(note – parts of this post are taken from documentation i wrote some time ago for arts and sciences competition entry. dear gods, i need to work on my writing! if anyone is interested in the full text, though it’s not much longer, let me know!)
Naalbinding can be described as the precursor to knitting, and is the art of knotting or looping fiber together to create usually an article of clothing. I promised Dom a pair of socks years ago, and while there’s a story involving one pair, Mammen stitch, and not putting them on properly… he’s never gotten a set.
Well, if this isn’t a time to make them, I don’t know what is?
Naalbinding, one of many terms given to a technique for making articles of clothing made out of (relatively) short lengths of fiber. Threaded through a needle, the strands of fiber are looped or knotted to the previous loops and the preceding rows of the project to form a strong, sturdy, article of clothing.
This practice of making clothing exists from circa 6500 BC, when some examples from the Nehal Hemar cave in Israel have been dated to the modern day, where it is still practiced in parts of Scandinavia as well as several South American countries such as Peru.
Some of the best known historic examples of this technique are a Coptic sock from Egypt dating from between 250 and 420 AD, thought for many years to be knitted but now known to be naalbound, and a sock from Coppergate in York, England. This piece was located behind a 10th century building. While no extant hats have been found, much of the non-English literature does cite the fact that the art was used for hats, socks, and mittens. Hald, in Danish Bog Burials, does mention that there is research placing the practice to between the 4th and 6th centuries AD, and it can be found in a number of locations within Denmark through the Middle Ages. Hald further discusses a piece of clothing that was found in the Mammen grave, which among other things, contains decorative braids of brown silk with panels of gold naalbinding in the center of them.
The Mammen grave was excavated in 1868, and contained the remains of a male’s set of clothing. The Danish National Museum describes the clothing at the site as follows:
The man was laid on a blue woollen cushion decorated with red embroidery. He probably wore a woollen tunic. A blue gauze material perhaps makes up what is left of his breeches. He also wore a woollen cape lined with marmot fur. The tunic and cape were embroidered with complicated patterns: leopards, four-footed animals, bird masks and acanthus leaves in shades of red, blue and yellow. Many tablet-woven bands were also found in the grave, some made of lilac wool and others of lilac silk with interwoven gold and silver thread. It is uncertain, how the bands decorated the costume.
While the name naalbinding does not seem to have come into use until the 1970s, it went by multiple terms before that. Articles can be found on the techniques, but they are few and far between. Other terms for naalbinding include needle knitting, looped-needle knitting, and variations on naalbinding such as nalbinding and nalebinding. Hald refers to the practice as looped needle-netting. Egon Hanson’s definition is as follows: “A textile technique where the material is produced in a darning technique, with a needle, and where the thread of the new stitch is passed arbitrarily through at least two unfinished thread-loops of arbitrary size.”
The period pieces of naalbinding used wool, a fiber with many uses and easily available. Hald does mention that there are looped needle-netting bags made out of cow hair. These are located in the Norwegian Folk Museum, but the writer does mention them being found in Sweden as well. The purpose for such items would have been as strainers for milk, to separate the curds from the whey.
The needles were bone or wood most likely, it appears. Osva Olsen and Ingvar Svanvery in Nalbinding in the Faroe Islands note that “[a]lthough the needles for nalbinding are simple in their construction, they do have a specific and recognizable form.” They note that the needles are primarily made of bone or antler, and all contain a single eye.
Many stitches exist for naalbinding, and many were used in period. Stitches vary based on how many loops are on the finger and a combination of how many you collect off the working thumb or the rows behind. For Mammen, you keep two on your thumb, and pick up the most recent one before sliding under the remaining loops and pulling taut. Here, I’m using what I call the standard stitch, which is better known as Oslo. I like it because it works up somewhat stretchy, and is easy to track – just slide one off your finger and loop it behind!
As stated previously, naalbinding was used for any number of woven items. While there are no extant hats that seem to exist, there are references to hats in other places.
We do have several surviving pieces of naalbinding, as mentioned before. Socks, mittens, and a fillet from Mammen, most notably.
Even though we live in Arizona, and heavy woolen socks aren’t needed as much as in other parts of the country, they are nonetheless good to have. The few months where it is cold, as well as at camping events mean they more than make up for their usefulness. Plus, the extra cushioning from naalbound socks is *really* comfortable, especially in period shoes.
For the yarn, I chose to use Lamb’s Pride. It’s one of my favorites A thick, single, ply, I decided upon that brand for several reasons – including my own, previous experiments. Right now, I continue to have issues with multiple ply yarns and getting them to evenly splice together, which is why I went with a single ply. I tend to prefer the bulky yarns for hats in particular, mostly because I think that the final result produced just feels better in my fingers. As I am not allergic to wool (nor is Dom), and wool was used in period, I decided on this particular fiber for the final result.
The needle I use primarily for naalbinding is a bone one with a somewhat blunted end, this one having become a bit more smooth with use. I have several wooden needles that I have tried, and in the end, I find that the bone needle is more comfortable in my hand, and the slight curve of it makes it easier to pick up my stitches and there is less catch on some types of wools. The particular needle I used for this piece is a bone needle I got from Feed the Ravens, an excellent store run by friends of ours.
The issues that I found occurred while I made the sock were ones that seem to reappear regardless of plys of yarn, types of fiber, or anything else. I found that occasionally I would need to go back several stitches to redo one where I went through the center of the stitch instead of catching the whole strand under the needle on the stitch. Likewise, if I put the project down and come back to it, I need to make sure that the loops on my thumb are in the correct order, as if this is not done it creates a straight loop instead of one on a curve, laying in the same orientation as the rest. While this does not do anything to the structural integrity of the piece, it is nonetheless a small blemish that can be visually annoying. Mercifully, with the Oslo stitch, I’ve done it often enough that it’s easy for me to remember where I left off.
Since naalbinding, unlike knitting or crochet, is not done off the ball of yarn but instead with lengths, some experimentation has been done to find what the most comfortable length is. I’ve found that it varies the most based on the size of the yarn you are using and the hole of the needle. Generally, I end up with about twenty-four inches left hanging and then the rest gathered in half, and then half again, repeating until the yarn is small enough to go through the eye of the needle. The first several times I threaded the needle, I would do it in a loop. the downside to this was that I needed to completely undo the whole thing each time I wanted to increase the length. The upside to doing it in halves is that it is easy to just undo the length you want and then rethread to start over again.
In order to join the old piece of yarn to the new one, I untwist the old and the new, fanning out the fibers so it is almost as if they are not spun. Then, I lay them together, and having added a bit of water (or on some projects, saliva) rub the two pieces together in my hand to start felting them – this technique is also called a spit splice. This is best done, I have found, with less than six inches on either side. You want the area to be sturdy while you do the several stitches it takes to go from old to new, but after that, it will be sturdy enough to keep them in place.
As the recipient wears a size 16 shoe, and I most assuredly do not have feet that size, there was a large amount of trial and error. (This is also because I suck at remembering to make notes and count stitches so I can exactly recreate later. It’s a terrible habit I may one day break.) There are certainly some disadvantages to this – such as the fact that occasionally I would find I couldn’t continue work until it had been tried on, or that I would have to undo some of the work to make it fit the way I wanted it to.
One thing I’d like to mention here – these are short socks. They don’t even reach his ankle. This is purely for aesthetic reasons, and I would not recommend that they’re normally made his short. At all.
I do admit that finishing off my naalbound projects is something that continues to prove a bit troublesome to me. Mostly I’ve just been trying to tighten the end and then loop it into the existing stitch. Upon consultation with friends who know more about the craft, this does appear to be the preferred way to finish off projects. I admit, I’m not entirely sure if I like it, but I think that more practice will mean that they come out better.
Bender Jørgensen, Lise. (1992). North European Textiles until AD 1000. Aarhus, Denmark: Aarhus University Press.
Bender Jørgensen, Lise, “Stone-Age Textiles in North Europe” in Textiles in Northern Archaeology, Textile Symposium in York, North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles Monograph 3, NESAT III. London: London Archetype Publications, 1990.
Briansdotter, Sigrid. Nålbinding: The Åsle Mitten Stitch: An Instruction Manual. Snohomish, WA: Tangle Fairies, 2000.
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Lehtosalo-Hilander, Pirkko-Liisa. Ancient Finnish Costumes. Helsinki: The Finnish Archaeological Society, 1984.
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Walton, Penelope. “Textile Production at Coppergate, York: Anglo-Saxon or Viking?” In Textiles in Northern Archaeology, Textile Symposium in York, North European Symposium for Archaeological Textiles Monograph 3, NESAT III. London: London Archetype Publications, 1990.
Walton, Penelope; Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fiber from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York; Volume 17: The Small Finds; Fasc. 11. Dorchester, Dorset, UK: Council for British Archaeology (for the York Archaeological Trust), 1997.