A Mysterious Medieval Egyptian Knit Object

I decided to knit an odd object whose use scholars can't identify. It's too long and narrow to be a baby sock and too short to be a belt (clearly!). Some have suggested it might be a sampler. But i think it might have been a coin pouch.

The original was cotton and I used cotton, too. Most was DMC Perle Coton: the main color was natural/ecru and the stripes near the dark blue were a solid light blue. When i saw the Egyptian socks from the same time period in the Textile Museum, i noticed that they were not always very evenly dyed. I don't know if they were like this originally or if this quality reflects the vicissitudes of time. I like playing with space-dyed yarns, so i used two. The gradated lighter turquoise is also DMC perle coton. Alas, not all colors were available in perle coton, so the dark blue uneven color is DMC embroidery floss.

I used very short glover's needles for this. They were fun to use, but the ones i used were too thick, so the knitting is a bit looser than i'd like.

A close inspection of the original shows that parts of this item were knit from the bottom up and other parts in the opposite direction. But it isn't just the bottom and the top - there are several sections - which makes me wonder if it was reassembled - perhaps because it broke and the pieces were put back facing the wrong way. Without being able to inspect the inside, the exact sturcture is uncertain. I knit mine in one direction, from the bottom up.

Below is the "documentation" i submitted to an SCA Arts and Sciences competition.

original mysterious object

The oldest surviving knitting in the world has been found in Egypt. Many items were dug up in the old city of Fustat, which was the capital city of the Fatimid Dynasty, but which now lies within borders of modern Cairo. They are dated by scholars to sometime between the 11th and 14th centuries CE.

These items exhibit some sophistication, with stranded-knit polychrome patterns, so it is likely that knitting began earlier. Some items were knitted in cotton - some are just two colors: natural white and dark blue dyed with indigo; others are white, light-medium indigo, and dark indigo blue. Others were knitted in many colors of wool.

Some may have been knit of silk as well, since there are surviving 13th century items from Spain, clearly knit by Muslims [Rutt, pp. 39-44].

In looking through books on historical knitting, I became intrigued by a particular knit item.

The original item
natural cotton and
2 shades of indigo blue cotton.
between 11th and 13th centuries C.E.
Photo from Tissus d'Égypt, page 267


My experiment based on it
DMC perle coton and
DMC cotton embroidery floss
Fall 2004

What is it?

Original: The writer of Tissus d'Égypt says:
No. 166, p. 267: "La fonction de cette pièce pose le même problème que No. 164, mais elle semble plus conforme, dans ses proportion, à une chaussette d'enfant."
(The function of this piece poses the same problem as No. 164, but it appears more to comform, in its proportions, to an infant's sock)

No. 164, p. 266: "...Le disposition du decor parrait peu compatible avec une fonction du ceinture... On pourrait y voir une chaussette d'enfant sans piece de talon, mais la hauteur parrait trop importante par la rapport à la largeur."
(...The arrangement of the decoration appears little compatable with a use as a belt... One could see in it an infant's sock without a heel, but the length appears too great in relation to the width.)                                                             [Translation mine]

Mine: I don't know how many babies the author has known, but I certainly don't know any with legs as narrow as either No. 164 or No. 166. I use mine as a coin purse.

my mysterious object
Original: 20 cm long and 3 cm in diameter/ 8 inches long and 1-1/5 inches in diameter. [Tissus, p. 267]
Mine: Mine was shorter originally than it is now, because it has stretched about an inch since I have been using it as a coin purse. It is now 11 inches long and approximately 1-3/8 inches in diameter.
Original: No one knows what tools the Egyptians used to knit with, as none have been found along with any knitting. Based on the fineness of most Medieval Egyptian knitting and the available technology, metal needles of some form are likely, probably of brass.
Mine: I used 5 double pointed plastic glovers needles, size 1 US, 2 MM. Glovers needles are quite short, only a couple inches long.
Original: The original yarn had 2 S-plies of Z-spun cotton and was very unevenly dyed [Tissus, p. 267]. I don't know if this is how they were originally dyed, or due to the vicissitudes of time - being buried for a multitude of centuries can make things change.
Mine: I decided to play with gradated colors to simulate the uneven dye of the originls. I used primarily DMC perle cotton for the off-white and the turquoise. The dark blue is DMC embroidery floss because there was no gradated dark blue in perle cotton.
Original: 6 stitches and 8 rounds per centimeter [Tissus, p. 267]. This is about 15 stitches and 20 rounds per inch.
Mine: At the top it is 12 stitches and 10 rounds per inch - at the bottom where it has stretched from the weight of the coins it is 9 stitches and 11 rounds per inch.

Making the Item

In order to figure out how to make this, I analyzed the photograph of original.

It is knit in the round using color-stranding - that is, in rows with two colors, both yarns are carried inside with the color in use being brought over the needle and the unused color floating behind. Photographs of the back side of Medieval Egyptian color-stranded fragments [Rutt, p. 38] show very long unanchored floats. Because of the decorative patterns on this piece, no long floats were necessary.

This is not an exact reproduction. While I believe I have accurately reproduced the decorative patterns, I have differed a little in the disposition of the plain bands.

I assume this object was knit beginning at the closed end, because Medieval Egyptian socks are knit from the toe up.
Original: The method of casting on cannot be seen from the photograph, but in examining what I can see of the tip, a figure-8 cast on is a possibility.
Mine: I used a figure-8 cast-on, which Bellinger mentions.

Original: The method of increasing can possibly be deduced from the photograph. The closed end has something of a toe-shape, using one of several ways Medieval Egyptian knit sock toes were shaped.
Mine: I did not follow this method because I considered what I knit to be inspired by the original, not an exact copy.

Original: Exactly how the original was actually finished is unclear, as the top is damaged and it is difficult to see any details in the photograph. Actual Medieval Egyptian socks, to which this item is similar in technique, use a simple cast-off.
Mine: I used the same simple cast off as surviving Medieval Egyptian socks. I originally dampened and ironed this item to block it. Through use, the top now curls a bit, which is natural for all stockinette stitch knitting.

Sources Cited

André, Paul, ed. Collection Bouvier. Tissus d'Égypte - témoins du monde arabe - VIIIe-XVe siècles. Thonon-les Bains, Haute-Savoie, Musée d'art et d'histoire, Genêve; Institut du monde arabe, Paris: Éditions de l'Albaron, Societé du livre, 1993.

Exquisite photos of a wide variety of textiles found in Egypt dating from the 8th through the 15th centuries, including 14 pieces of knitting. No how-to's, no graphed patterns, but includes a chemical analysis of dyestuffs in textiles and information on knit gauge, spin and ply twist. Entirely in French.

Bellinger, Louisa. "Patterned Stockings: Possibly Indian, Found in Egypt". Workshop Notes Paper No. 10 (December, 1954). The Textile Museum, Washington DC

Discussion and analysis of six stockings and stocking fragments in the museum's collection. Most authorities now accept these as Egyptian, although the cotton yarn may have been imported. Her discussion of technique is invaluable for recreating Medieval Egyptian knit items, although this paper mentions neither the nature of the yarn (ply, spin, or twist) nor the gauge of the knit pieces. She decided that many items use the figure-8 cast on. Her diagram and description of this technique were inadequate from me to learn from.

Gibson-Roberts, Priscilla A. Ethnic Socks & Stockings: A compendium of Eastern design & technique. Sioux Falls SD: Knitter's Magazine Books, XRX, Inc., 1995. ISBN 0-9646391-06

A gem of a resource. It includes two Medieval Egyptian socks, from the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. Also contains color photographs of dozens of breathtakingly beautiful ethnic socks from Central Europe to Central Asia. And it includes an extensive chapter "Construction Techniques". Her information on the figure-8 cast-on is much more helpful than Bellinger's.

Rutt, Richard. A History of Hand Knitting. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., /Loveland CO: Interweave Press, 1987. ISBN 0-7134-5118-1

An invaluable resource for the general history of knitting, from speculative beginnings through the mid-20th century. Includes many black and white photographs and charts of historic decorative patterns, including from many Medieval Egyptian stockings.

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