Threaded Through Time: The Ancient Art of Nålbinding

15 September 2021

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Nestled in the wild beauty of Newfoundland’s Great Northern Peninsula, L’Anse aux Meadows is the only authenticated Viking Age Norse settlement in North America.

A short walk away is Norstead, a re-created Viking port of trade. Here, site manager Denecka Burden and her team of historical interpreters bring history to life, teaching visitors about aspects of Norse life during the Viking Age (793-1066 CE), including blacksmithing, pottery, and the spinning, dyeing, and weaving of wool. And it is here at Norstead that we find evidence of a historical marvel that, while practiced by the Vikings, predates them by thousands of years: the ancient art of nålbinding.

image description: an old book, the image focussing on its spine

Norstead, L’Anse aux Meadows, Newfoundland
Photo credit: “TV-009-0519” by Carrotflower Productions International is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

What is Nålbinding?

Nålbinding (pronounced noll-bin-ding) is a single-needle technique that uses lengths of fibre and a broad, flat needle to create a stretchy, ribbed fabric composed of interlocking loops. It predates both knitting and crochet and—despite superficial similarities—has no evolutionary relationship to either.

image description: a pair of short heavy woollen socks created with the nalbinding technique

Nålbinding is well suited to making socks, like this cozy looking pair!
Photo credit: “Nalbinding socks” by AnnaKika is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Considered to be one of the oldest textile arts in the world, nålbinding has a tangled history. Many early archaeological finds were misidentified as knitting, especially when the fabric was poorly preserved and stitches difficult to discern. Only in recent years have museum conservators and textile historians begun to re-examine and re-categorize these earlier finds—and what they are learning is remarkable.

We now know  that one of the oldest textiles on record, a scrap of fabric found in Israel and dated to 6500 BCE, was made using a form of nålbinding. A fragment of nålbinding found in Denmark has been dated to 4200 BCE. And the oldest complete garment in the world? A pair of split-toe socks from fourth century Egypt (currently housed in the Victoria and Albert Museum) that were crafted using vibrant red yarn, and—you guessed it—nålbinding!

Fast forward to the Viking Age in what is now Scandinavia, and historical finds begin to turn up in greater numbers. Denecka, who has practiced nålbinding for twenty years as part of her role as a certified historical interpreter at Norstead, explains, “We know that the Viking Age Norse used one needle to knit with, because needles and items made using nålbinding have been found at different Viking sites. The Norse used weaving to make larger items, but they used nålbinding to make smaller garments like hats, mittens, bags, belts, vests, and socks.” 

image description: three hats, a small bag and mittens all created with the nalbinding technique

When you visit Norstead, don’t miss the gift shop where you can choose from a variety of cozy nålbinded items available to buy—all made on site by the staff!
Photo credit: Denecka Burden, Norstead.

And they weren’t the only ones. Throughout history, nålbinding has been found all over the world, from the South Pacific to the Balkans, the Middle East to the Americas. It has been reported in practices of numerous Indigenous groups worldwide, and as recently as the 1920s, Indigenous Peoples in the southern U.S. and northern Mexico were still using a form of nålbinding to make textiles.

How is it made?

Back at Norstead, Denecka explains how the Viking Age Norse created small garments using nålbinding.

“Nålbinding uses small lengths of wool, and the main source of material that the Norse used for nålbinding was sheep wool, so the very first thing that would have to be done, once you had the fleece, was to card the wool and spin it using a drop spindle.”

The Norstead team dye their fibre as the ancient Norse would have done, using berries, onion skins, or birch bark—and experimenting with any other natural ingredients that they think might give some colour.

image description: a partially completed hat, beside a ball of handspun yarn and a drop spindle full of wool

Staff at Norstead use a drop spindle to spin sheep fleece and make the yarn that they use for nålbinding. They dye the yarn using natural materials available on site.
Photo credit: Denecka Burden, Norstead.

image description: four handmade nalbinding needles, made of various materials including wood and bone

Nålbinding needles are called nals. These nals have been handcrafted using (top to bottom) buffalo horn, fossil mammoth ivory, elk antler, and dyed swordfish bill.
Photo credit: “Handcrafted Nalbinding Needles” by grizzlymountainarts is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Nålbinding needles, called nals, are flat and broad and commonly made from wood, antler, or bone. Denecka, for example, uses an antler needle. The needles are tactile and attractive, and the creation of hand-made needles is a vibrant secondary industry.

With a length of wool threaded on the needle, Denecka continues, “A loop is created, and the needle is passed through the loop. The knot is snugged but left loose enough so the needle can be passed through the second loop, creating a chain of loops.” In this way, fabric is created from the connected loops, the full length of a segment of the working thread passing through each loop. Stitches are  tensioned by wrapping the working thread around the user’s thumb. Because nålbinding uses multiple, individual strands of fibre, lengths of thread must be joined together, and while wool is ideal for creating felted joins, any fibre can be used.

image description: a collage of four images, each a close up of hands showing the steps for working nalbinding

Creating a sample of nålbinding. Fabric is created from connected loops. The full length of the working thread is passed through each loop. Stitches are gauged by wrapping the working thread around the user’s thumb.
Photo credit: Denecka Burden, Norstead.

The final product is a fabric that is thick, stretchy and hard-wearing, as Denecka goes on to explain: “Nålbinding is different to knitting because it is looped and knotted, each stitch done individually. Because of this, it will not unravel. So, if you tear your nålbinded hat, for example, the other stitches won’t come out. It’s extremely warm and close-knitted, and because the Norse used mainly wool to knit with, it would actually get warmer when it was wet because the wool would mat together. It would even be somewhat waterproof because of the lanolin in sheep wool.” The fabric can be worked flat, but it is more commonly worked in the round—ideal for hats, mitts, and socks. The National Museum of Scotland is home to a 1,500-year-old split-toe sock from Egypt that is thought to have been constructed from a spiral start at the toe. The easy-to-shape tubular structure and the ribbing of the fabric allowed the sock to fit and flex around the complex structure of the foot. Nålbinding is so ancient that the specifics of its origins are unknown. Experts wonder if this technique allowed for economy of materials, using—or possibly reusing—strands of fibre that might have otherwise been wasted. Others theorize that nålbinding uses short strands of fibre because it predates the invention of continuous spinning (done on a drop spindle or wheel).

So Many Names, So Many Stitches!

It’s not surprising, given its history and geographic reach, that nålbinding is known by an astounding number of names, including, nålebinding, nålbindning, naalebinding, nalbinding, knotless knitting, knotless netting, netless knotting, single needle knitting, needle binding, looped needle netting, knudeløstnet, schlingentechnik, and sprang.

There are over 200 documented stitch types from all over the world and in all different historical contexts. Many, like York, Åsle, Coptic, Oslo, Mammen, Brodén, are named for, or associated with, locations where archaeological samples were found.

Stitch styles and the nature of the finished fabric vary widely based on region, individual crafter, and materials available. There are other variables, too, as Denecka observes. “It depends on if you are left- or right-handed, what stitches you pick up, how many you pick up, and the tension you use while nålbinding. Everyone at Norstead does the same stitch and everyone’s nålbinding looks different.”

The variations don’t stop there. Textile experts Margrethe Hald, Odd Nordlund, Egon Hansen, and Larry Schmitt have each developed their own notation systems for nålbinding stitch patterns. The Hansen code, developed in 1990 by Egon Hansen from the Moesgaard Museum in Denmark, uses a system of notation that indicates the path of the needle: U (under a loop), O (over a loop), slash (for a change in direction), brackets (skipped loop), F (front), and B (back).

image description: a piece of nalbinded fabric, with the coding that explains the stitches

An example of written stitch notation for a nålbinding sample.
Photo credit: “Nålebinding. Ancient craft. Rudhave slot February 2018” by storebukkebruse is licensed under CC BY 2.0

image description: a hat, created with nalbinding

Photo credit: Denecka Burden, Norstead

Nålbinding Today

As the popularity of knitting grew, nålbinding seemed destined to become lost to the past, practiced mainly by small regional, heritage, or living-history groups. But in recent years, thanks to a growing interest in heritage crafts, the reach of social media, and some fantastic YouTube tutorials, more and more crafters are giving nålbinding a try. And so, this ancient art, threaded through our shared human history, lives on in the hands of a whole new generation of crafters.

Correction: Incorrect captions appeared for the first few hours this piece was published. Correct captions with proper photo credits have since been applied. We apologize for the confusion, and we apologize to the author, who is not responsible for this editorial mistake.

Copyright © Michelle Woodvine except as indicated.
Head shot of Michelle Woodvine

About Michelle Woodvine

Michelle Woodvine is a Toronto-based freelance writer and editor on a quest to never stop learning and making. When not wordsmithing for others, Michelle can usually be found working on her trilogy of speculative fiction novels, learning a new skill, or goofing around with her family (including her very own rocket scientist, two teenage boys, and one feisty ginger cat). Follow the weird, wonderful, and wordy adventures @woodvinewrites or visit www.woodvinewrites.com

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