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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