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Nålbinding – Learning in Lockdown

While many hand crafts were relatively common fifty years ago modern society seems to have little time for sitting still making things for the family and home. However with many of us being at home for months in Covid 19 Lockdown in 2020, this has changed and there has been a surge in crafting.

Having caught up on all of the jobs around the home and garden many of us have turned to our craft stashes and those long forgotten UFOs (Unfinished Objects) and PHDs (Projects half done) for entertainment.

My current favorite craft is Nålbinding, The term is Danish and means to bind with a needle. This category is an umbrella term for textile items made with one needle and yarn in arms length segments. The technique is old, the oldest example being dated c. 6500 BC and found in Nehal Hemar cave, Israel. Examples are also found in Egypt, Peru and Scandinavia.

Two thirds of the 100 plus Ancient Egyptian socks found along the Nile are made with a technique called variously Coptic Stitch (1st Century AD), Tarim Stitch (a misnomer) and more accurately Cross Knit Looping.

The Manchester Museum Child's sock is made with this Cross Knit Looping method, which looks very like modern knitting. It is very difficult to tell these construction methods apart as in both techniques the chevrons (V Shapes) run vertically.

Replica Cross Knit Looping socks by Regina De Giovanni

The recently restored Egyptian sock in the National Museum of Scotland also falls into the category of Nålbinding, but is made in a stitch that looks quite different to Cross Knit Looping, as the chevrons run horizontally rather than vertically. Conservator Miriam McLeod has done a truly excellent job bringing this lost sock back to life.

The children’s socks found are overall brightly striped, whereas adult version in one solid colour, however there are some notable exceptions. In some cases the wool used for these socks has held the colour astoundingly well. Scientist Dr Joanne Dyer at the British Museum has developed a non-invasive technique to identify ancient dyes used for the socks. Surprisingly the variety of colours have been proven to be a combination of just three plant dyes, Madder (Red), Woad (Blue) and Weld (Yellow).

National Museum of Scotland Lost sock restoration blog post

The current French Archaeological Center in Sudan exhibition shows a pair of deep blue adult Nålbinding socks in a similar horizontal stitch. It is very rare to find both socks together.

To my knowledge neither the NMS nor the Khartoum stitch techniques have been identified or replicated as yet. There are a plethora of Nålbinding stitches, quite often named after the place where items were found, for example Oslo, Finnish, Mammen or York. A quick search of Google Images will reveal the variety fabric textures produced by different stitches.

Nalbound pair of socks from Khartoum SFDAS Exhibition - Twitter Photo

If you would like to learn the craft of Nålbinding which can be used to make socks/hats and other items to keep the craft alive, help is at hand. Head over to Facebook and search for a group called Nålbinding and there you will find a community of people who are learning and sharing every day.

Members range from absolute beginners to experts. Some of them are Living History Reenactors, several of whom work and live in a tourist Viking Village in Norway presenting textile demonstrations to visitors. They also make their own authentic clothes and tools.

Karin Byom (instagram @karin_byom); Virginia Sanchez Martin (instagram@virsama on instagram and youtube); Mona Utheim (instagram@utheimmona); are someof textile workers at the Viking Village. They host a socially distanced You Tube "get together" on Friday afternoons. Crafters from around the world are invited to the Viking Village where they can join in textile conversations while working on their own Nålbinding projects.

All you need is a big needle, some yarn and a sense of adventure to get started. There are excellent tutorials by Sanna-Mari Pihlajapiha her You Tube channel Neulakintaat and her website Neulakintaat which is in Finnish but can be changed to an English version. The great thing about You Tube tutorials is that you can stop the clips and replay them over and over until you "get it".

For the historical context of these Nålbinding techniques please visit the excellent blog by Anne Marie Decker Nalbound. Her presentation Charting the Nalbinding of the Nile is a truly fascinating trip through collections of Coptic Socks found in Museums around the world. Anne Marie Decker has been running Zoom meetings, where crafters from around the world share their current Nålbinding work and exchange hints, tips and advice.

Are you inspired to try your hand at Nålbinding? I look forward to meeting you on Facebook sometime soon!