Slip-Stitch Crochet Jurab: The Sock Artisans of De Pamiri
Once you’ve read this, you’re going to want to try the technique! The pattern for the jurab socks mentioned in this article is available in Interweave Crochet Winter 2011 along with lots of other great patterns that are sure to make your holiday craft planning a breeze! Find more stories like this in our pages – and never miss an issue of Interweave Crochet.
Richly decorated slip-stitch crochet jurab are the hallmark of this remote region of Tajikistan.
I was sitting in a Land Rover, next to Yusuf, my driver, and all around us were the enormous peaks of the Pamirs of Tajikistan in Central Asia. This former Soviet Republic is a landlocked state—bordered by Afghanistan to the south, Uzbekistan to the west, Kyrgyzstan to the north, and China to the east. The Pamirs, one of the most inaccessible places in the world, has great potential but little wealth. We’d been bouncing over the truly terrible road for hours and had many more to go. Alongside us were the churning, muddy waters of the Panj River. On the opposite side of the Panj was Afghanistan, where I glimpsed a few hardy travelers on foot.
The river was coming down from the mountains with such force that it covered the road in spots. We came upon a truck with its front end submerged, and soon after, picked up its injured driver. He told us that he had seen a Chinese truck driver swallowed up by the river only a short time before. What brought me to this remote place? A sock. I had seen a photo of a Pamir slip-stitch sock, or jurab, so richly decorated with symbols that it seemed more like a rug in the shape of a sock. I decided I must go see these socks for myself.
I was curious about whether the Tajik socks were an important missing link in crochet history. Research into crochet’s history has focused on Western Europe, where crochet evolved from tambour embroidery, an art that came to France by way of China. Slip-stitch crochet, however, appears to be much older, and evidence indicates that it was done in mountainous regions of Scotland and Norway, using hooks made of spoons or bone. The East had been largely ignored in published histories, despite its wealth of textile traditions.
Internet research led me to De Pamiri, a nonprofit organization in the Pamir region, near the border with China. The Pamirs are part of the Himalayan range, and its people, isolated by the immense mountains, have their own culture and language. De Pamiri is dedicated to reviving the native crafts of the region, and the slip-stitch socks are one of its most prized artifacts. At the end of my long journey in the Range Rover, I met its founder, Yorali Berdov.
Yorali was staying with one of the sock artisans in a small village in the Gorno-Badakshan district of the Pamirs. Yorali greeted me warmly and introduced me to the artisan’s young family, who were living in a simple home surrounded by a miniature Garden of Eden. The trees were so abundant with fruit that much of it had fallen to the ground, and two little girls were munching on it.
The following day I watched the nimble fingers of Alisha as she showed me her sock-making skills. We communicated through signs, exclamations, and gestures. I could see that she was working slip stitching as we know it, but the exact method of working with multiple colors eluded me.
In the days that followed, I visited with several other artisans and saw their brightly colored socks, some made with acrylic imported from China, and others made of homespun yarns the women had made from the fiber of their own animals. The artisans live in tiny villages in the mountains. Often, the husbands move to Russia for work, and the women stay in the villages to tend children, animals, and meager crops. They do the spinning on wooden contraptions one might have seen in a nineteenth-century farmhouse. The yarn is rough and tough.
The socks are made long enough to reach the knee and typically have different designs on the foot and leg. The designs are based on traditional symbols, with ancient roots in central Asia (see “Elemental Symbols,” page 51). The women don’t use patterns, but draw charts to aid them in creating the symbols. I was not able to get a clear explanation of how they plan increases and decreases for shaping, but my impression is that they improvise.
During my many joyous hours with the Pamir women, we showed one another different crochet techniques. Most had done only slip-stitch crochet, but they picked up other stitches very quickly. I was told that the socks had been made for many generations, with both hooks and knitting needles. For lack of any metal, the knitting needles were made of wood. The tradition is related to the knitted colorwork sock, seen all over Eastern Europe and Turkey. It’s unclear when the Tajik women started to use hooks.
In his book Through the Unknown Pamirs: the Second Danish Pamir Expedition 1898–99, Danish explorer Ole Olufsen includes photos of socks that look quite like the ones still being made, though more refined in design. Olufsen spoke highly of the socks and said they were regarded as cherished possessions. If the socks had reached such a state of perfection at that time, how old a craft must this be?
One can identify which tool was used to make a sock by noting whether the design on it slants or not. Since the socks are made in the round, and crochet stitches don’t align on a straight vertical, the slanty ones are crocheted. Most of the socks in Olufsen’s book were knit, but two of them appear to be made using slip-stitch crochet.
Yorali told me that when he started De Pamiri, only a few years ago, the women were making socks using both knitting needles and crochet hooks but had forgotten many of the traditional symbols. They would use Soviet symbols or other familiar images. Yorali and his French partner thought it was important to revive the traditional symbols and did an extensive study of them and their meanings, which they then taught to the artisans. The French partner thought that crocheted socks were more interesting and unique than knitted ones, and from then on, the artisans used only hooks for their socks. So, the emphasis on and preference for hooks is a very recent development.
Some intriguing questions remain: How old is the use of hooks for sock making in the Pamirs? The hooks used look nothing at all like our crochet hooks. How did they evolve, and when did slip stitching begin in this remote region, which still has little contact with the outside world?
I spent a week in the area, and my trip back involved another incredible fourteen-hour journey in a Land Rover. Again, we passed the scene of a fatal accident, where a car had plunged over the side of the road and halfway down a mountain, a result of perilous roads and rickety vehicles.
When Interweave Crochet decided to have socks made by the Tajik women for publication, I was thrilled. We wanted to use American yarns, so that readers could duplicate the socks. No planes, or even trucks, go to the Pamirs, so the yarn traveled along the same rugged roads to make it to the villagers, who then created the socks. Months later, the completed socks made their way to my Manhattan apartment.
It has been a tremendous journey from my first glimpse of these Tajik socks to these two pairs of socks, designed just for readers of Interweave Crochet. Enjoy.
Author Bio: Dora Ohrenstein, an avid textile traveler, has published articles about crochet in several countries, including Central Asia, Eastern Europe, the Ukraine, and Turkey.