Egyptian Cotton Socks
- Ursula Georges
These socks are based on a number of extant pieces found in Egypt and dated to somewhere between the eleventh and fifteenth centuries.
The originals are made of blue and white cotton. These are made of navy and white Fortissima yarn, which is cotton with 25% nylon added for strength. I chose the cotton-nylon blend over mercerized cotton, hoping that untreated cotton would better replicate the texture of the original pair.
Little is known of medieval Egyptian knitting needles. They may have been hooked at one end, and could have been made of wood, bone, or a metal such as brass. I used Brittany Birch double-pointed US #2 needles. I snapped several needles because they were so fine, which leads me to conjecture that stronger materials such as hardwood or brass would have been used for medieval needles.
Most medieval knitting was done with a gauge of at least 10 stitches to the inch. My gauge was 9 stitches and 13 rows to the inch.
Like the originals, these socks use plain knit stitch throughout (no ribbing!) I used the simplest increases and decreases I know: knit into front and back to increase, knit two stitches together to decrease. At the top of the sock I knitted three strands at once to create a thicker and somewhat decorative edge. Some modern Turkish socks, which are like the Egyptian socks in that they begin at the toe and use no ribbing, have a similar "braided" edge created with a special stitch.
These socks measure 8 inches before the heel and about 14 inches from heel to top. This is comparable to the extant examples. My socks end just below a man's knee.
The general construction follows a pattern seen in both the medieval socks and in modern Eastern knitting. These socks were knit in the round using 4-5 needles, starting at the toe. After the rest of the sock is complete, the heel stitches are picked up and knitted. The round knitting means that (except for the heel) each sock is a continuous spiral. This creates a break or "seam" in the pattern. At least one extant sock has the seam at the side of the foot, rather than the back; these socks follow the same pattern.
Toe and heel
I do not know how the medieval socks were cast on; I began by casting four stitches onto one needle, then knitting each of these stitches onto a new needle, increasing once for each stitch. I then continued in the round, increasing once at the end of each needle, until I reached my desired width. This created a rounded toe with a star-like pattern similar to that in the extant pieces. I made my heel the same shape as the toe by decreasing at the end of each needle. Medieval Egyptian knitters may have used a technique such as grafting to produce a more rounded heel; however, my method is plausible in its simplicity, and many modern Eastern socks have identical heels and toes.
Medieval Egyptian socks were often either white with blue bands or covered with blue-and-white patterns. The designs were stranded as in modern Fair Isle knitting. Popular motifs included Arabic letters spelling the name of God as well as geometric patterns. These socks were made for a member of the Barony of the Cleftlands, who requested nebuly. Heraldry was never popular in the Middle East. However, some of our earliest examples of European knitting, found in Spain, used heraldic motifs such as eagles and lions alongside traditionally Eastern elements. Furthermore, modern Turkish knitting incorporates curved elements such as rows of spirals. Thus socks with nebuly, though unexpected in a Middle Eastern setting, are not impossible.