It’s a practical method to create small garments with a single simple tool and a supply of handspun wool – very suitable for periods when materials were costly, but skilled labour was very cheap.
For us, nålbinding is an authentic and portable pastime that produces useful woolly accessories.
Where and when is it? Most surviving European nålbinded clothing dates from the Viking and early medieval era, (9th- 12th century) and are concentrated in the Scandinavian countries. There is one item, the Coppergate sock, found in Yorvik.
Why am I here? This class aims to teach you two basic stitches (‘Danish’ O/UO F1 and ‘Oslo’ UO/UOO F1) as an introduction. At the end of the day, you will have two lovely bookmarks or coasters that you can keep for reference, or give as gifts.
(Several methods to describe nalbinding stitches exist, as well as many stitch names, often associated with a period find. The ‘classic’ definition system was developed by Margarethe Hald in the 1950s#. The most current one, that accommodates non-symmetrical stitches, was proposed by Hansen#.Hansen’s method describes the path of the needle Under and Over (U and O), and inserts a / slash to mark the change of direction, which is very useful to remind you what you did!)
Nalbinding materials and tools
Wool: Surviving Scandinavian nålbinding clothing finds are made of finely spun wool. Wool felts and splices well. Synthetics and cotton do not felt, so you won't get the same result with polyester yarn.
You can use any thickness of yarn, just like for knitting – the yarn thickness will simply determine how many rows you must stitch and how long the project will take. Period examples are usually quite fine so if you want an authentic item, choose something finer than ‘doubleknit’ – look for ‘fingering’ or ‘laceweight’.
The Coppergate sock (well-known example) was probably made of undyed wool, with a decorative coloured band only around the ankle.
Needles: Bone needles, possibly used for nålbinding, from English archeological digs are around 10-14cm long. They are not carefully refined tools, but are simply‘good enough’ to use.
Figure 1 'Medieval’ bone needle from Southampton
You can use a large blunt wool or tapestry needle, or make your own from bone, antler, wood, horn or metal. My bone needles are cut out of bone chew toy, bought at a pet store. (Always work bone outdoors, with good ventilation and a dust mask.) My wood needles are cut from coffee stirrers.
Your needle serves as a general gauge of your stitch size, but you can still make large stitches with a small needle and vice-versa. A large-eyed needle is handy for doubling up long lengths of wool (thus avoiding frequent splices). Modern Swedish instructions work all stitches on your left thumb, which acts as a gauge for consistent stitch sizes.
Most nålbinded items start as round shapes (cones, cups, tubes) and you control the diameter by adding or removing stitches. You can create flat pieces by turning around, but this is less common.
* Start with a fixed loop, large enough to pass the needle through
* Turn the fixed loop into a ‘pretzel’
* From the pretzel, add stitches to build a ‘caterpillar’ (straight line) or a ‘daisy’ (roundel)
* You start a new row by building on the previous one
* Increase by working 2-3 new loops onto a previous one; decrease by ‘catching’ 2-3 loops together
* Join next piece of wool with a splice or spit-join
Nålbinding tends to twist your wool; in fact, Danish stitch will corkscrew if you try to create a flat piece – it's really only suitable for working in the round. Periodically, you have to dangle your needle and let the wool undo its extra twists.
After this class, give yourself an evening at home to practice, to see if you can create a consistent stitch size; like knitting, learning to control tension is important. At the end of the evening, you'll know if you enjoy nålbinding and want to continue or are happy to say that you've tried it.
Links to knitting?
Expert opinions are split about the suggested link between nålbinding and knitting. I think of them as two separate techniques, developed to make use of different resources.
- Uses a continuous loop, drawing a small section of yarn through neighbouring loops
- Easily ‘ripped out’ or unravelled, for changes/corrections
- Works well with continuous unbroken supply of yarn – some waste when joining yarns
- Requires two needles - length and diameter influence technique – different items need different tools
- Can be knit in the round, or ‘flat’ (back and forth)
- Each stitch is a (loose) knot, and bodkin draws the entire length of the working yarn through each loop
- Awkward to rip out, does not unravel – to correct a mistake, you must reverse the process of knotting (ask me how I know)
- Works well with lengths of yarn, with or without breaks – spit-join or splice leaves no waste when joining yarns
- Requires a single needle or bodkin, but size matters less – can use same needle for all items
- Works best ‘in the round’
* Low-traffic, high-quality Nålbinding Yahoogroup. The bibliographies, links and photos and videos will inspire and encourage you. http://groups.yahoo.com/group/nalbinding/
* Phiala's string pages has good photos to illustrate some stitches: http://www.stringpage.com/
* Instructions on assembling socks by an 9th c Saxon reenactor: http://www.shelaghlewins.com/