A reflection on the production of our Coptic sock from experimental researcher Regina De Giovanni.
In March 2012 I visited the Manchester Museum and was able to spend time with the Child’s Coptic Sock, which as off display at that time. I believed the sock to be knitted and made a knitting pattern and a pair of replica socks based on the ancient original.
I had all but forgotten about the project when in May of 2015 I received an email from Dr Giorgios Boudalis who works at The Museum of Byzantine Culture in Thessalonica (Greece) who found me through the Manchester Egypt blog. He asked me to make a pair of socks for an exhibition in New York 2017 using the technique used in ‘Coptic Knitting: An Ancient Technique’ by Dorothy K. Burnham Textile History Volume 3, Issue 1 December 1972, 116-124. The technique in the article was also used for bookbinding Coptic Books which is his area of interest.
Inspired by this request I visited the Whitworth Gallery and spent time with Curator Frances Pritchard looking at samples of Coptic Sock broken parts to observe any damage which might give clues to their construction. I brought premade squares made in both Tarim stitch and knitted stocking stitch which I cut roughly to compare the damage. The experiment was inconclusive as the damage on both squares looked similar to the pieces. We noted that the originals were made in fine 3 ply yarn which would rule out the “spin as you go” method which would create the yarn by twisting fleece with the needle as the work progressed.
I also searched the Manchester Museum collection of needles and bodkins, while interesting were not suitable for the replication of the Tarim Stitch. I then discovered a demonstration of Tarim Stitch on You Tube which used a flat wooden needle. http://www.neulakintaat.fi/ (Finland). Eventually I sourced a fine wooden needle on Etsy from Belarus. The needle needed to be shortened and flattened before it met the needs of the project.
Knitting is constructed with two rigid needles and a continuous length of yarn. Tarim stitch is worked with a short flat needle using an “arm’s length” of yarn at a time. Splicing the lengths of yarn together is fiddly and time consuming which makes the overall task slower than knitting.
Having conquered the stitch method of construction many questions are left. Where did the yarn originate from, it looks like wool though there seems little evidence of sheep farming in Egypt? What dyestuffs were used to generate the lovely bright colours? What were the needles made of wood, reeds, thorns or bone? What tool was used to cut the yarn?
The project so far has been truly International via the magic of the Internet and thanks to the staff at Manchester Museum and Galleries for being so willing to give experimenters like myself access to their collections.