Nålebinding, naalbinding, nålbinding, nålbindning or naalebinding has fascinated us for quite some time now and it’s a subject we’ve been wanting to explore in more detail. How to do that, has been the only thing stopping us and so we thought we’d ask our good friend, reenactor and self-taught Nalbinder, Katherine Walsh if she would share her knowledge.
Hello crafters! My name is Katherine and I would like to introduce you to the ancient art of nalbinding.
As you may be aware, knitting is a relatively new craft that only appeared in about 1250, and crochet is incredibly modern with the first references to it in the mid-1800’s. So, what did the iron age Chinese use to make hats? How did the ancient Egyptians, the Romans and the Vikings make their socks and mittens? They used nalbinding.
Making wooden Nalbinding needles
The tools required are very simple; a large-eyed blunt needle made of wood, bone, or plastic, a length of yarn and a thumb. (Your thumb is often used to tension the stitch so it is the size of your thumb that determines the size of your stitches 😀 )
Despite the basic tools, the possibilities are endless. There are more than 60 different stitches, and each has a different appearance to both the front and back face. The density, size and texture of them are also very varied.
There are great advantages to nalbinding over knitting or crochet. In all but the simplest forms, each stitch is a knot unto itself. This means that if a thread is cut or worn, the rest of the fabric will not unravel. In fact, you can take a pair of scissors and cut your nalbinding, and it will not fall asunder as knitting would. And because of its complex knotted structure, the fabric is very strong and can take wearing, felting or fulling well.
Once, nalbinding was practically a global craft. It was used to make fabric across Europe, Eurasia, China, North Africa and South America. It was commonly used until the late middle ages. But with the arrival of the quicker craft of knitting, nalbinding began to decline. By the 1850’s it had virtually disappeared, largely as a result of the industrial revolution. The sheep breeds were changed to shorter staple single coated types to allow for machine spinning and this new wool was not as suitable for nalbinding as the old longer double-coated breeds.
The most common type of archaeologic find, a milk sieve
In 1917 Maria Collin, a curator in a Swedish museum examined some ancient mittens but could not recognise the method of their making and assumed that it was a lost craft. Later that year she was amazed to find similar mittens at a harvest festival while she was travelling in Varmland in rural Sweden. Initially the local women would not share the skill because it was taught only within families, but eventually, she learned how it was done. She wrote an essay called “Sydda Vantar” about her finds and describing how to nalbind. Her essay inspired the Swedish handcrafters to adopt nalbinding, to campaign for the preservation of native breed sheep and to develop commercial spinning machines that could handle the double-coated sheep’s wool.
A few of the different stitches
In the 1960s a number of books were published about nalbinding e.g. Primitive Textiles in Knotless Knitting by Odd Nordland, Nalebinding by Helga Steffensen, Nalbindning by Marta Broden. These brought the craft to the wider world and modern crafters.
The naming of stitches in nalbinding is not entirely standardised due to its history. The different parts of the world where it is still used are isolated from each other and have their own terminology. In rural Scandinavia, where the widest variety of stitches was used, the craft was shared only within families. This meant that each family had its own name for the stitches that they used.
Many stitches now have multiple modern names. Some are named after an archaeological find (Oslo stitch), some after the person that described it (Broden stitch) and many for a region where it has been commonly used (Telemark stitch).
Leine Medieval Crafters
Viking Living History
I discovered this craft thanks to my mother-in-law, Shirley. Like me, she is a maker and crafter, and we share a love of history. Our enthusiasm, research and hands-on making eventually led to us forming group called Léine Medieval Crafters. Now, with Léine, we share our love of Irish and Viking early medieval textile skills by demonstrating, talking about and teaching them.
I must confess that nalbinding did not come easily to me. I had read about it in articles and books about Viking textiles and decided to give it a try. There didn’t seem to be anyone teaching how to do it locally so I bought a book on the internet…this did not improve matters. Several weeks of tying my thumbs together followed. Then I discovered YouTube; friend to crafters everywhere. It still took a while but eventually I got the knack, and I have been hooked (or knotted) ever since.
Nalbinding with a bone needle
Teaching nalbinding is now something that I thoroughly enjoy. It usually takes about 20 minutes to get someone started, and a whole new craft is opened up to them. When you start a new chain of stitches it looks like an unpromising bundle of yarn tucked up behind your thumb, but a gentle tug on those first stitches pulls them into place, and a beautiful braid appears like magic. I just love it.
I hope reading this encourages you to give Nalbinding a whirl. It is beautiful, useful, strong and very entertaining.
Nalbound Tea Cosy
Katherine Walsh is an eclectic enthusiast. This is a polite way of saying that her hobbies of living history, textiles, fibre, historical costume and teaching have entirely taken over her time, her house and her attic. She has demonstrated Viking Age Living History at places like the Irish National Heritage Park, Dublinia Medieval Museum, Waterford County libraries and the Copper Coast Geopark Centre. She also enjoys teaching both modern and historical textile crafts like knitting, crochet, nalbinding, embroidery and fingerloop braiding.
In what remains of her spare time Katherine may be found on Tramore Promenade in Victorian garb or weeding precariously in her sloping garden.
Katherine can be contacted by email via firstname.lastname@example.org or via the Leine Medieval Crafters facebook page. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1415884025355290/