Nålbinding, Part 1 – An Ancient Technique

I’m a fiber arts junkie—especially when it comes to old forms of needlework. So when I saw a woman demonstrating a technique I didn’t even recognize during a special event at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum, I skidded to a halt.

Nalbinding Kate Martinson Vesterheim 2013

Kate Martinson, Associate Professor of Art at Luther College, explained that she was doing nålbinding (pronounced noll-bin-ding). I immediately signed up for one of her classes.

Anthropologists refer to this unique technique as knotless netting. Nålbinding is also sometimes called Viking knitting, but it actually pre-dates the Viking era. Women have used this technique for centuries to make everything from mittens to strainers to stockings. It produces a very strong and water-repellant fabric that doesn’t ravel when cut.

Artifacts constructed with Nålbinding

Kate showed us images of artifacts constructed with nålbinding.

Scandinavian women used fibers from sheep, fox, wolf, bear, and cows. The technique produces a distinctive ribbed finish, but women often fulled the finished item by agitating it in water. With enough fulling, the stitchwork can totally disappear. That makes it difficult for even skilled textile historians to know for sure if a certain artifact was made by nålbinding or not.

DSCF6474

Possibly the oldest known example of nålbinding—maybe as old as 15th-century.

Nålbinding requires only a single-eyed needle and a natural-fiber yarn to work with, so it was quite portable. One cool example:  women used this technique when they went to high pastures with their herds of cows each summer. They twisted hairs from their cows’ tail into thread. Nålbinding then allowed them to make a perfect mesh for straining milk.

Here's an example of a milk strainer from Norway.  (Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum collection.)

An example of a milk strainer from Norway. (Vesterheim Norwegian American Museum collection.)

Nålbinding strainer - Vesterheim

Here you can see the distinctive herringbone pattern in the spiral of stitches.

A milk strainer as it would have been used.

A milk strainer as it would have been used.  The wooden base, which has a hole in the center,  would have been set over a bucket.  The strainer’s natural bristles would help filter out impurities. (Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum exhibit)

Learning about this provided an unexpected personal connection for me. Examples of nålbinding have been found in Iran, China, Peru… the technique was so versatile that it was widely used. My father’s parents came from Switzerland. It’s very possible that women on my grandmother’s side of the family made milk strainers just like that when tending their cows in alpine pastures.

Nålbinding was done in at least some rural areas through World War II; the fabric produced is sturdier than knitted fabric, so when supplies were scarce, women made items this way. The technique almost died out, but a few textile historians—like Kate—are working to keep it alive.

Interested in learning more? I highly recommend taking a workshop with Kate, who is both an expert and a wonderful instructor. There’s a class scheduled at Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum (in north-east Iowa) this summer.  For more information, see their class description page.

Next time, Part II – a peek at the class experience!

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8 Responses to “Nålbinding, Part 1 – An Ancient Technique”

  1. Arletta Dawdy's Blog Says:

    Kathleen,
    This is a fascinating post on something I had no idea of. Isn’t research great fun?! You are always finding something to intrigue…Thanks

  2. Eileen Daily Says:

    Wow, I didn’t know about all the fiber art classes and I just drove past Vesterheim today!

  3. Meg Says:

    That’s fascinating. I wish the classes were closer to me than Iowa!

  4. Dee Grimsrud Says:

    I just learned about the following opportunity to learn nålbinding in Monroe:
    WHAT: BASIC NÅLBINDING CLASS
    WHERE: ORANGE KITTEN YARNS – 1209 17TH AVENUE, MONROE, WI (Next to Turner Hall)
    DATE: SATURDAY, APRIL 6TH, 2013 (One session/class)
    TIME: 9:00-11:30 AM
    COST: $40.00 PER PERSON
    Materials included in the cost of the class: Wooden Nal Binding needle, handouts and practice yarn
    Supplies to bring: 200 yards of worsted weight wool yarn
    WHAT IS IT? Nålbinding is an ancient form of knitting practiced in Scandinavia. With the use of a wooden needle (included in the cost of the class), wool yarn is looped around a thumb to make stitches that are turned into mittens, hats, scarves and socks. The class will be taught by Cathy Spaeth, who learned the technique at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minnesota. Included in the class will be: how to begin and end a piece, two basic stitches (the Oslo and Korgen stitches), and some troubleshooting. If time permits, students will make a neck warmer. The class is limited to four people per session. If the response to the class is good and the first class fills, other sessions can be scheduled. To sign up for the class, please call the Orange Kitten Yarn shop at 608-328-4140 during their open hours: Mon & Tues CLOSED; Wed-Thu–Fri 10-5:30; Sat 10-5:00; Sun 12-5:00.

  5. Learning Nålbinding (and two hats) « Dawn's Dress Diary Says:

    […] actually a much more recent artifact. I read more about it specifically on Kathleen Ernst’s Sites & Stories blog, and further on the Virtual Gallery of the Vesterheim Museum. This example is dated 1830-1870, […]

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