same craft.
This triggered a reaction in the Swedish blogosphere noting that a crucial distinction was being blurred, regardless of how interesting the crocheted emulation of nalbound fabric might be. This confusion extended into anglophone dialog by the Simple pattern being labeled “Simple nålbinding” on the Ravelry page. Comments in the accompanying discussion clearly indicate that it was taken as nalbinding without regard to the somewhat clearer parallel Swedish label “Virkad enkel nålbindning.”
One consequence of the ensuing controversy was to damp further interest in the origin of the technique and its potential historical interest, despite the kerfuffle over its name. As far as the Jämtland pattern goes, if a night of loop-tugging on a single mitten is all there was to it, there would be little more to say. Despite the avowed return of the mitten to the museum intact, it is no longer there, and Elsie-Britt’s results cannot be corroborated.
It is not clear if the mitten actually belonged to the museum’s collections. The consultation may have been part of a discussion about whether to accession it formally or discard it. However, if it was “likely from the 17th century” as Ullcentrum suggests in a discussion of one of their blog posts, it is exceedingly improbable that the museum was contemplating the latter option.
It is similarly unclear when during the interval between the 1970s and the 2010s the examination took place. Swedish museum policies about permitting objects to be taken off-site became continuously more restrictive in that period, with an earlier date being conceivable and a later one far less likely.
The craft that Elsa learned from her mother and grandmother casts an entirely different light. The commentary to the blog post just cited also notes that her aunts were involved in teaching it to her. She was therefore the third-generation bearer of a what would only have been a single-family tradition if her grandmother had invented it, rather than having herself been taught it in a broader context.
The Arbrå pattern is a product of that tradition, whatever the scope of the community that shared it may have been. In contrast, the Jämtland pattern is the result of a single examination of an object by someone who, although clearly in an expert position to distinguish between crochet and nalbinding, had no prior involvement with whatever tradition the mitten might represent.
The four-loops-on-hook commonality of all the patterns Ulrika describes harks directly back to the earlier hybrid crochet stitches. The chronology of their appearance during the latter half of the 19th century comfortably allows Elsa’s grandmother, or even great-grandmother, to have been familiar with them or any undocumented form of traditional crochet or hooking that they may have typified.
Had Hedvig Berg included the Arbrå (or Jämtland or Simple) pattern in her 1873 compilation, she would certainly have placed it under the heading of crochet. If presenting it in the context of mitten production, or some other garment with a strong traditional association with nalbinding, she could easily have labeled it ‘imitation af bindning,’ ‘imitation af nålning,’ or whatever her preferred designation for the emulated technique may have been. If contemporized to ‘crocheted imitation nalbinding’ the added qualifier allows the stitch pattern(s) to take an unladen position on the spectrum of looped techniques used for making mittens in Sweden, deserving further investigation in its own right.
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 major revision of a research report on knotting and tatting during that period, initially titled Early Tatting Instructions, and now published as a journal article announced here.)
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.
In the last few posts, I’ve been working my way toward the description of a baby’s sock in the collections of the Museum der Kulturen in Basel. If correctly dated, it could be the oldest object with a slip stitch structure that has yet been noted. It is described as nalbinding in previous documentation, rather than as the slip stitch crochet it is more likely to be. The sock has also been associated with the textile production of Coptic Egypt, which although rich in both simple and compound nalbound material, would make it far older than any other evidence of slip stitch fabric, regardless of the production method.
This increases the care needed in examining the chronological and technological records, and if necessary, setting them straight. If the colloquial information about the sock’s provenance should prove even roughly to be correct, it would allow for slip stitch fabric to have emerged around 1,000 years before the earliest firm date in the 1780s that can otherwise be set to it. Radiocarbon dating would immediately rein this in to a more useful interval, assuming that it is not of more recent origin than can be dated with that method, at all.
If it should prove to have been nalbound, slip stitch crochet could arguably have developed as an alternate technique for producing at least that one form of nalbinding. Pending a more precise dating of the sock, this would still suggest an earlier date for the origins of crochet than the one currently accepted. Adding a single new stitch to the already extensive repertoire of nalbinding would be less dramatic but interesting nonetheless.
The third possibility is that the provenance of the sock was misrepresented by the dealer from whom it was purchased, and that it lacks any actual association with either Coptic or early Islamic Egypt. Even so, slip stitch crochet is a traditional practice in Northwest Africa and the sock can reasonably be seen as evidence of its broader range. Again, its radiometric dating might indicate how far back that tradition can be traced, with greater objective potential for shifting perceptions of the craft’s age.
I had been waiting to blog about any of this until I had seen the actual sock and not just photographs of it. That finally happened a fortnight before this post was published, when my friend Anne Marie Decker and I were generously given access to the early non-woven Egyptian fabric in the storerooms of the Museum der Kulturen, by the acting Head of the African Department, Isabella Bozsa.
Anne is better equipped than anyone else I know to identify secondary structural detail that might definitively reveal whether the sock was produced with an eyed needle or a hook. If no such determination could be made, we would then consider stylistic attributes that might indicate the more likely method. There was also a small pouch among the objects shown to us that had the same slip stitch structure, so in fact, there were two pieces that we could take into consideration.
We were unable to locate any detail in either that could only have been produced with an eyed needle, and Anne found something she believed might preclude that possibility outright. However, there hasn’t yet been time for her to confirm this experimentally. All structural details of both the sock and the pouch are otherwise fully congruent with hook-based slip stitching. The sock also differs from comparable nalbound objects in pivotal stylistic regard.
We’ll be preparing a proper report about this as soon as we can manage and I’ll be focusing in greater detail on selected aspects of the history of slip stitch fabric and its structural classification, in separate posts.
Anne and I proceeded from Basel to Copenhagen where we both gave presentations at a conference earlier this week on Current Research in Textile Archaeology along the Nile. My presentation is available here, starting at the 19’04” mark, and includes illustrations and commentary specific to the sock and pouch, as well as other evidence of early slip stitch crochet. (There are a number of options for displaying the presentation and selecting “Slides” is preferable to the default “Screen.” What may seem to be an inordinate amount of hand-waving is an unfortunate consequence of the camera angle.) Anne’s presentation places the Basel objects in a far broader context of simple and compound nalbinding, and is located here.
Schematic drawings of the slip stitch structure, identical to the ones seen in the preceding post, appear in published descriptions of other objects said to be nalbinding rather than crochet. Before considering individual such objects, I’m going to take a look at another way to use an eyed needle for producing not just crochet-type slip stitches but a variety of more complex structures normally identified as crochet.
In the present context, the difference between the two tools reduces to the single mechanical detail of whether the end that grasps the yarn is fully closed — an eye — or is open on one side — a hook. The former holds the yarn more firmly and constrains its separation from the tool. The latter allows the yarn to be removed and reattached at any time but is conducive to unintentional separation. Both tools are otherwise made with dull and pointed tips, although that attribute is more relevant to the (by no means unrelated) comparison of ordinary and tambour embroidery.
In 1966, Angela Huber was granted US Patent no. 3,228,212 for a Method of Hand Knitting and Knitting Needle, five years after filing a corresponding application in Austria.
“This invention relates to a method of hand knitting and a knitting needle for it. Both the method and the needle distinguish by being particularly simple because only a single thread and a single needle are employed.”
An eyed needle used to push a new loop through a preexisting one, gauging its size with an adjustable collar. The patent illustrates both knit-type and crochet-type looping, showing only the latter here.
A tool of the same design was sold in the late 1960s as the “Grant One Needle Looper” with a pattern booklet titled Grant’s One Needle Looping. It was telemarketed shortly thereafter as “The Original K-Tel Knitter — a revolutionary new method of knitting and crocheting with one needle.”
There is no indication of the relationship between the Grant/K-Tel items and the Huber patent but the instruction booklet in the K-Tel package (and presumably also Grant’s) illustrates a “simplicity stitch” with essentially the same drawings as the preceding ones.
This technique is currently marketed as Fauxchét® using a composite needle that is identical to a standard machine knitting 1×2 transfer tool (but trademarked nonetheless). It is again unclear if there is a relationship to the Huber patent.
As is seen in other videos in that series, an eyed needle can be used in the same manner to make crochet stitches of increasing complexity. This can be compared to the production of hand knitted fabric on a peg loom instead of knitting needles. In both cases, the adherents to the conventional technique are in a substantial majority and have varying opinions about the utility of the alternative.
A similar comparison can be made between the structurally identical cross-knit looping made with an eyed needle, and twisted-stitch knitting made with knitting needles. This highlights why the discussion of the structure of a piece of fabric so often needs to be separated from that of the various tools and techniques that can be used to produce it. This is further demonstrated by the basic principle of a sewing machine, which is to push a loop of thread through fabric using the eyed end of a needle, and that of a knitting machine, using what is essentially a battery of crochet hooks to create vertically chained knitted structures.
The eyed end of the needle is also commonly used in hand embroidery to pass the working thread between preexisting stitches and the base fabric without risk of piercing either. With all this it mind, it is reasonable to wonder why a second point is frequently seen on archaeologically recovered needles such as those found at the Viking settlement in Birka and currently on display at the Swedish History Museum.
Similar needles from an earlier Celtic settlement in Colchester are on display at the British Museum.
Just as it is frequently impossible to look at a piece of looped fabric and know what tools were involved in its production, a tool doesn’t always reveal what it was used for. It is safe to assume that it had a primary function. However, for example, it does not follow from the similarity between the second needle from the top in this photo and the needles used in the Nordic nalbinding tradition, as first documented in the 1940s, that the older implement was ever used for that craft. In fact, it cannot be proven that it was intended for work with yarn at all.
With the same caveat, if historical precedent for the production of crochet-type slip stitch fabric using an eyed needle can be established, one with two points at longer and shorter distances from the eye would easily support either of the techniques we’ve now seen.