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The Ancient Art of Naalbinding

Athlyn Green is an avid crocheter and knitter. She designs and sells handcrafted goods.

Ethnic Knitting Style at Norstead Viking Village

Woman knits with one needle carrying on  centuries-old tradition.

Woman knits with one needle carrying on centuries-old tradition.

An Ancient Form of Viking Knitting Resurfaces in Modern Times

Twenty-first century crafters have discovered the art of medieval naalbinding, turning to a form of ancient knitting that involved knitting with one needle. Knitters have adapted this method for use in modern times.

How does naalbinding knitting differ from the knitting we know of today? Naalbinders use a spiral knitting technique that connects one row to the next and to the loops on either side. It is a challenging craft, one that is time-consuming and labor-intensive, but modern naalbinders gain a better understanding of crafters that have gone before, and they feel the results are well worth the effort.

What makes naalbinding distinctive is that a person doesn't have to use patterns to produce knitted goods. Each naalbinder develops his or her own particular style and this is expressed in unique, one-of-a-kind creations.

Needle-binding is similar to sewing, darning but because yarn is used, it produces a fabric that looks similar to that which is knitted. Naalbinders use a single-eyed needle and yarn to create a series of loops, which makes every stitch secure and produces a stretchy material. Increases are made by working two stitches into one stitch in the previous row; decreases involve combining two stitches.

Short lengths of yarn are used because the yarn is pulled all the way through each stitch. Yarn is added as a piece progresses. Colored yarns are also woven into the work.

Sturdy Mittens Made With Naalbinding

Sturdy Naalbinded Mittens--a hardy people learned how to make knitted items to ward off the cold.

Sturdy Naalbinded Mittens--a hardy people learned how to make knitted items to ward off the cold.

Discoveries of Ancient Knitting

Naalbinded items have been found in different parts of the world, some fragments dating back to the neolithic period. Items have been discovered in Iceland, Finland and Poland, to name a few.

Naalbinding continued in Scandinavia and the mountain areas of Central Asia, probably due, in part, to climate.

While, In other locations, knitting largely replaced naalbinding, the craft still survived over the centuries in certain areas and thus, has come down to us from antiquity and gives us insights as to how warm and sturdy garments were made in the past.

Roman Socks

An ancient method of knitting produced dense socks.

An ancient method of knitting produced dense socks.

Quick Look

Literally translated as "needle binding" or "binding with a needle," naalbinding is a time-honored method of creating fabric that is considered to be older than crocheting or knitting. The process was based on:

  • Use of one needle rather than two
  • Needles were flat and fashioned from materials at hand, such as moose or antler wood
  • The entire length of a short yarn strand was used create each loop or loops
  • Because of short lengths of yarn, different yarn colors could easily be added, which, of course, made for interesting-looking garments.
  • A loop was created and the needle was passed through the loop
  • A chain of loops were created

Naalbinding and the Vikings

Talented knitters in Norse settlements employed naalbinding to fashion clothing items to ward off winter's chill.

This ancient knitting method required many hours of labor, using a bone needle and wool to construct almost indestructible warm garments, such as knitted socks, leggings, mittens, gloves, hats and scarves, and other necessary clothing items. In a sense, naalbinded garments were survival gear, which equipped these hardy and hard-working people to protect themselves against the elements.

Norse naalbinding ranged from simple stitches to very complicated techniques. It is believed that over one thousand variations of naalbinding are possible.

On the Northern Tip of Newfoundland, Naalbinding is Alive and Well

A visit to L'anse Aux Meadows up in St. Anthony, Newfoundland, offers knitters a way to step back in a time. Knitters can tour Norstead, the Viking village, and chat with women dressed in traditional garb, seated 'round a fire and knitting with one needle. A shop on the site offers an assortment of naalbinded items, such as warm socks, mittens, hats and scarves, a delight for visitors who want to purchase naalbinded items.

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Norstead--Viking Village in Newfoundland

Getting to Norstead Viking Village

Naalbinding Was Done Using Materials at Hand

Image: Needle and Sample of Naalbinding Knitting

Image: Needle and Sample of Naalbinding Knitting

Materials Ancient People Used to Naalbind

When winter winds were howling, ancient people passed the dark winter months creating many useful and usable items for their families.

  • Needles were flat and carved out of antler, wood, or bone.
  • Wool was particularly well-suited for one-needle knitting because of how it felted.

Table With Naalbinded Items

Everyday items to make life more comfortable for the Norsemen.

Everyday items to make life more comfortable for the Norsemen.

A Look at Naalbinding: Knitting With One Needle

Stitches Used in Naalbinding

Different stitches are used in Naalbinding, some relatively easier and more common and others more complex.

Pattern codes describe the action needed: "go over or under" and how many times, thus someone reading directions might see codes like: O/UO, UO/UOO, and any number of variations.

Different variations of naalbinding are used to yield different degrees of both elasticity and thickness when creating fabric.

If you want to learn naalbinging, attending a class can be a real boon, but if there are no classes in your area, a good instructional book can guide you.

Oslo Stitch

How do Naalbinded Stitches Differ From Knit Stitches?

In a row of knitting, each stitch or loop is connected to stitches above or below it. In naalbinding, each loop is connected to at least one loop on either side.

In the basic technique, a loop is formed and the needle and yarn are passed through the loop, but not all the way. The yarn forms a new loop. The needle is then passed through the new loop and thus a chain is formed.

At the end of a row, the work is turned, and each stitch is now passed through its partner but also in a loop from the previous row. This makes for sturdy fabric.

As with knitting, the work may also be performed "in the round," depending on what item is being created.

The stitches can be made on the thumb or off the thumb.

York Stitch

Naalbinding in Modern Times

In modern times, the art of naalbinding has enjoyed a revival as interest has grown in this ethnic knitting style. This method has been turned to as a valuable resource for crafters who desire to master different knitting techniques to produce naalbinded items for their own use and/or for cottage industries.

Ribbing and More

Resources For Modern Naalbinders...

  • Classes in naalbinding offer instruction in different single-needle stitches
  • Knitters learn from experienced naalbinders who share their techniques
  • Naalbinding pamphlets and booklets teach basic stitches
  • Online sites discuss naalbinding techniques and offer naalbinding instructions

Rediscovering an Ancient Crafting Method

Certainly, the past steps on the heels of the present as knitters master a style of knitting that once spelled survival for our hardy forebears who produced many useful and warm items using natural materials they had on hand, and thus were well-equipped to brave challenging temperatures on land and at sea.

Ethnic Crafting

© 2013 Athlyn Green

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