A while back when I was in Victoria, a Viking re-creationist taught me one of the (many) nålbinding stitches. While I was there, I made a small wrist cuff, and then later went home and made another to practice. With that somewhat comfortably under my belt (and an understanding of the stitch which helped me relate it to trichinopoly (as mentioned in a previous post) I started work on a hat… (the striped one on the right in the photo above)
The hat took a very, very long time to complete. Nålbinding is a very time-consuming process. It appears to take about three times as long to do nålbinding as it takes to do knitting or crochet of the same kind of article, and takes about three times the amount of yarn too! Once it was done, I considered it a bit more, being a bit unhappy with my various tensions throughout the hat, which led me to want to create a second instead, hopefully with a more period-appropriate colour, and more consistent tension. (the solid colour one on the left in the photo above)
Nålbinding is the term I’ll use in this document, but this technique is also known as Nålebinding (Danish), Needle Coiling (the term used by the Iceland National Museum for their English-language displays), Naalbinding, and Wikipedia also offers up nålbindning, naalebinding, knotless netting, knotless knitting, and single needle knitting as other possible terms.
Despite the additional time/effort and materials that nålbinding seems to take, it’s still reasonable that it would still be a faster method of making up a small item than weaving the fabric and then sewing, since you don’t have to warp a loom to start creating ‘fabric’.
Now that I’ve made a few more items though – the process is a LOT faster than when I was first learning!
Nålbinding does have some interesting properties that I’ve read about and experienced to some degree thus far, which make it a bit different from knitting or crocheting… with a relatively tight and consistent tension the resulting fabric seems very dense and cushy. I suspect even without fulling the fabric, a woolen item would be relatively water resistant, due to the tight/dense construction and the natural properties of wool. I’ve heard (and have repeated without testing!) that nålbinding (Nålbound?) fabric can also be cut without raveling or loss of much textile. It also doesn’t seem to curl the way knit (or rather, purled) fabric does, which seems interesting to me. It has similar stretch to knit fabric (comparing it to my own bulky knit projects mind you, not finer work) though, in both directions.
Once I have the chance (and patience, and time, and bravery!) I think it would be interesting to make some fabric, and test out the “you can cut it” claim…
Reading about other stitches though, gives me some insight that not all stitches have the same properties. For example, in Siglindesarts’s blog, the author references the simple coil stitch used to make the Coppergate socks, and the Asle mitten stitch. Her descriptions indicate that the mitten stitch is much thicker and has much less stretch than the thinner, stretchier stitch used for the socks. Once I learn some more stitches, this might be interesting to experiment with!
There’s an interesting conversation on the nålbinding Facebook group about different stitches here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/644499622267562/ where the consensus seems to be that there is no one stitch that has specific properties overall – but rather a mix of the stitch plus yarn weight and tension. Makes sense!
For my first attempt, I used single ply Crystal Palace Chunky Mochi Yarn in 816 Feldspar. I originally picked up this wool at Loom, a super-cute yarn shop on Vancouver Island, but then when I was half-way done, I realized that I didn’t have anywhere near enough wool to complete the project, so I had to order more online from Jimmy Beans Wool. The wool is a variegated with copper/rust/brown, green, light grey and dark grey which I think is super-pretty. The yarn is 80% Merino Wool & 20% Nylon.
I used a thick modern metal tapestry needle, which worked quite well. I did find the joins very difficult with this wool though; perhaps it would have been easier if there had been more spin in the wool? Perhaps the nylon content was a bit higher than desirable to join easily?
Note: I later worked with this same wool for another project – and had a much easier time with the joins – it looks like my challenge was more a lack of experience than the wool itself!
I worked this hat from the top down, which I found quite productive, I don’t really know knitting patterns either, so I basically just started making a “hat shape” and then changed the increases when I thought the top was big enough. Super technical, I know…
My second go is made of Lamb’s Pride Bulky from The Brown Sheep Company. This is a 85% wool, 15% mohair blend, and the result is super dense and squishy. I wanted a more ‘undyed wool’ colour, so went with M-02 Brown Heather which struck me as really quite plain and ordinary, but pretty in it’s simplicity. I actually really wanted a dark heather grey… but they only had one skein of it at the shop I went to, Shuttleworks Fiber Arts, just outside of Calgary.
For this hat I also picked up a bone needle from Shuttleworks. I’ve been wanting to order one for a while from Etsy, and when I saw they had them, plus a bone lucet, I was excited 🙂 (and bought one of each!)
I worked this hat from the bottom up, measuring around my head for the first round a little bigger than my head with the intention of lightly fulling the finished hat. Unfortunately, I forgot to remember that the second row of stitches would affect the tension and size, and so the finished hat is just perfect as-is, and I won’t end up fulling the wool to shrink it a bit. (At least not intentionally!)
When it came to closing in the top, I did 2 stitches normally, then one stitch picking up two of the older stitches for one of the new to reduce it. This seemed to work nearly perfectly until the very top, where I just ran a bit of a ‘gathering’ stitch to close in the final quarter-sized hole smoothly.
The grey yarn in the photo above is my ‘loop holder’ – I am sure knitters probably have special clips or rings for this, but running a strand of leftover wool through the loops when I set the project down works perfectly too!
This is also a loosely spun single-ply wool, but I found it MUCH easier to join – possibly the wool is to thank for that, or possibly I just got better at joining yarn after so much practice with the first hat!
This yarn has approximately 125 yards per skein, and in the photo above you can see I used over half a skein to make this hat – quite a bit smaller than the other hat, but much more consistent in tension. (Used skein shown beside a full skein.)
Extant nålbinding examples
According to the wikipedia article, “The oldest known samples of single-needle knitting include the color-patterned sandal socks of the Coptic Christians of Egypt (4th century CE), and hats and shawls from the Paracas and Nazca cultures in Peru, dated between 300 BCE and 300 CE”. The article also notes that because it doesn’t require long lengths of endless yarn, but rather uses short pieces, it’s a much more practical technique for early cultures that would be spinning yarn entirely by hand.
In Siglindesarts’s blog, the author speculates that the ‘thrums’ would be ideal for nålbinding, and nålbinding would be a great technique to use up the precious leftovers from weaving. “Thrums are the ends of warp thread leftover after a textile is completed. On a warp weighted loom, they are the pieces that hang down and are tied to weights.”
East Iceland mitten
You might remember from my Viking Age Needle Coiling / Nålbinding post, I showed off a (very large) mitten from the Iceland National Museum which I visited in 2014. The display says that this mitten was made “with the needle coiling technique, of early medieval date. Unearthed in East Iceland”.
I haven’t yet read which ‘stitch’ nålbinding enthusiasts or archaeologists believe this is made with.
As far as examples from in and around the Viking Age, the wikipedia article refers to “A famous piece of nålbinding is the ‘Coppergate sock’ found during an excavation of the Coppergate area of York. A clear Viking influence in the textiles was found in the finds in this area. This was a wool sock that had been created using a technique never before recorded in England. The sock was slipper-like in style and would have covered the whole foot.”
Genvieve.net goes a bit further in the description of this ‘sock’ and adds her interpretation. “A 10th century woolen sock of nalbinding has been discovered in the York Archaeology digs at Coppergate. This is often referred to as the Coppergate Sock. A stitch has been identified as the York Stitch, UU/OOO, based on the finding of this sock and that it is like no other in composition. After learning some of the other stitch types from Schmitt, I found the York stitch to be primitive in construction and difficult to manage at the same time. The weight of the yarn in use seems to be less than the bulky Lopi yarn I am accustomed to working with, giving the Coppergate sock a finer gauge than I could achieve. The pictures given of the surviving sock do not show many details of the heel, but you can see the beginning of the heel where the stitches seem to split in their spiral to leave room for an after-thought heel.”
A member of the SCA did a paper on her version of the Coppergate sock here. (PDF)
In the Medieval Threads article about nålbinding, the author writes: “Several variants of Nalbinding stitches are known to have been used in Viking Age Europe, the simplest of them being the Oslo stitch (so called for an eleventh century mitten worked in this stitch found in the Oslo excavations). This seems to have been a fairly common stitch and at least three extant mittens have been found worked in this manner.”
- A 12th Century mitten from Stockholm can be seen here.
- A pair of Egyptian socks from the 4th Century here.
When I was first reading about nålbinding, I read about an item that was beleived to be a hat, but later it was decided it was in fact a milk-strainer. Even in that reading, it was mentioned that although the technique was similar to the Viking Age socks and mittens – that it was actually a much more recent artifact. I read more about it specifically on Kathleen Ernst’s Sites & Stories blog, and further on the Virtual Gallery of the Vesterheim Museum. This example is dated 1830-1870, and is made of cow hair.
Another strainer I found through Pinterest – though I can’t find any information beyond that. It’s noted as a hops strainer, and the textile is attached to a frame.
Evidence for nålbinding hats
In a word… I haven’t found any firm evidence that supports that the Viking Age Scandinavians made hats using the nålbinding technique. This doesn’t seem to stop anyone from making hats though, since they’re much less complicated than socks or mittens, and certainly practical. Genvieve.net writes: “There are two extant examples of supposed headgear made with nalbinding. One is a 9th – 10th century Coptic hat with a shallow brim and a long tassel [Hald p.308]. The other is called a hair milk strainer [Hald p.286] (which confuses me) but it sounds like it was intended for headwear.” While the other reading I have done suggests that the milk strainer is not in fact, a hat, it’s still notable how many people have looked at it and thought it could be a hat instead. Genvieve comments that the styles of both hats are unlike the one she’s made.
How about a visual guess?
So, I haven’t found any evidence of artifacts yet suggesting this technique for hats. But what about visual evidence? Take a look at this detail photo from the Oseberg Wagon… (Full version here) and focus on the figure on the far left, wearing two necklaces, a skirt/belted dress, and… a hat. A hat with ribs that seem to run parallel to the hem of the hat – the same way the lines of the stitches run on the hats I made…
The Oseberg ship was found in Norway, and Wikipedia dates it:
“The ship’s interment into its burial mound dates from 834 AD, but parts of the ship date from around 800, and the ship itself is thought to be older.”
I’m not suggesting that this is evidence for nålbinding used for hats… but maybe it is worth a closer look?
When I started reading a bit about this.. it just took me down further and further. I haven’t actually had the chance to look at all of this yet, but I figured I’d note it for myself, in case I want to go further down this rabbit hole!
Hald, Margrethe. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials. National Museum of Denmark, Copenhagen, 1980. ISBN 87-480-0312-3.
Schmitt, Larry. Lessons in Nålbinding: Lots of Socks. Cottage Grove, Wisconsin: Lawrence W. Schmitt, 2000.
Visual pattern for mittens – Neulakintaat
History of nålbinding – with a specific focus on Finland – Neulakintaat
Video series on square-top mittens (in English and Finnish) – Neulakintaat
Florilegium Archive (I’ll admit I find this site VERY hard to read)
Brief origins & history on Regina Anglorum
Another page (which I copied the link for, but it wouldn’t open for me later…)
Instructional book, needles – Mielke’s Fiber Arts
Needles, wool, finished products from JellDragon
Super pretty hats and mittens by Medieval Elsa