I’m excited to announce the “Archaeological Puzzles in a Museum” online exhibition at the National Museum of Denmark is now online!
I contributed Case study 8, and a bit for the catalog, on the fringed nalbound sock in their collection. The sock is one of 112 textile fragments from Roman, Byzantine, and Early Medieval Arab Egypt currently in the National Museum of Denmark. The case study includes some beautiful professional photographs of the sock!
This is the same sock I was honored to examine in 2019. Initial results of that examination were included in“Fringed and patterned: decorative elements in Romano-Coptic nalbound socks” presented at the Textiles from the Nile Valley study group conference on the 27th of October 2019. More in depth information and the current status of my research on this sock was presented in “A fringe study in footwear: lessons learned from a sock in a box” at the Reconstructing Textiles and Their History: Egyptian Fabrics from the 1st Millennium AD online workshop that occurred on March 26th, 2022.
The exhibition has twelve downloadable PDFs that include the Introduction, a Catalog of 30 fabrics from the collection, and eight Case Studies that go deeper into a variety of topics.
The online exhibition is the result of the RECONTEXT research project entitled “Reconstructing the history of Egyptian textiles from the 1st Millennium AD at the National Museum of Denmark” which involved research carried out by historians, art historians, archaeologists and ancient fabric conservators. The project included analyses of textile fibers, weaving and looping techniques, as well as complete photography of the entire collection. Fingers crossed that we will be able to continue research on this collection.
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.
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.
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.****
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.
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.
Only one of the hop strainers found in the search of DigitalMuseum.no shows a nalbound basket, even though Nordland shows two other examples. However, in this search for humlesil you can see that the shape of the wood supports is the same for both the nalbound and woven basket forms: https://digitaltmuseum.no/search/?aq=descname%3A%22Humlesil%22&o=0&n=80