In Danish the word means ‘needle-binding’. And judging by some of the photos that you can find on Pinterest, there’s been quite a rediscovery of this technique by modern crafters.
Nålbinding predates our modern knitting and crochet by more than a thousand years. It’s a method which requires the yarn to be threaded through the eye of a needle and then coiled through the neighboring stitches, so unlike knitting it doesn’t unravel. The textile that it creates is thick and strong but also stretchy, so great for socks and mittens – the items most commonly found by archaeologists. The earliest known examples come from a mitten at a Swedish site and a sock at a Coptic site in Egypt – both apparently dating to around the 4th century CE.
Nålbinding was a popular craft in the Viking era, and surviving examples have been discovered in sites from Finland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark and Iceland, many dating from the 8th to the 11th centuries. In her description of the excavations at the Coppergate site in York, Penelope Walton Rogers describes one single specimen – the only nålbinding found so far in Britain. It was a worn sock, uncovered near a 10th century wattle building, although whether it came over from Scandinavia on a Viking’s foot, or was crafted locally is the topic of some speculation.
A number of different stitches have been identified in the archaeology, and these are named for their find-sites. For example, there is the York stitch, the Oslo stitch, the Mamen stitch and the Coptic stitch. And given the free-form nature of this technique, it makes sense that there would have been a lot of improvisation, with different communities coming up with their own variations.
Weald and Downland Open Air Museum
I recently visited the beautiful Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex http://www.wealddown.co.uk/ where dozens of historic buildings from the Medieval up to the Victorian period have been rescued, transported and then re-built on the site. You can walk around and through these wonderful buildings, and also take classes in heritage trades and crafts – everything from blacksmithing and stone carving to making your own cheese, coracle or longbow. I was there for a workshop being offered in nålbinding, and spent the day learning to knit like a Viking!
As the only left-hander in the group, I clearly needed some extra coaching … but our instructor Judith Ressler was very patient, and the examples of her work were inspiring. Have a look: www.medievalwoolcraft.com
Another participant brought along this book by Ulrike Classen-Buttner, which is full of history and archaeological photos as well as patterns and instructions.
The basic shape for nålbinding can be either a tube (good for socks and mittens) or a round (starting in the centre – good for hats and mats). In the class we learned the Oslo stitch, but it seemed as if some of the other stitches might be variations of this one. I’ve just finished a second attempt at a glasses case … better than the first!
Walton Rogers, P. 1997. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate: The Archaeology of York: The Small Finds. York: Council for British Archaeology.
Great how-to Websites
Helpful YouTube videos