Pair of Socks
This pair of socks were made in the 4th to 5th century, and were excavated in Egypt at the end of the 19th century. They have a divided toe and are designed to be worn with sandals.
The technique used for making these socks are commonly confused with knitting. They were made in the technique nålbindning, sometimes called knotless netting or single needle knitting – a technique closer to sewing than knitting. These socks were made using three-ply wool. Some believe that this technique was a forerunner of the faster method of knitting with two or more needles.
Both nålbindning and knitting produce a texture composed of elastic rows of stitches made out of a single thread. Its elasticity facilitates a close-fit for hands, feet and head. Fit is of particular importance in a cold climate but also for protecting feet clothed in sandals only.
Nålbindning is much more time-consuming than knitting and requires great nimbleness of the left-hand fingers – an extension of a basic basketry or netting technique, which in its simplest form is a single loop worked through a single loop, and is akin to sewing.
This technique is linked with home production for personal use, but is highly skilled. The disadvantage with nålbindning is that only a limited length of yarn (a needleful) can be worked, another length has to be joined – in knitting a thread of indefinite length is used.
The technique nålbindning is without doubt older than knitting, used widely since prehistoric times. The needles used are flat, blunt and between 6 -10 cm long, relatively large-eyed at one end or the eye is near the middle. They are usually made of bone or wood.
The mass demand for elastic items of clothing displaced nålbindning by the much faster and more economical knitting, between AD 500 and 1200. However, the technique survived in many rural areas for hard-wearing garments till at least the 19th century (for example, in Scandinavia).
The origins of ‘true’ knitting might be found in the material from the territory of the Roman Empire, and it is thought that the earliest pieces knitted with two needles were found in Holland and date to the end of the second century AD. So far the earliest knitting is considered to come from Islamic Egypt – 11th century. It is possible that knitting was introduced to Europe from Asia through trade routes to Venice or as a result of the Moorish invasion of Spain (711-712 AD).
The big toe divided from the others suggest that the socks were probably meant to be worn with sandals. It is unclear whether the socks formed offerings to the dead or were used as foot coverings. Note that the holes have not laddered (though they have spread somewhat). This effect is typical of knitting when the wool breaks, but not of nålbindning.
Roman Period, 4th to 5th century. Now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. 2085&A-1900