It makes sense, really. Naalbinding is perhaps the most ancient form of creating garments from yarn. The craft utilizes a large-eyed needle, which could easily have “morphed” into a crochet hook; both arts pull yarn through loops to create intricate and beautiful patterns.
Ta da! The process still works! Take some beautiful, soft white wool from a merino sheep and some shiny, slick gorgeous white mohair from a goat, spin singles of each, and then ply them together for a lovely length of textured and interesting yarn.
Using US 10 (or larger) needles, knit with a pattern from f.pea for a baby heirloom blanket with a lovely scalloped edge. Add some color–in this case, a skein dyed aqua and salmon from Arabella, handspun thick and thin for extra texture and interest. Keep knitting–in airports, in the car, on lovely evenings at home, to avoid housework, when you should be working, etc.
Archeologists seemed surprised to find intricate beauty when they uncover textiles (or art) from thousands upon thousands of years ago. Their surprise is odd to me–because as long as we have been human, we have infused our material objects with artistic beauty and creativity. This is what it means to BE human.
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A TIME magazine article, Science: Cave Cache, published Monday, April 8, 1985, describes some astonishing artifacts found in a cave in Israel, and dated around 9,000 years ago from today (give or take several hundred years). The article says that in addition to the oldest painted mask ever found, the artifacts include:
“…basket and box fragments made of woven rushes waterproofed with asphalt, delicate thumbnail-size human heads and a rodent figurine, carved wood and bone tools, clay, stone and wooden beads and a human skull adorned with asphalt. Perhaps most remarkable are the fabrics, which are woven in eleven intricate designs, some resembling knotted macrame, others fine mesh.” (italics added)
In a previous post, I described a tomb wall-painting found at Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated around 2000 BC, that depicts at least two weavers and a spinner in great detail. That’s old!! But the remnants described above date 5,000 years earlierthan those tomb wall paintings. We are now stepping so far back into the past that it is fuzzy and mysterious. Who really knows what was happening in 8,000 BC? It is precisely at the point of “fuzzy” and “mysterious” that our biases emerge. (There’s lots of room for MSU.) For many scientists and archeologists, “primitive” and “intricately designed” just don’t go together, and that interests me.
I thought of this assumed contradiction again as I read descriptions of Naalebinding as “primitive knitting.” Primitive is most often used in a pejorative sense, implying not only from the fuzzy past, but also meaning “being little evolved, uncivilized, characterized by simplicity or crudity.”
When I finally saw examples of Naalebinding, my first thought was “there’s NOTHING primitive about this!” In fact, Naalbinding is a complicated series of intricate loops created with yarn threaded through a large needle’s eye, rather than looped with two straight needles, as we know knitting today. I will agree that this form of constructing garments is primitive, but only if we use THIS definition: primitive: “not derived by something else; basic.”
Naalebinding is primitive in that it is the first form of knitting. Nothing about it is “crude, unevolved, uncivilized.” The technique produces quite lovely, smart, well-designed material objects such as dense, warm mittens, socks, hats, and sweaters. So, our 8,000 year-old ancestors not only made warm clothing to survive their winters, but they also expressed themselves creatively in design…isn’t creative expression the most basic way we are distinguished from animals?
I’ve been traveling to Plymouth, MA from Texas for work over the last few months. As is typical of most business trips, I wasn’t seeing anything in the town other than the car, the hotel, and the conference room at the office. Finally, I just couldn’t bear it! Plymouth, of all places! I had to see at least something Pilgrim-ish, or never eat Thanksgiving dinner again. So, on my final trip, I went a day early to hang out at Plimouth Plantation, a “living” museum of the village that operates perpetually in the year 1627. I was particularly interested in….of course…fabrics.
Mrs. William Bradford, enjoying the lovely weather while hemming an apron, was kind enough to let me get up close to see the weave on her clothing.
I asked her if anyone in the village had a spinning wheel (yes, they talk only in character!) and she said, “Oh, no! We buy our clothes ready made when the ship comes once a year.”
These actors were very knowledgeable, actually, about the characters they were portraying, and also lots of details about the village–Mrs. Alden was even cooking a tansy (spinach, bread, & eggs), taking coals from her open hearth and sticking them under an iron skillet on little legs to cook it. Fascinating! My taxi driver said the actors come from all over the country and stay 6 months at a time in houses near the village. They study up on the history of the period, read the journals and diaries left behind, and love to chat about 1627! (The Pilgrims arrived in 1620.)
I also learned that back in Holland, where they lived as a community for some years before coming to Plymouth, this group of women did not do much spinning of their own to make fabrics. Living in the large city of Leyden, they purchased their clothing ready made, or bolts of cloth if they wanted to sew something on their own. But it bears repeating that although they themselves weren’t the onesspinning the threads that were ultimately woven into the fabrics they were wearing or purchasing….someone’s pair of hands were, since every thread woven into a cloth in 1627 was handspun and handwoven!
Discovery has progressed through the last few centuries here on planet earth at an astounding gallop. Discovery within all of the various sciences, how motion impacts mass (a little something called gravity), telescopes and microscopes, antibiotics and surgical improvements, train, planes and automobiles, all the way up to the ever-improving and amazing iPhone. Somehow, we automatically think of progression as improvement. And often, it is. The iPhone is a definite improvement over the telegram. Antibiotics are a definite improvement over dying.
But on rare occasions, some things start out great and don’t need much improvement, even after 10,000 years. The weaving of threads into a continuous fabric from which clothing is cut is one process that has not changed since the first time someone needed a shirt (or maybe it was a purse). This illustration was found on a wall in an Egyptian tomb, depicting two weavers and a hand spinner, among other workers. Though we now process flax, spin it into threads, and weave it into linen cloth on machines, the individual steps in the process are remarkably the same.
I think I can now finally understand the difference between warp and weft. The warp threads hang vertically from the top of the piece to the bottom of the piece, each as an individual strand.
The weft are made by the continuous “threading” of a long fiber under and over each of the hanging warp threads. In other words, the weft threads must be “set up” to hang vertically like a sort of stringed curtain. Then, a continuous thread is “woven” over and under, over and under, over and under each of the hanging weft threads, and a strong, continuous fabric is made. Remember making construction paper place mats in grade school with this method? Then you have practiced the ancient craft of weaving.
Turns out that weaving is waaaaaaayyyyy older a method of making clothing than knitting. In fact, amazingly enough, knitting (as we know it today) is a fairly recent development. (More on that another time, but you can get a jump from this great site learning about Naalebinding.) The point here is that the first spun yarns and threads were not knitted,they were woven. And remember that every shred of thread woven into cloth up until the 12-14th centuries had been spun with a pair of human hands and a spindle.
I am getting closer to answering the question who made the first shirt? and it is beginning to look something like a linen garment, hand-woven from hand-spun flax using a hand spindle. Wool, it seems, joined in the fun much later, by several thousand years. Interestingly, linen has some of the same amazing properties as wool: it absorbs water without feeling “wet” and can keep the wearer both warm and cool.
*Image used under GNU Free Documentation License from Wikipedia
I’m beginning to believe that history, like art, may be “in the eye of beholder.” And the further back in time we want to go, the more this is true.
I’m not talking about 100 years ago, or even 400 years ago, and maybe not even 2000 years ago, because we humans have a marvelous proclivity for recording ourselves. We’ve chiseled our likeness on every surface imaginable from a cave wall to a coin; written down our deepest thoughts, ideas, and dictums on animal skin parchment with the ink of berries; even encoded laws on stone and clay tablets. Something very deep inside all of us wants to be remembered.
As a result, the “material” objects left by past cultures really tell us a lot about what they believed about themselves and the world, and what they appreciated and valued. The problem is that the further back in time we go, the fewer of these objects we find, and putting together the “story” behind the material objects becomes something my sister calls MSU. That’s when the lack of facts surrounding an object or idea causes us to Make Stuff Up. Right?
For example, I can “google” enough subjects surrounding 100 B.C. (About 24,600,000 results in 0.25 seconds) to construct a pretty good idea of the state of life for the average Roman citizen, or even a barbarian or two wandering around outside the Empire. The basic stuff–the “material” goods of that time: fabrics, jewelry, pottery, tools, art–combined with all of the written works we have from this period
gives us a clear picture….well, we don’t have to resort much to MSU.
But the farther back we want to go to know what we as ancient people ate, drank, worked at, created, wore, cursed over, prayed over, made for decoration or traded for goods, the fuzzier the picture gets. For me, it all sort of runs together with old World History lessons. Since I started spinning, however, I find myself driven to create a better picture of the first fabrics and who wore them, how they were made, and what choices were available. Or at least understand how much of the story we do know, and how much is someone else’s version of MSU–Making Stuff Up.
I am going to start with the timeline I found at The New World Encyclopedia because it specifically marks the find in Israel of the oldest textiles anyone has uncovered. TIME magazine’s description^ of the textiles says, “Perhaps most remarkable are the fabrics, which are woven in eleven intricate designs, some resembling knotted macrame, others fine mesh.” Stay Tuned…
c. 8000 B.C.E. – Evidence of flax cultivation in the Near East.
c. 6500 B.C.E. – Approximate date of Naalebinding examples found in Nehal Hemar cave, Israel. This technique, which uses short separate lengths of thread, predated the invention of spinning (with its continuous lengths of thread) and requires that all of the as-yet unused thread be pulled through the loop in the sewn material. This requires much greater skill than knitting in order to create a fine product.
Uh oh. I knew it would happen sooner or later. I have had about three days here by myself, with each child away on a different adventure, and no one needing anything from me. I thought I would be spinning for hours and hours, but the one thing that fascinates me more than actually spinning has captured me…researching about spinning!
It all started innocently enough…that curiosity got me wondering…What is the oldest textile that archaeologists have located? I mean, I just wanted to know when the first shirt was made. Really, that’s all.
But when my 20-year old daughter came into my bedroom yesterday, after my three days alone in the house, I’ll confess the room did look like that scene out of A Beautiful Mind, when John Nash’s wife walks into his office….(okay, there were some content differences….mathematical genius vs. curious spinning woman, left alone for three days…)
But charts, diagrams, outlines, questions, and pages and pages of written notes were scattered all over my bed (my primary research spot), and a few pages with color-coded highlights were taped together and thumb-tacked to the wall. Josie walked in the room with a puzzled expression (Mom, have you lost your mind?). I found myself backpedaling to find a suitable explanation for all this…..what? all this…curiosity?
“Ummm…I had just been wondering about when people first made shirts?” ending with a question in my voice, hoping she’d accept the logic of one question leading to, well, all this.
Ah, the power of one question! When was the first shirt made? has taken me on a remarkable journey through the history of humanity, and the archeological, theological, scientific, and curious anomalies that accompany such a journey. (This whole line of questioning was begun after discovering the spinning wheel is a modern invention.)
Archeology is most fascinating–not only for what is dug up from the earth to tell us about people and their communities and habits–but also for the drama of pride, family feuds, hurt feelings, and ego of the scientists themselves, and their resultant actions. Like the famous Leakeys–the father, Louis, finds an astounding skull that might be the oldest human fossil….until young son Richard grows up and finds one that might be even older…and for 20 years, a dispute rages about the dates. Hmmmmm…
Or the scientist who made such bold claims about his find before they were verified, that his later embarrassment led him to keep the bones locked in a closet for many years, depriving the scientific community of the value they did hold. It’s riveting, truly.
Have I found the answer to my first question yet? No, I really haven’t. But I have discovered a bunch more questions….