History · Nalbinding · Nålbindning

Nalbinding: derivation and description

In an earlier post about a Swedish looped purse from 1693, I noted that the maker’s name for the way it was produced — virka — has been used over time for a number of  different crafts. It appears again in a dialect dictionary compiled during the late 1790s, in the definition of sömma (literally ‘stitch’ or ‘seam’), a common Swedish designation for what is now more widely known as nålbindning (lit. ‘needle binding’):

sömma — v. sö̅m (from sömm)  1. sew [sy], sew clothes. 2. to loop [virka] in its own way with a large bone needle. In this way, wool yarn is looped or stitched into mittens, caps, stockings, and socks.

(The current primary sense of the word virka — ‘to crochet’ — is not attested until the 1840s.)

Analytic studies of older textiles began to recognize the difference between knitting and other forms of looping that it resembled toward the end of the 19th century, using a number of different terms to mark the distinction. The descriptive terminology became a focus of study in itself. Egon H. Hansen reviewed one facet of this in a paper read at the NESAT III symposium in York, in 1987. It was titled Nålebinding: Definition and Description and presents his system of structural notation, which is now in widespread use.

Hansen repeatedly uses the Danish name for the technique, nålebinding, noting that the prior literature includes numerous other designations for it. He credits his Danish compatriot Margrethe Hald with the “only absolutely firm definition” of its structure, but prefaces his remarks on English nomenclature with the disclaimer:

“Unfortunately my knowledge of English is not extensive enough for me to judge whether the expression ‘looped needle-netting’ used by Hald fully covers the definition above…”

Hald was the reigning scholar on the topic (and devised a classification system for nålebinding that is still applied) but Hansen proposed nonetheless that the craft be given a Scandinavian name in English discourse:

“I suggest therefore that in future research in this kind of textile we use the modern expression nålebinding, bearing in mind that Märta Brodén, who was the first to use this word, was also the first to make this almost forgotten technique known among needlework people today.”

That suggestion had the intended effect but is in error in a few important points of fact (nor was Hansen the first to make it). The most glaring is a failure to acknowledge Hald’s prior use of the word naalebinding. She included it in an article about a mitten published in 1945 and used it again in her book Olddanske Tekstiler from 1950 (presented as a doctoral dissertation the year before), not just in the running text but also to head two sections. This includes a detailed English summary:

“‘Looped needle-netting,’ (in Sweden called vantsöm). In this variant the new stitch not only loops around the corresponding stitch in the preceding row, but also back through the neighboring stitch of its own row, or sometimes through several of the last-sewn stitches of this row.”

It is not clear why Hald brought the Swedish language into the discussion but vantsöm (lit. ‘mitten stitch’) was a common designation at the time and is manifest in the 1790s dictionary definition. It remained a preferred term for a number of researchers through the 1960s and she may have been recognizing its status. Nonetheless, a Swedish study from 1934 included in Hald’s 1950 bibliography, lists alternate designations for vantsöm, including nålbundna vantar — ‘needlebound mittens.’ Another Swedish text in her bibliography, from 1917 (discussed in detail in a separate post), makes a similar dialectal reference to a mitten that was “bunnen med nål eller nålbönnen” — ‘bound with a needle or needlebound.’

An expanded English translation of Hald’s book appeared in 1980 as Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials and seems to have been the source of the expression ‘looped needle-netting’ cited by Hansen. However, Hald’s introductory definition includes the Danish term exactly as it appeared in the earlier edition:

“…a special sewing technique known as ‘looped needle-netting’, naalebinding…”

The captions to the photographs in the English edition are bilingual, using nålebinding throughout. (The Danish letter å is also written as aa, and the generally preferred representation changed from the latter to the former between the two publication dates.)

Märta Brodén was Swedish and published her book titled Nålbindning in 1973. A Danish translation appeared three years later with the title Nålbinding. Neither of these is the word Hansen ascribed to her. It is difficult to understand why he didn’t directly credit Hald’s far earlier use of precisely the term he recommended unless he was unaware of her initial Danish publications (which would be peculiar enough).

Hansen’s paper further cites the work of the Norwegian Odd Nordland, whose Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting from 1961 also discusses Hald’s terminology (and presents yet another classification system):

“…a technique which Margrethe Hald calls by its Danish term ‘nålebinding’ ‘needle-binding’…”

Additionally, Brodén was not the first to use the explicit Swedish word nålbindning (disregarding the conjugated forms already noted). A review of Nordland’s book, published in 1963 by Inga Wintzell begins:

“Nålning [lit. ‘needling’] or nålbindning is a textile technique that has been of great interest both from the perspective of textile research and more generally oriented research into cultural history.”

Wintzell then criticizes Nordland for translating (her preferred term) nålning as ‘knotless netting,’ stating that the English term introduced by Margrethe Hald — “needle binding” — would have been less prone to misunderstanding. It clearly designates both the tool and the technique, whereas knotless netting designates neither. However, Wintzell does not indicate the context in which Hald used the term ‘needle binding.’ (Its appearance in the snippet of Norland’s text quoted above would otherwise seem to be his own translation of Hald’s Danish term, but he and Wintzell may both have been referring to a source that I simply haven’t located.)

The standard reference work on Swedish handcraft, Hemslöjd, was published in 1968 by Anna-Maja Nylén. It includes a section headed Nålbindning, which says the term was one of several regional names traditionally given to the craft, including nåla and sömma. (The 1976 English translation of her book, Swedish Handcraft, calls it ‘needle looping’ and places nålbindning on a list of “different local terms.”)

Regardless of how it is spelled in the Scandivanian languages — nålbindning in Swedish, nålebinding or nålbinding in Danish and Norwegian — the anglicized form that transforms ‘nål’ to ‘nal’ has become firmly entrenched. In fact, ‘nalbinding’ was on the path toward common use by the time of Hansen’s presentation.

An unpublished doctoral dissertation from 1981 by Helen M. Bennett titled The Origins and Development of the Scottish Hand-Knitting Industry includes a review of the history and development of the earlier technique. This only appeared in typescript produced on a typewriter did not have an å. The rings were drawn in by hand at many points where they were needed. This did not include the pivotal list of Scandinavian designations, which thus became:

“…nalbinding (Norwegian), nalebinding (Danish), nalning or vantsöm (Swedish).”

Bennett then comments on the array of generic English designations that had previously been put forward and concludes:

“None of these names has proved entirely satisfactory and, in the absence of international agreement, the use of the established Nordic term — of which I shall use the Norwegian form — seems preferable.”

She applies the correct native orthography in the very next sentence:

“The history of nålbinding has been particularly well documented in Scandinavia…”

Richard Rutt acknowledged and adopted Bennett’s approach in his A History of Hand Knitting, published in 1987 (the same year as Hansen’s presentation). However, he either failed to note the typographic inconsistency or found the unintentionally simplified form to be convenient. His own discussion of “nalbinding” installed what began as a proofreader’s oversight, into the core literature of the history of knitting.

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