A brief history of nalbinding

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This article was written in 2000 and updated in 2004. There has been a lot of research that has come available since; to be incorporated.
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The Norwegian term Nålbinding has been borrowed into English as the loanword Nalbinding and is currently the most accepted term although there is still some argument. It has been chosen due to the fact that the most obvious and closely related continuous tradition of nalbinding at the time was found in Scandinavia and no English term seemed to quite cover the concept. Looping is a broader term that covers the entirety of looped textiles, including knitting and crochet. Needle-binding is a direct translation, but does not convey the same sense of a technique in English. However, nalbinding is not just a Viking craft done only in Scandinavia. In fact, that is but a small portion of the overall finds. Nalbinding is a craft done all over the world. The following includes some of the most often mentioned or most easily referenced examples from different time periods. It is in no way a complete listing.

The earliest known extant examples of nalbinding, if one is to include the simple looping variants, are from c 6500 BC. They were found in Nehal Hemar, a cave in the Judean desert, Israel.[1] They include fragments in simple looping and cross-knit looping variants. The next specimens are fragments found in Denmark from the Mesolithic era of the Stone Age (4,200 BC calibrated).[2] Currently most Neolithic specimens are found in Denmark, although there are some fragments from the Lake Dwellings in Switzerland.[3] However fabric remains from this period are extremely few so nalbinding’s true extent is unknown. There are theories that, as nalbinding does not require continuous thread, but rather the exact opposite, and due to the great age of its early examples, it may, as a technique, precede the invention of continuous spinning, such as that done on a drop spindle or wheel.[4]

Since the Stone Age a number of examples have turned up. A large quantity in cross-knit and simple looping variants appear in the Paracas and Nazca textiles from Peru and surrounding Andean regions. Egypt’s preservation of textiles is well known and in that corpus we find over a hundred examples ranging in date from potentially as early at 200 CE through to the 12th century. The mix of techniques is about two thirds cross-knit looping variant and one third various compound variants. There are also contemporaneous examples from surrounding regions such as Dura Europos in present day Syria, Masada in present day Isreal, and Semna in present day Sudan.

By the 5th century AD there are already a number of very complex examples. For example a sock found in Egypt [5] from the 4th to 6th centuries AD acquired by the Imperial Museum of Austria in 1890. During the Viking Age even more examples begin to turn up. A wool sock found at Coppergate, York, England, from 970 AD with evidence of madder dye on the ankle.[6] A mitten from Iceland dated to the 10th century. Panels of a fillet or snood worked in gold thread found in Mammen Denmark.[7] A wool and silk hat from the 9th to 10th centuries AD found in Egypt using two different stitches.[8] A fragment from 1000 AD found in Novgorod.[9] Also dated to this period are some tricolored fragments, presumed at the time to be from stockings, from near Kokomäki, Finland.[10] From the 11th century there is a mitten found in Oslo old town, Norway.[11] Nalbound articles have also been found in what were Maya controlled regions of Central America.[12]

From the Middle Ages several pieces have been found. For example, in Sweden there has been found a sock in Uppsala and a mitten in Lund from this period.[13] In Finland some stocking fragments with an unusual connection stitch were found in Kaukola.[14]  Eight fragments of nalbinding were found in Novgorod.[15] A pair of 70 cm long linen stockings, complete with tapes, from the 12th century were found at the parish church in Delsberg, or as it is also known, Delémont, Switerzerland.[16] The Åsle Mitten, found in Sweden and originally dated to the first centuries A.D. has since been carbon dated to between 1510 -1640 A.D.[17] There are also examples to be found in Italy[18] and South America.[19] Undated examples show up in places as varied as Lappland[20] and Africa.[21] There are four mittens from the ramparts of Copenhagen in Denmark that are unfortunately undateable but possibly from 1659 AD.[22] In the 1920’s the Native Americans of southern Arizona and northern Mexico were still using a form of nalbinding.[23] However, as fabrics are often not preserved well, and nalbinding is sometimes not identified as such by archaeologists, there may be more examples.

Nalbinding is currently done in many places around the world although it is definitely beginning to die out in our 21st century. According to my sources it is still practiced in at least the following places: the mountainous regions of Central Asia;[24] Persia, i.e. Lurestan and Iran;[25]  Oman;[26] Sweden;[27]  Norway;[28] Denmark (possibly);[29] Finland;[30] Peru;[31] and New Guinea.[32] It may be used in more places, however, as in February 2000 I bought a nalbound bag made by one of the aboriginal tribes of Taiwan. I was told that only the old people used that technique now as the young think is too hard to learn and takes too long to finish. Although it may be a method used around the world, currently the more complex variations are found only in Scandinavia.[32]

©March 2000 Anne Marie Decker (minor editing in April 2001) (edited to correct Åsle Mitten date, May 2004)



[1] Barber, E. J. W.; Prehistoric Textiles: The Development of Cloth in the Neolithic and Bronze Ages with special reference to the Aegean; Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1991; ISBN 0-691-00224-X (hardback ISBN 0-691-03597-0); pg. 12 & 130: Bender Jørgensen, pg. 7.

[2] Bender Jørgensen, pg. 1. Drawings of the textiles can be seen here: http://www.dandebat.dk/eng-dk-historie7.htm Accessed November 11, 2019.

[3] Bender Jørgensen, pg. 1 & 7: Nordland, pg. 148.

[4] Nordland, pg. 121.

[5] Collin, pg. 76 & 77; cites Antike Handarbeiten by L. Schinnerer.

[6] Walton, pgs. 66, 67: Hutchinson.

[7] Hald, pgs. 293, 299, 300, & 301: Nordland, pgs. 59, 60.

[8] Hald, pgs. 283-285, 308, & 309.

[9] Hutchinson.

[10] Hald, pg. 306.

[11] Nordland, pgs. 42, 43.

[12] Davidson, Knotless Netting, pg. 122.

[13] Hald, pgs. 303, 304: Nordland, pg. 43.

[14] Hald, pgs. 299, 306: Nordland, pgs. 39, 40.

[15] Hutchinson.

[16] Schmedding, pg. 99: Stékoffer.

[17] The Åsle mitten. Mentioned in Hald, pgs. 293, 294, 296, 297, 299, 302, & 303: Hansen, pgs. 23 & 25-27: Nordland, pgs. 37 & 41: Westman, pg. 1: Gustafsson, Kerstin; Gamla textila tekniker i ull; Kerstin Gustafsson och LTs Forlag AB Boktryck, Helsingborg, 1990; ISBN 91-36-02703-0; pg. 18. Nockert, Margareta & Possnert, Göran; Att datera textilier; summary trans. by Roger Tanner; Gidlunds Förlag, Fingraf Tryckeri, Södertälje, 2002; ISBN 91-7844-620-1, pgs. 65-67, 112.

[18] References to Italy are never very clear.: Card from Musée jurassien d’art et d’histoire, Delémont: Hald, pg. 308: according to email correspondence with Carolyn Priest-Dorman, Sigrid Muller-Christinsen mentions a glove in Florence in "Sakrale Gewander des Mitteralters"

[19] Davidson, Knotless Netting.

[20] Davidson, Knotless Netting, pg. 132: Hald, pg. 286.

[21] Davidson, Knotless Netting, pg. 132: Hald, pg. 311.

[22] Hald, pg. 304.

[23] Kissell, Mary Lois; ‘Basketry of the Papago and Pima’ in Anthropological Papers of the American Museum of Natural History, Vol. XVII, Part IV; New York, 1916; pgs. 225-244.

[24] Hutchinson.

[25] Hald, pg. 310.

[26] The Omani examples tend to be sand socks and camel muzzles. For example: A camel muzzle now in the Pitt Rivers Museum: http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID189558.html Accessed November 11, 2019. This one they call a hat: http://objects.prm.ox.ac.uk/pages/PRMUID189559.html Accessed November 11, 2019.

[27] Personal experience: Westman, Gustafsson, Nordland, pg. 99.

[28] Hald, pg. 305: Nordland, pg. 99.

[29] Hald, pg. 285.

[30] Nordland, pg. 100.

[31] Hald, pg. 310.

[32] Davidson, Knotless Netting, pg. 119.

[33] Gustafsson, pg. 18: Hutchinson.