In this episode, Isabella discusses nalbinding, a stitching technique that predates both knitting and crocheting. Isabella examines the history and technique of over 8,500 years of nalbound goods.
As always, images and sources are available at @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. The podcast has a new website, sewwhatpodcast.com, and a Patreon, patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast.
Whatsup stitches!! Welcome to “Sew What?” So happy to have you here today and I hope wherever you are and whatever time it is, that you’re having a nice day and that things are going well for you. And if they’re not, I hope that hearing an overly enthusiastic gal talk about historic needlework will brighten your day. Because needlework is great! But you probably already know that and that’s why you're listening to this podcast in the first place. ANYWAY.
Today’s episode is all about a type of historic needlework we haven’t even touched thus far on Sew What? And that is nalbinding. We’ll be tracking that form of stitchery over the course of many millenia, from approximately 6500 BC to the 21st century. A journey! What a joy. As always, images and sources of what I’m discussing today are on the Sew What? Social media. It’s @sewwhatpodcast on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook. And, I said this last episode but as a reminder or in case you didn’t hear it, the pod now has a website and a Patreon! The website has all the images and sources and the ten most recent episodes, as well as a way to contact me with any thoughts or ideas or questions or concerns or whatever. The website is sewwhatpodcast.com! Yay!! And the Patreon is so you can support the making of this podcast, if you want. It’s at Patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast and as you’ll see, there are three ways to support and supporting gives you exclusive access to stuff. And if you’re not into or able to support the pod monetarily that is SO fine, it’s just there if you want to because running a podcast is expensive it turns out. So yes, sewwhatpodcast.com and patreon.com/sewwhatpodcast. For both of those websites, there’s no question mark or anything. Just the phrase “sew what podcast.”
Okay, let’s start with the basics. What is nalbinding? It’s a Scandinavian word that literally means, “binding with a needle” or “needle binding.” It’s a type of needlework that predates both knitting and crochet, so it is OLD. But it’s similar to both of those in that it is a stitching technique that takes spun yarn and turns it into objects for wear or decoration or home use, things like socks or mittens. But nalbinding is also SUPER different from knitting and crocheting. It differs from knitting in that lengths have to be pieced together in nalbinding but in knitting one uses just one continuous strand of yarn. And it differs from crocheting in that in nalbinding, one has to pass the full length of the working thread through each loop and in crochet the work is formed only of loops and never involves the free end. Does that all make sense? I hope it does. But when it comes to archaeological pieces of nalbinding, from hundreds or thousands of years ago, it’s sometimes hard to tell nalbinding from knitting. That’s because the finished products could look very similar.
And before I get into the history of nalbinding, I just want to shout out to the people who are still nalbinding today, so many thousands of years after the needlecraft began. It’s still practiced by the women of the Nanti tribe, the indigenous people of the Camisea region of Peru. The Nanti use nalbinding to make bracelets. Nalbinding is also still popular in Scandinavian and Balkan countries, as well as Central Asia, Iran, Oman, and New Guinea. And I know there are lots of nalbinders outside of those regions, so shout out to all of you, no matter where you are, for keeping that type of needlework alive.
Okay, let’s get into the history of it, and then I’ll talk more about the actual technique and characteristics. There are archaeological examples of nalbinding from Scandinavia, Finland, the British Isles, Egypt, Polynesia, the Americas, and the Arabian Peninsula. So, the earliest known example of nalbinding dates to around 6500 BC and was found in Nehal Hemar cave in Israel. The next oldest example is from 4200 BC and was found in Tybrind Vig, a Mesolithic fishing village in Denmark. At this point, most of the nalbinding examples from the Mesolithic Era Stone Age, approximately 4200 BC, have been found in Denmark, with a few more found in Switzerland. But, of course, textiles do not survive very well at all so it’s unclear the true extent of nalbinding, how widespread it was and when it really began and where and all that stuff. Some scholars believe that, because nalbinding doesn’t require a continuous thread, that it precedes the invention of continuous spinning that could be done on a drop spindle or wheel. That’s wild!! That’s so old!!!!
There are more later examples, which obviously makes sense. Many nalbound pieces appear in the Paracas and Nazca textiles of Peru and the surrounding areas. These pieces are variants of nalbinding, in cross-knit and simple looping styles. The Paracas culture was an Andean society existing between approximately 800 BC and 100 BC and the Nazca culture followed that, from 100 BC to 800 AD. There are also A LOT of slightly more recent Egyptian examples. There are at least 100 extant nalbound objects from Egypt, dating from 200 AD to the 12th century. A lot of the surviving Egyptian examples are socks, which are delightful because they are stripy and have a separation between the big toe area and the area for the rest of the toes so they look like they’d be perfect for flip flops. Rock on, ancient Egyptians. There are similar, contemporaneous examples that were found in Dura Europos in present day Syria, Masada in present day Israel, and Semna in present day Sudan.
Then the Viking Age rolls up from 793 to 1066 AD and nalbinding is going the heck off. Nalbinding everywhere, probably. I mean not a huge number of examples survive but those that do are SIGNIFICANT. A wool sock from around 970 was found at Coppergate in York. Fittingly, it’s called the Coppergate Sock. It’s the only known archaeological example of nalbinding in the UK. And honestly, it’s so fun. The sock looks just like an ankle sock you’d wear today when you wanna look cool in your sneakers and not have socks that are too long! The sock was made of stitches that had never been seen before, so it’s the only example of the York stitch in the world. There’s a really nice paragraph about the sock’s origins and nalbinding over time from the Heritage Crafts Association of the UK, and I’m gonna read it because I like it. It reads, “It has been suggested that this sock ‘came in’ to the city of Jorvik on the foot of a Scandinavian trader; however it was found in a settlement context, and it is known that within Anglian culture ‘single needle knitting’ also most likely took place as there are surviving examples in Germany. To what extent this craft survived after the Norman Conquest is difficult to say; however we know that the two-needle knitting started to be practiced in Holland during the mid 13th century and the historical foundation of ‘looped knitting’ comes from nalbinding as a foundation. 17th century tatting could also be another evolution out of nalbinding. As mentioned previously due to the lack of archaeological material it is very difficult to establish a good chronological timeline for this craft.” So yes, there we go. Also, Jorvik is the name used by historians for the south of Northumbria during the period from the late 9th century to the first half of the 10th century. Yes. Onwards. Other famous nalbinding pieces from this period, from around 900 to 1100ish, include a mitten from Iceland, panels of a snood from Mammen, Denmark, a wool and silk hat from Egypt, and a fragment from Novgorod, Russia. The Mammen example dates from winter 970-971, which is so crazy because that’s so precise!! Wow. That example was found in a grave of a man buried with expensive clothes and the nalbound parts involved gold and silver threads. So good job to this rich man I guess? Other examples from the period include a tricolored fabric, presumed to be from stockings, found near Kokomaki, Finland and a mitten found in Oslo old town in Norway.
And then fast forward to the Middle Ages and there are more delightful examples. The website nalbound.com has been really helpful when it comes to delving into historic examples of nalbinding from prehistoric times to the 17th century. So thank you to you, nalbound.com! Here’s a paragraph from that website that goes over extant examples of nalbinding from the Middle Ages onwards: “From the Middle Ages several pieces have been found. For example, in Sweden there has been found a sock in Uppsala and a mitten in Lund from this period. In Finland some stocking fragments with an unusual connection stitch were found in Kaukola. Eight fragments of nalbinding were found in Novgorod. A pair of 70 cm long linen stockings, complete with tapes, from the 12th century were found at the parish church in Delsberg, or as it is also known, Delémont, Switerzerland. The Åsle Mitten, found in Sweden and originally dated to the first centuries A.D. has since been carbon dated to between 1510 -1640 A.D. There are also examples to be found in Italy and South America. Undated examples show up in places as varied as Lappland and Africa. There are four mittens from the ramparts of Copenhagen in Denmark that are unfortunately undateable but possibly from 1659 AD.” What a ride! So many examples across so many centuries and even across continents. Love that journey for nalbinding.
Now, something I haven’t been able to figure out and haven’t found at all in any scholarship (and let’s be real, there’s not a huge amount of scholarship on nalbinding) is how nalbinding techniques became so widespread. Like how was the same technique, the Coptic stitch, used in both Egypt in 400-600 AD and in Peru in 100 AD? Were people coming up with this technique separately at a similar time? It’s not like there was widespread travel or trade at this point so that’s the only logical thing I can think of. Was this some sort of simultaneous invention?? What’s happeninggggggg. If you know the answer, please let me know and I’ll share it on the Sew What? Social media pages because that’s an issue that’s bothered me every time I think about nalbinding and I feel like the answer is out there and I just can’t find it.
Moving into the 20th century, nålbinding was used in some parts of Northern Europe until the 1950s, when it probably declined because of changes in the textile industry. But luckily nalbinding has never disappeared! It’s still made in the regions I mentioned earlier and is also made by savvy needleworkers. What a delight.
So there was a speedy journey through the history of nalbinding. And now let’s get into some techniques, shall we? Yes. So, first of all, nalbinding involved a single-eyed needle that is broad and flat. Historically, they were made out of wood, antler, or bone. Hardcore. Wool is used most often because it’s easy to bind together short lengths of yarn which you gotta do in nalbinding. Yarn made of other fibers can be joined in other ways but yes, wool is most Bueno. Nalbinding takes those short lengths of thread and creates an elastic and durable fabric. Now, I’m going to take a quote from Wikipedia and yes, my school teachers would scream if they knew that, but there’s a paragraph about the technique from the nalbinding Wikipedia page and I’ve found it the most comprehensible explanation of the stitch technique. So I’m going to share it with you all so we can all understand the technique! Yay.
Here it is: “The stitches are commonly, but not invariably, gauged by wrapping them around the thumb. In its simplest form, the needle is passed through a seed loop to form a new loop, taking care to avoid tightening either into a firm knot. The needle is then passed through the new loop, repeating the process until a chain of desired length has been formed. Subsequent stitches are formed in the same manner but are also joined laterally to the corresponding stitch in the chain. The extended process is similarly repeated with reference to the preceding row rather than the initial chain. Fabric is commonly worked in a single direction – "in the round" – forming spirals and tubes for socks and mittens. The work may also be turned at the end of a row for fabric "worked flat". Specialised notation is used to indicate the path of the needle as it is worked through the preexisting fabric, with its passage under a loop shown as U and over a loop as O. A slash shows where the yarn changes direction and returns through loops it has already passed. If a loop is skipped an O or a U is put in brackets. If there is more than one change of direction a colon is used. The connection to the previous row is described using the letter F (if the yarn passes through the loop from the front) or B (if the yarn passes through the loop from the back), as well as a number to show how many loops are worked in this way. Stitches that can be described in this manner vary significantly in appearance, texture, and elasticity.” So basically, loops. So many loops. And lots of fun and flirty specialised notation. And that notation involves letters and symbols like U, O, F, B, 1, 2, colon, dash, slash, and parentheses. This type of notation is called Hansen’s notation. And writing out that notation looks like “-/- O F1B1” or “U (U) O/U O:U OO F1 + 1.” It’s truly like a whole other language.
I do want to touch on a few specific nalbinding stitches. There are many, many and I’ll only talk about a few because they relate to the historic examples I discussed earlier. Most nalbinding stitches get their names from archaeological examples, so like the stitch found on the Egyptian socks is called the Coptic stitch and the stitch found on the Coppergate sock is called the York stitch. There are stitch families, too, like all the Finnish stitches and Russian stitches.
I’ll start with coptic stitch, which is also called Tarim stitch. Items made with this stitch have been found during archaeological digs in West China, Yemen, Peru, and Egypt. The front side of the Coptic stitch resembles knit stitches, but the loops are twisted and upside town. And although it looks a bit like knitting, it behaves in a different way when it’s stretched and when it’s ribbed, it doesn’t pull together as strongly. So like if you were making a big ol’ ribbed sock, it wouldn’t stay up as well. The York stitch is also known as the Coppergate stitch or Jorvik stitch, both of which make sense. It relies on loops just like all the other nalbinding stitches, but it ends up with stitches that look diagonal. I think it’s pretty cute. The Asle stitch, named after a mitten found in at Asle Mose in Gotland, Sweden, is one of the most sophisticated stitches and it’s one of the few that produces really different front and back sides. That stitch is especially dense and therefore very good at keeping one warm. There’s a Finnish website that lists many, many nalbinding stitches. They go through 118 stitches and I’m certain that’s not all of them. There is so much variety in the world of nalbinding! I am truly shooketh to my core.
Now, before I conclude this episode, let’s have a little baby foray into the characteristics of nalbinding. The general vibe. Nalbinding is often considered to be more laborious and slower than knitting but that’s not really true, especially if you do the simpler stitches. Each nalbinding stitch may take longer than a knit stitch, but the whole nalbinding project is usually quicker because each row is really tall. It’s the equivalent of like 2 or 3 knitting rows. It’s also easier on the shoulder, back, and hands, rumour has it, and the fabric it produces can be more dense and durable than knit ones. But nalbinding can also create very not THICC fabrics. They can be thin and flexible instead. It really depends on which of the over 100 stitches you decide to use! What is very rad about nalbinding is that it doesn’t unravel so you don’t need to finish it off with any special borders or anything! What a joy.
So yes, there it is, nalbinding! What a treat. The precursor to knitting and crocheting! The queen of stitch variety! The needlecraft that has truly bound all corners of the world together for thousands of years! Truly, a treat. I personally find it really surprising that this form of needlework that has such a long, rich history is not like hugely popular now. But maybe this podcast will change that! I’m not saying it will, but that would be fun. We can have a Sew What? Nalbinding bee!
I hope this speedy journey through the history and technique of nalbinding has been informative and fun and that it’s made you want to pick up a nalbinding needle and do it yourself. I’m truly gonna go out and get myself one right now. It is just so cool that making these loops can connect one with AT LEAST 8,500 years of stitching history. And isn’t that what the study of historic needlework is all about, finding the past in the present and the present in the past? And learning from that past and present relationship? Heck yeah.
That’s it from me this week. Thanks for listening, as always!! I love and appreciate you all. And, if you wanna, go tell your friends about the pod and like, rate, subscribe, review, and anything else you wanna do. And tell the world about nalbinding and its nine millenia long history! I’m really trying to come up with a pun related to nalbinding but am struggling to so I’ll leave you with a truly terrible pun that makes almost no sense. Thanks for nal-BENDing your ear to me. Eh? Not great. I’m working on it.
Now go out and stitch some stories and make some nalbound stripey socks like the ancient Egyptians did! Bye!!