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:

Author: Anne Marie Decker

Nalbinding Researcher

4 thoughts on “Nalbound Milk and Hop Strainers”

  1. What is milk that you would need to strain it? I thought the attainable bits of milk were usable, so you wouldn’t want bits of the strainer material getting in it.

    1. Milk comes from animals and the process of milking is done in a non-sterile environment. You don’t want fur or vegetable or other matter that is on the animal or floating in the barn to stay in the milk that you will be drinking as you don’t want to drink straw or hair or dirt, etc. Your strainer should have been washed enough it’s not going to shed fibers. Straining the milk can also give you an indication of issues with the milk. If it’s clumpy or straining slowly, you may want to check on the health of your animal.

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