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Nalbinding

The HCA Red List of Endangered Crafts

 

Nalbinding

(Nålbinding, Naalbinding, Nalebinding, Needlebinding)

The making of textile items using yarn and a single needle.

 

Status Endangered
Historic area of significance Mainly associated with areas that have had Viking cultural influence, East Anglia and the North of England
Area currently practised Yorkshire, Devon, Norfolk, Lancashire
Origin in the UK Mainly evidence From the 5th – 10th century AD, evidence of Anglo-Saxon and Viking (Anglo-Scandinavian ) cultural practice in the UK from the archaeological record. Currently there is one existing nalbound item in the UK, the ‘Coppergate/York sock’, found during the Coppergate excavations between 1976-81 in York, run by York Archaeological Trust. The Coppergate Sock currently resides on display at The Jorvik Viking Centre.

Nalbinding Also possibly pre-dates these periods in the UK, but archaeological evidence is currently lacking for simple looping forms; although there are comparable examples in Early Bronze-Age contexts in Denmark. There are also existing in museum collection in the UK, Romano-Egyptian period 3rd Century AD, Coptic nalbound socks. These items are Romano-Egyptian nalbound socks, bought back from antiquarian expeditions too Egypt in the early 20th century. Sadly these are not from Romano-British contexts within the UK. Archaeological evidence in the British Isles is still small and fragmentary, relying heavily on comparative cultural material.

Current no. of professionals (main income) 2
Current no. of professionals (sideline to main income)
11-20
Current no. of trainees 0
Current total no. serious amateur makers
20
Current total no. of leisure makers
500+

 

History

The earliest example of nalbinding is from Israel and dates to 6,000 BC. This craft has many cultural names: needle-binding, net-less knotting, naalbinding etc. Nålbinding is the Scandinavian term for the craft. In 2018, this term was Anglised to ‘Nalbinding’, to aid in the teaching and explanation of the craft to an English speaking audience by Nidavellnir.

There are many archaeological examples of nalbinding in Europe, the North Atlantic and Scandinavia, in many cases this form of fibre-craft carried on until the late 13th century. However, the only archaeological example of nalbinding in the UK is from the Coppergate excavation, York, where the Coppergate Sock was uncovered. The sock was made of stitches previously undiscovered, lending it to be the only example of the ‘York stitch’ in the world. The sock dates to the 10th century.

It has been suggested that this sock ‘came in’ to the city of Jorvik on the foot of 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 again surviving examples in Germany. To what extent this craft survived after the Norman Conquest is difficult to say. Despite common misconceptions, there is no evolutionary relationship between knitting and nalbinding, although Tarim/Coptic stitch does have some superficial similarities that have previously caused confusion in early museum identification.

There are many different “historical” and “cultural” forms of Nalbinding. What would benefit the research and understanding of this craft, would be to assess the application of nalbinding within different cultural and historical time periods, to bring together a timeline of this heritage craft. Nalbinding is a ‘World Heritage craft’ but due to its organic construction, historical items rarely survive or get mis-identified within Museum collections.

 

Techniques

Using long lengths of yarn and a single needle, to repeat a continuous stitch and method, to create a set form, such as a hat, socks or mittens. The Single Danish stitch is the earliest stitch form within Northern Europe, and is based off the fragmentary remains found at Tybrind Vig and Bolkilde sites. These early examples date to the Early Bronze Age at 4,200 BC in Denmark. There are over 200 different documented stitches from different archaeological contexts around the world, throughout different cultures in North America, South America, Asia and Central Africa there are surviving textile remains . Most nalbound stitches are named after the location in which they were found, even though there are variations within different stitch groups and cultural applications.

The difference with nalbinding, unlike with knitting or crochet, is that the nalbinding textile created does not fall apart when cut; it is a solid piece of textile. This technique forms a flexible yet solid textile, formed of interlocking-loops. No felting or blocking is necessary with this craft, as with construction and use, the wool felts further, making the item even more solid. The construction and density of the textile is purely based on the skill level of the Nalbinder.

It can also be worked whilst making cordage, by twisting a length of cord, taking a few stitches, twisting more cord etc. This is an earlier form rarely seen in more recent centuries though and best viewed in prehistoric contexts.

 

Local forms

Stitch style and variation are dependant on region or individual crafter, e.g. Icelandic Arnheiðarstaðir Mittens (also 10th century), were made from worsted type yarn, whereas the Coppergate Sock, UK (10th  century) was made from fine two-ply yarn. Wool and yarn variation is dependant on breeds of sheep wool available , and the individuals crafting style and social context. With the reintroduction and promotion of Nalbinding in recent decades, modern Nalbinders are now creating their own ‘ways of working’. Making it a fascinating opportunity to engage in experimental and cultural archaeological approaches to further understand the variations within this craft, now and in the past.

 

Sub-crafts

  • Needle making – Some practitioners interested in nalbinding spend more time making needles, or nals, than they do fabrics. Needle making appeals to crafters in wood, bone, antler and other materials and the needles are often tactile and highly attractive.
  • Historical Spinning – drop spinning and wheel spinning, to create appropriate yarns for Historical crafting.
  • Wool Fibre Preparation – the skill of learning how to go from fleece to fibre often gets sidelined by modern commercial manufacturing techniques. However, some Nalbinders also hand-pluck, wash, card and prepare the fleece for spinning before nalbinding even takes place. Making the craft process even more intensive.

 

Issues affecting the viability of the craft

Nalbinding is currently on the increase due to YouTube and other social media as a platform for learning and collaboration. It is now easier to reach a wider audience, as Nalbinders utilise platforms to engage, promote and safeguard this Heritage Craft.

  • A business is likely to be supported by work as an archaeologist/heritage professional financially, as there is not enough funding or support to easily make it a stand-alone business. Having to diversify, to be able to make a living has been increasingly more common, especially after the recent covid-19 Pandemic. Heritage crafters have had to diversify to still practice their craft.
  • It’s seen as an obscure craft to learn which has put many people off trying it. Although social media and video platforms have helped to bring Nalbinding to a wider audience, because of the increase in individual interpretation, its made it difficult for beginners to access and learn the craft technique in an accessible way, due to the varied quality of information that is present online.
  • Seen as too complex to learn and available resources available often lack clarity in the teaching format for this craft. There is an improvement of educational and teaching resources for Nalbinding appearing by Specialist Nalbinders in the last 5years.
  • Mis-information – There are still individuals who don’t believe nalbinding is an actual craft, so crafters are having to constantly justify the existence of the craft and explain the historical and archaeological background to others.
  • Lack of support financially. Craft dissemination and expansion is based on the independent funds available from each crafter to provide/develop their own teaching, resources or workshops.

 

Support organisations

Nidavellnir is at the forefront of nalbinding in the UK at present in terms of creating nalbound textiles and teaching the craft from a Heritage perspective. Nidavellnir is run by Emma ‘Bruni’ Boast MA, who is an active Archaeologist and Nalbinding Specialist based in York, UK. Nidavellnir has been in business for 10 years and is the UKs first Nalbinding Master Craftsman, having been assessed by the Guild of Master Craftsman UK, in 2020 for professionalism and quality within the craft sector.

In 2018, Nidavellnir engaged 200 individuals in actively learning nalbinding by launching and supplying people with the ‘Nalbinding for Beginners’ Book and starter kit. Now in 2022, Nidavellnir has introduce Nalbinding to over 700+ people worldwide, through the Nalbinding for Beginners Starter Kits, Digital Ebook, in-person tutorials and 1-to-1 workshops. Nidavellnir continues to attend heritage events and craft fairs, as well as liaising with other archaeological and heritage specialists to further grow the understanding of this craft. Nidavellnir continues to develop more teaching materials and resources, available through their Etsy Shop, as well as offering free lectures and educational videos on platforms such as YouTube. Conducting archaeological research, writing articles, seeking out and assessing archaeological examples and journal publications on the Heritage Craft of Nalbinding, in its various cultural applications is what Nidavellnir is passionate about.

Sally Pointer has been nalbinding for 30 years and has run courses hosted by the Weald & Downland Living Museum, Berrycroft Hub and in smaller groups. She also makes video tutorials, especially exploring the potential earliest forms of nalbinding and looping.

Craftspeople currently known

 

Other information

Since the protection and listing of Nalbinding as an Endangered Heritage Craft in 2018, there certainly has been an increased awareness and acceptance of the craft. Many people are fascinated to learn the archaeology and history of this craft and its been increasingly popular. Its place within the fibre-craft world is certainly drawing more interest on a public level,  as well as an academic one. So hopefully the more discussions that can be had, the more this ancient craft can continue to grow and find relevance in the modern craft world.

 

References

  • Claßen-Büttner, Ulrike, (2015) Nalbinding; what in the World is that? The History and Technique of an Almost forgotten handicraft – general overview, historical gaps and not very intuitive instructions for UK audience. Contains other useful references at back of book.
  • Simple Looping: The oldest form of nalbinding? (2019) Sally Pointer https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HmXqSlxLN_Q
  • Boast, E., (Forthcoming) Nalbinding Social Memory Project. Exarc Online Journal. Forthcoming.
  • Boast, E., 2021. Nalbinding. The Archaeological Evidence.8th-11th Century AD. Free Online Lecture. [Online] Available at: https://youtu.be/kend-6O9hKQ
  • Boast E.,2020. Book Review: With One Needle: How to Nålbind by Mervi Pasanen. Exarc Online Journal 2020/3. [Online] Available at: https://exarc.net/issue-2020-3/mm/book-review-one-needle-how-nalbind-mervi-pasanen
  • Boast, E., 2019. Nalbinding: Protecting an endangered heritage craft for the future. [Online Article] Available at: https://www.medievalists.net/2019/05/nalbinding-protecting-endangered-heritage-craft/
  • Boast, E., 2018. Frostbite: Keeping warm in the Viking Age. [Online Article] Available at: https://issuu.com/benbaillie6/docs/ham_issue_03-may_2018_lr_2
  • Boast, Emma, (2018) Nalbinding for Beginners (Blurb Publishing)
  • Ewing, T., 2007. Viking Clothing. Tempus: London.
  • Hald, M., 1980. Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials: a comparative study of costume and Iron Age textiles. National Museum of Denmark Publishing: Copenhagen .
  • Hansen, E., 1987. Textiles in Northern Archaeology- NESAT III in Textile Symposium in York, Nålebinding definition and description. Egon Hanson , 6-9th May, 1987.
  • Mannering, U., 2017. Iconic Costumes: Scandinavian Late Iron Age Costume Iconography. Ancient Textiles Series. VOL. 25. Oxbow Books: Oxford and Philadelphia.
  • Nordland O., 1961. Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in knitters netting. Oslo Publishing: Oslo.
  • Østergård, E., 2009. Woven into the Earth: Textiles from Norse Greenland. Aarhus University Press.
  • Pihlajapiha, S.M., 2020. Nalbinding – Nålbindning – Nålebinding. [Online] Available at: https://www.neulakintaat.fi/
  • University of Copenhagen  2018. Fashioning the Viking Age Project [Online] Available at: https://ctr.hum.ku.dk/nyhedsliste/fashioning-the-viking-age/
  • Walton-Rogers, P. 2007. Cloth and Clothing in Early Anglo-Saxon England (AD 450 – 700). Council fir British Archaeology Research Report 145. CBA: York.
  • Walton-Rogers, P., 2097. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York. 17/11 Fascicule. Council for British Archaeology and York Archaeological Trust: York.
  • Walton, P., 1989. Textiles, Cordage and Raw Fibre from 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds, 17/5. Published for the York Archaeological Trust by the Council for British Archaeology.
  • Vajanto K., Nålbinding in Prehistoric Burials – Reinterpreting Finnish 11th -14th Century AD Textile Fragments. The Archaeological Society of Finland