Nalbound Milk and Hop Strainers

When we think of traditional,* rather than historical, Scandinavian nalbinding, I think most people think of the beautifully embroidered mittens. But today I would like to talk about nalbound strainers. There are apparently two types of nalbound strainers in Scandinavia. Those used to strain milk and and more rarely those to strain hops or ale.**

The nalbound milk strainers tend to be flat with a round or oval appearance. Sometimes with a slit on one side or both acting as a kind of handle. They are used by either folding them into a cup shape and holding them or by placing them in a cup/bowl and board (one piece or two) set up that can be placed across the container.

Melkesil HH.1954-0280. Photo: Mostue, Erik / Domkirkeodden Attrbution-ShareAlike (CC BY-SA)Additional photographs of this milk-strainer and support are available at: https://digitaltmuseum.no/021027744194/sil

Those identified as hop strainers, or more generically as ale strainers, tend to be more basket/bag shaped with two examples nalbound directly onto the rectangular support frame. This frame is the same shape as that found in hop/ale strainers having woven baskets for the strainer portion. The woven basket type appear more frequently in the online collection records for Norway, but I am most fond of the nalbound ones.

Both types of nalbound strainers are made of “hair,” not wool, generally from cow’s tails.*** We also see horse, goat, and pig hair in strainers and other nalbound objects made of hair.

https://i2.wp.com/mirrors.creativecommons.org/presskit/buttons/80x15/png/by-sa.png?resize=107%2C20&ssl=1
This milk strainer from 1850-1899 is made of pig hair. It is currently in the Skansen museum in Sweden. https://www.europeana.eu/en/item/91659/sk_object_SKANM0125122

It is one of the joys of updating the bibliography and reorganizing my sources for easier use that I get to re-read and explore books that I haven’t read in a good many years. In doing so, I am reminded of old favorites, the hop strainers have always been one, and interesting tidbits such as their anthropological use.

Concerning the actual use of the hair strainers, we have a short description from Flesberg in Numedal, Buskerud: ‘In the olden days they strained the milk through a straining which in Flesberg was called sællær and further up in the valley sallar. They spun cow’s hair and made sallarane in the same way as they made the short hair stockings, raggeloddar. When straining, they folded them up into a cup-like or bag-like form and ladled the milk into it. They also had wooden straining cups with a square hole in the bottom, over which they put the strainer. Such strainers may still be found on some farms. When they had strained the milk, they poured some hot water into the milk-cup, took the hair strainer and cleaned the cup with it. In that way they both cleaned the hair strainer, and rinsed the milk out of it at the same time. Afterwards the hair strainer was beaten against the wall or against something hard in order to thrash the water out of it, and then the strain was hung up to dry. But periodically they had to boil the hair strainer in a decoction of juniper, in order to prevent it from going sour. After they started to use straining cups of tin and with a strainer of brass netting, they utilized the hair strainer as a dishcloth.’

Odd Nordland, Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting (Oslo: Oslo University Press, 1961), p. 108.

Nordland goes on to state that in other areas, the practice is to use the nalbound fabric as a dishcloth first. Then, once it has been softened and properly matted, using it as a strainer. Apparently this is associated with areas that tend to nalbind looser density strainers in simple variants.****

Donna Kallner and vakerrysta.blogspot.com have both posted about this video from 1943 of Norwegian textile making.

Starting at 5:54 minutes in, the video starts a section on Cow hair and coarse wool spun on a handspindle. It starts with carding the hair and wool and creating a rolag. Then preparing a bundle of fibers which they hang from the ceiling and spin on a large spindle. Then plying from a ball. At 7:53 they shift to binding with a needle. At 8:06 they shift to looking over her shoulder at her nalbinding. While the majority of the film runs very fast, at 8:18 they slow it down to slow motion and you can see fairly clearly how she is working the stitch. At 9:16 it states “The yarn in a milk-strainer was of smooth cow-hair.”***** At 9:38 they start to show how she adds an additional length of yarn having used up the prior length. At 10:20 they show using the nalbound milk-strainer in a cup & board shaped strainer board. 10:52 they show washing it and striking it against a hard surface. The next section show hair shoe-covers being tied on over the shoes prior to putting on skis.

Nordland’s book, Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting, is the best source for the nalbinding stitches used in these nalbound strainers. However, his classification system is based on describing 1/4 of the circle created by the spiral coiled variants which causes some difficulty in being certain of his description. His system only records the changes in intralacing within half of the working of a stitch, but not the initial direction. Thus each stitch he classifies could be one of two options. Add in the fact that when the stitch uses an F2 connection instead of an F1, he leaves off the last intralacement with the working thread, in those cases we can have four possible stitches that could all fall under the same classification of Nordland’s.

The red and green dots show the portion of the stitch that Nordland’s classification system describes. In this case he is describing the Dalby stitch. In Hansen’s classification this stitch is UOU/OUOO F1. As you can see, the superscript numbers of Nordland’s system describe changes in the intralacement as you exit the stitch. However, it does not specify which side of the fabric on which the intralacement begins. Thus 5112 could be Dalby, UOU/OUOO F1 or it could be OUO/UOUU F1. (Note: his system doesn’t address back or mid connections.) Had the stitch used an F2 connection, Nordland would have written it as 5111 (losing the green dot) which could be UOU/OUOO F2 or UOU/OUOU F2 or OUO/UOUU F2 or OUO/UOUO F2.

That said, Nordland records a large number of stitches being used in nalbound strainers. For example: Simple Looping in the center with 31 (probably a Danish stitch like U/OU F2) outer rows, Loop & Twist, 311 (probably Danish stitch, U/OU F1), 311m (Danish with a carried thread F1), 412 (Oslo, UO/UOO F1), 411 (most likely Oslo, UO/UOO F2), 4111 (probably Björsbo, UO/UOU F1), 51111 (probably Telemark, UOU/OUOU F1), 512 (possibly Fåberg, UUO/UOOO F2), and 522 (Korgen stitch, UOO/UUOO F1). He also emphasizes that there is the strong tendency for the strainers to be nalbound using whichever stitch was predominant in a particular location as traditional nalbinding in Scandinavia tended to reflect the use of one stitch only in any particular location. The need for a variety of textures and densities being filled by changes in yarn diameter/type and gauge.

We can be thankful to the anthropological and ethnographical departments for collecting these strainers. We have no archeological evidence of nalbound strainers being used prior to the late 19th and early 20th century collections of ethnographic materials. Most of the strainers themselves are undated. Their accession from anthropological circumstances instead of archeological ones imply that they were at least in use or in the household of the donator and unlikely to be of extremely earlier age than the collection date or century. The stitches used encompass the wide variety of stitches found in Scandinavia, including some of the simplest versions that are also found in earlier contexts. Odd Nordland argues that the peasant society changed little although we know from their clothing that there was a change around the 18th century. We know the technique of nalbinding existed earlier based on the socks and mittens that have been found. There is a cup and board support inscribed 1618. There is even a presumed board of a separate cup and board support for a strainer found on the Oseberg ship. Any evidence for Viking Era nalbound milk strainers has yet to be found. The concept is possible, possibly even plausible, but not yet provable.

As I was looking for more examples of nalbound strainers in the online museum catalogs of Scandinavia, I also came across a few in their Ethnographic collections from West Africa. Worked on the support more like the hops strainers than the milk strainers, though in a simpler variant. These are apparently used for palm oil.

I hope you’ve enjoyed this look into other traditional uses of the nalbinding technique. We so often think of it as used for mittens, socks, and hats that I find it fun to explore other uses. I’ve included a collection of links below to other Scandinavian nalbound strainers.


*Note: I tend to differentiate between “historical” and “traditional” era nalbinding. Generally when I say historical, I am referring to any time up to the early Modern Era. Usually pre-1600 AD or thereabouts. When I say traditional nalbinding, I am generally referring to more recent nalbinding. Anywhere from the 17th century to present day although the concentrations are more likely late 18th century through early 20th century.

**It’s not that hop/ale strainers are rare, just that nalbound ones are rare.

***Nordland, page 93.

****Nordland, page 109.

*****My translation.


Additional milk strainers:
A Sami strainer from Norway.
Additional hop strainers:

Updates to the Annotated Bibliography & Other Sources

Exciting news for your nalbinding (and other research) references collection. You can now download a copy of Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials! The Centre for Textile Research in Copenhagen is digitizing Margrethe Hald’s Archive and has recently uploaded a copy of Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials (currently 3rd from the bottom of the list) along with digitized copies of many of Hald’s other articles.

I’ve also been making updates to my Annotated Bibliography & Other Sources page at: https://nalbound.com/annotated-bibliography/ While there are still sources in my collection to be added, I’ve been able to add another lump covering some recent acquisitions regarding sources with information on Sub-Saharan African and Southeast Asian nalbinding. As is often the case, the usefulness varies greatly. Some of them have very limited information on nalbinding, tending to concentrate on woven textiles more than non-woven looped fabrics. Others include clear photos and diagrams including technique as well as structure.

Tracking down a ?nalbound? sweater (spoiler: not entirely)

So many people have asked what the process of my research looks like. So this time I am taking notes and if this ever gets published, you’ll see the entire rough process. (Written October 2020 with edits November 2021)

Ever since I started to see the nalbinding community make its forays online, there has always been someone brave enough to make a sweater using the nalbinding technique. They are always fascinating examples of a very impressive amount of work. And yet, body garments for warmth just do not seem to show up in the archaeological contexts. We see lots of socks and mittens and some hats, lots of bags, and many many fragments whose original purpose is just unknown, but no hoods, shirts, or trousers outside of the full body ritual masque costumes of 19th & 20th century Central Africa. (Likely due to the efficiencies of woven cloth for those type garments.)

At the same time, while my most recent focus has been primarily on the Egyptian examples, I am interested in nalbinding worldwide and have been collecting interesting tidbits for a long while now. Some of those were just tantalizing glances at things I did not have ready access to at the time, but for which the world has since become more technologically savvy and interconnected. Objects for which I had perhaps only an out of focus photograph from what was likely a book in a language I didn’t read, are now having high resolution photographs uploaded online and machine translation, while not perfect, is helping to be able to get the gist of what is written about them.

Our Nalbinding Get Togethers* on Zoom, which we began as a social gathering of nalbinders around the world to help alleviate some of the isolation of the COVID-19 shutdown, have given us the chance to meet people across the world. Peruda Florit has been especially interested in Russian nalbinding given her current circumstances. When I first began researching nalbinding, getting information out of the then USSR was extremely difficult from here in the US. I could track nalbinding right up to the Karelian border from the Finnish side, but barely make any headway across. However, over time I had run into the finds from Novgorod and a few other places. Occasionally, I’d get snapshots of images from books etc. Peruda has been having me go through some of those old snapshots to try and find some pieces she may be able to go see in person.

That day, not long after talking about Yuko Hirata’s newest nalbound sweater design, all of which are amazingly beautiful, I thought I’d take a stroll through the old photo files to find some more Russian examples for Peruda. In doing so I ran across this “sweater.”

It’s a picture I collected sometime during or before 2011 of a photograph in a book. Probably found on VK’s nalbinding forum although I don’t remember exactly now. I believe this is the 2nd photo of it I had seen. The other being even smaller and less detailed. The image is not that clear, but the surface texture has the horizontal banding reminiscent of compound nalbound textiles. At the time, machine translation was not very good. I vaguely remember taking the time to translate the caption and look up the saint associated. As I knew that there was an extremely high likelihood of nalbinding in Russia being done at the time of the saint (15th century), I was not too surprised by the concept of it being nalbound. While I was very intrigued, my access to Russian sources was soo limited that I did not pursue it at the time.

With all the amazing sweater designs coming out of the modern nalbinding usage, and the ever present interest in history, running across this particular find again sparked a good bit of interest. My access to Russian speakers is much greater now than it was then. Machine translation, while in no way perfect, is much better and can help narrow down what pieces I want properly translated. And… there are others interested which helps motivate any search.

So step one of the search, I run across a potentially interesting photograph or tidbit of information. In this case, all the wording is in Russian and I’m on my phone (which is currently reducing my ability to find Cyrillic letters). I send the link to Peruda, who kindly transliterates it for me and runs it through the machine translation.

Saint Nilus of Sora’s hair-shirt. So we look him up. Saint Nilus, otherwise known as Nil Sorky, lived between 1433 and 1508. Very interesting. Early for a cardigan styled item of clothing, but hair-shirts don’t seem to have followed standard practices and I don’t know that much about 15th & early 16th century Russian clothing in detail.

A quick poking about by Google search of Saint Nilus of Sora’s name, revealed a new picture of the hair-shirt on display: http://cultinfo.ru/news/2008/5/1096. A bit more and I find a book reference within a Pinterest pin which also has a slightly better quality photo: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/531495193517251984/ “Власяница и четки преп. Нила Сорского. Кирилло-Белозерский монастырь // Романенко Е. В. Повседневная жизнь русского средневекового монастыря”

And then, several more interesting hits. This one caused me to exclaim, “Captions, I need captions!” https://xtkani.ru/vlasyanica/ As there appears to be an additional interesting hair-shirt for which I have no date or place information. Peruda then sent me this link, with another image of the more dress-like hair-shirt: https://otzovik.com/review_5601725.html

Having not had much luck in my search using English, I shifted to the Cyrillic for St. Nilus of Sora and the word for hair-shirt. That got me the very interesting link to the Kirillo-Belozersky museum (whose name we had sussed out as likely to have it in their collection via the sources above, but had not yet reached out to) with a very nice photo of the hair-shirt in question that is of such high resolution one can zoom in to see details: https://kirmuseum.org/ru/object/vlasanica-iz-verbluzei-koricnevoi-sersti Much excitement ensued. Of interesting note, the image appears to be reversed from the printed ones above with what had appeared to be the left sleeve now on the right. (It’s not unheard of for an image to be flipped when printed.)

And at this point though, I’m questioning its designation as a nalbound textile.

Zooming into to focus on the rows reveals a texture on all but the bottom most rows that I have seen before, but in slip stitch crochet (SSC), not nalbinding. Looking closely at the neckline and cuffs and I can see loops pulled through loops. While it is possible to achieve that structure with end-led nalbinding as discussed in my NESAT presentation “But it looks like...,” the direction of work would be from the outside edge into the shirt, not working from the body out as one would with the loop-led slip stitch crochet. However, the surface texture was not an exact match for the SSC I had seen before. Both sides appeared to have the same texture, instead of dramatically differing textures, and the rows appeared to alternate between what would be produced by the technical front of back loop only (BLO) SSC and that produced on the technical back side of front loop only (FLO) SSC. It appeared to potentially be a match for working back and forth, instead of in the round or separate rows in the same direction. I immediately sent a copy of the link off to my friend Cary Karp who is researching the history of crochet and is the one that helped me learn to recognize SSC structures and surface textures. Cary tells me that this type of back and forth turned flatwork work in SSC is called a Rib Stitch in the 1840’s Victorian fancy work literature, but as a specialty stitch with nothing in any earlier literature.

Our web search did turn up some information about the provenance of this hair-shirt. It is attributed by legend to Saint Nilus of Sora. However, the first solid mentions are that it was displayed in the Tikhvin Cathedral in the 19th and 20th centuries where it was used for healing.

The Russian term Вязка is often translated as knitting, but in truth is a broader term that might be more appropriately translated as looping as the Russian language does not differentiate between the various looping techniques such as knitting, crochet, or nalbinding. Instead, if one is intending to be specific in Russian, a modifier is added that tells you what type of tool is used.


The Nalbinding Get Togethers (celebrating one and a half years now) are an interesting addition to my research. I used to fill that slot by reaching out to friends that had expressed interest (both casual and academic) in person or one on ones via phone or email/text/messaging. I still do reach out to certain ones specifically, though the in person option hasn’t been available. But as some of my most useful foils aren’t local anyway, those conversations have just continued as they always do.

But my usual process goes something like this: Either I find a hint or mention of a new to me find that might be applicable or I do one of my regular searches to see if something new to me shows up (or I stumble across something as I was looking for something else). I then go see what else I can find out about it. If what I stumbled on originally wasn’t a treasure trove of pictures, I go looking for images as the objects I’m interested in are not clearly and consistently described. In this process I am looking for as many images as possible. Presentation photos, documentation photos, conservation photos, right on down to someone’s terrible vacation photos as sometimes that’s all I can get and sometimes they just happen to capture something the formal ones don’t. I’m also looking for associated diagrams and any analysis that has already been performed. Mining bibliographies for previously published books and articles that relate to the object or its type.

All the while I’m comparing and contrasting with the corpus I already have. I may also start making test samples to help work out or confirm what I’m seeing on the surface structure shown. Then I start talking with others about this interesting thing. In person (my oh so patient husband who doesn’t understand the details, but loves to see me excited about a new tidbit. My mom, who does understand a good bit more) and online via messaging to my sometimes collaborator, to my mentee, to friends, to the get togethers (the group is intended to be a social space and sometimes all we do is chat and work on/show off/encourage our projects, but a big part of my projects is the research and the group is interested in the history of the craft).

Then I start working on in what format I want to share the info (and how detailed) to the broader world: blog post, popular media, peer-reviewed article, seminar presentation (academic or crafting), or multiples of varying depth. I may start formally teaching a particular craft portion at this point as an additional way to find out what words and order best express the concept. Eventually I may end up writing an instruction manual (that’s happened twice, but quite a while ago now as I had a break from the intensive analyzing part and some of the crafting part too due to health issues). And we’ll see where the whole ends up someday, because each new piece adds to the whole as well. I’m working with others on a cross technique standardization of language used to describe the specifics of structural details common across Looping techniques. Trying to see trends that can better improve the overall understanding as so many of these finds are still dated on art historical principles yet without a proper understanding of the specific corpus. Worldwide trends, both historically and where its usage has continued through to today.

Case in point, a comment on a picture that was posted in the Sprang group asking if the item was sprang work (it wasn’t) provided me with a search term that opened up a whole area of current traditional use of nalbinding in South America that I hadn’t known about which I can tie back to historical records of the region and can help with understanding working techniques, direction, etc. Very much fascinating. I’ve lost more sleep again. Bit frustrated at one of the museums because a number of great photos pop up in searches, but they don’t have an organized online search their collection function. Those photos are just from photos they’ve used in illustrating their exhibition announcements etc. A blog post has been drafted, though I don’t know when I’ll finish it. More information has been added to the corpus in my head with very interesting ties across the world.

Sometimes I get the opportunity to see the object in person which leads to object reports for the museums with my aggregated analysis of the object, what’s previously published, and how it fits into the broader corpus, and further potential publications.

I’ve had people comment on how I seem to find so many interesting artifacts. They wonder and ask how do I keep finding so much nalbinding when it is hidden, mislabeled, or in areas one just doesn’t think of nalbinding existing. The answer is quite simple. I keep looking.**


  • * The Nalbinding Get Togethers are currently still occurring each weekend on Zoom at 8pm Eastern Saturdays and 10am Eastern on Sundays. Sessions generally run for two hours, sometimes more. Drop me a note via the contact page for the link or find us on social media (Facebook is easiest).
  • ** If you’d like to help support my continued search, a link to my Patreon is on the side bar menu.
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