Behold 1,600-Year-Old Egyptian Socks Made with Nålbindning, an Ancient Proto-Knitting Technique

We have, above, a pair of socks. You can tell that much by looking at them, of course, but what’s less obvious at a glance is their age: this pair dates back to 250-420 AD, and were excavated in Egypt at the end of the nineteenth century. That information comes from the site of the Victoria and Albert Museum, where you can learn more about not just these Egyptian socks but the distinctive, now-vanished technique used to make socks in Egypt at the time: “nålbindning, sometimes called knotless netting or single needle knitting — a technique closer to sewing than knitting,” which, as we know it, wouldn’t emerge until the eleventh century in Islamic Egypt. The technique still remains in use today.

Time consuming and skill-intensive, nålbindning produced especially close-fitting garments, and “fit is of particular importance in a cold climate but also for protecting feet clothed in sandals only.” And yes, it seems that socks like these were indeed worn with sandals, a function indicated by their split-toe construction.

A few years ago, we featured archaeological research here on Open Culture pointing to the ancient Romans as the first sock-and-sandal wearers in human history. These particular socks were also made in the time of the Roman Empire, though they were unearthed at its far reaches, from “the burial grounds of ancient Oxyrhynchus, a Greek colony on the Nile.”

As’s Emily Spivack writes, “We don’t know for sure whether these socks were for everyday use, worn with a pair of sandals to do the ancient Egyptian equivalent of running errands or heading to work — or if they were used as ceremonial offerings to the dead (they were found by burial grounds, after all).” But the fact that their appearance is so striking to us today, at least sixteen centuries later, reminds us that we aren’t as familiar as we think with the world that produced them. And if, to our modern eyes, they even look a bit goofy — though less goofy than they would if worn properly, along with a pair of sandals — we should remember the painstaking method with which they must have been crafted, as well as the way they constitute a thread, as it were, through the history of western civilization.

Related content:

The Ancient Egyptians Wore Fashionable Striped Socks, New Pioneering Imaging Technology Imaging Reveals

A 3,000-Year-Old Painter’s Palette from Ancient Egypt, with Traces of the Original Colors Still In It

An Ancient Egyptian Homework Assignment from 1800 Years Ago: Some Things Are Truly Timeless

3,200-Year-Old Egyptian Tablet Records Excuses for Why People Missed Work: “The Scorpion Bit Him,” “Brewing Beer” & More

The Met Digitally Restores the Colors of an Ancient Egyptian Temple, Using Projection Mapping Technology

The Ancient Romans First Committed the Sartorial Crime of Wearing Socks with Sandals, Archaeological Evidence Suggests

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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Comments (25)
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  • Benjamin says:

    Do we know in which material they made the socks?

  • Susan says:

    Nailbinding is not totally lost. There are a lot of people in the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) that do nailbinding.

  • Pauline says:

    And men still haven’t learnt that you do not wear socks with sandals!

  • Cherry Knobloch says:

    Nalbinding hasn’t vanished. While not common, there are thousands of people who do it.

  • Francesca says:

    Nalbindning is definitely not lost, dude, do your research. Still in use. I’ve tried it. It’s a very cool technique.

  • Henry says:

    Now that’s funny 😄
    I have a friend who where socks n sandals he doesn’t care what anyone thinks about!
    During the early times I presume you had to no sidewalk just dirt rock road

  • JJ says:

    You should not use the word “nail.” Properly, it’s nålebinding
    or naalbinding, or nålbinding, or nålbindning or naalebinding. Don’t know the exact reason for so many forms for the word, but none have the prefix ‘nail’ in them.

    Or simply say needle-binding. But you should leave your nails in the socks.

  • Slim says:

    I think they look like alien feet where they trying to conceal and hide

  • Boo says:

    Nålbinding is definitely not a “vanished” technique. I run a Facebook group for nålbinding that has 1600 members including two of the foremost nålbinding experts in the world; both of whom have recently published books. Those experts are Emma Boast and Anne-Marie Decker. As a member of the Society for Creative Anachronism I routinely teach nålbinding. As others have mentioned– do better research!

  • Isar says:

    How very interesting..needless to say I enjoyed your article. I wish for more to read.
    By the way, my textile guild will be holding a workshop on nalbinding in the future. Not all ancient arts are dead or forgotten.

  • Boo says:

    They are woo and that is Coptic stitch. 😁

  • Dawn Shackleford says:

    Hi I still never saw what kind of fabric/thread were they made out of way back then? They look well made and warm! Thank you!

  • C. Harvey says:

    Likely flax, wool or a mix of the two.

  • Adrian says:

    I agree. They appear to be made anything like a human foot,. Surprised it took me so long to scroll to find someone’s comment that sees the oddness of the shape of the foot

  • Sr. Anne says:

    My Mom makes socks and three-fingered gloves with naalbinding. Since when is it a lost technique?

  • Susan says:

    I think what everybody missed about the technique is that it’s less a research than an editorial error. The text says “a now-vanished technique” and in the last sentence of the paragraph, “still in use today”. My husband and I both looked at it upon first read and said, “Eh?”

  • CambridgeKnitter says:

    This sock knitter says you can show off beautiful handknit socks with sandals any time you want.

  • KING TUT says:

    What’s up with the split toes look, were people walking around with 2 toes back then?

  • Alien S says:

    Assuming sandals, but perhaps just weird feet. Think in line with the five toe socks of today.

  • Fran says:

    Thank you to well informed ladies, I’m off tho investigate this craft!

  • Paula Carraghey says:

    Haha! My only ever pair of knit socks are red and I wore them with sliders to walk my dog, brings my “Queen of Denial” status some weight! 🤭🤭🤭

  • Jay says:

    I was thinking the same. like… are we just gonna tip-toe past the fact that these badbois look like they belong to an alien????

  • Cora says:

    What is Woo?
    Please be so kind,
    And tell me true, about this “woo”

  • Robin says:

    Am I the only one that notices that nobody has toes like that?

  • Yomomma says:

    Do we ever ? I thought wearing turtlenecks with lighting bolt earrings in each ear as a man was not cool ! But i still see it . Jus dont learn .

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