History · Nalbinding · Nålbindning

Nalbinding: derivation and description

In an earlier post about a Swedish looped purse made in 1693, I noted that the name given to that craft — virka — has been used over time for a number of  different crafts. It next appears in a dialect dictionary compiled during the late 1790s, in the definition of sömma, a common Swedish designation for what is now more widely known as nålbindning (lit. ‘needle binding’). Here is the original text, followed by a translation of all but the keyword (with ‘to loop’ used for virka, following prior usage presented below):

sömma — v. sö̅m (af sömm) 1. sy, sy kläder. 2. wirka på egit sätt med en stor bennål. På detta sätt wirkas eller sys af ullgarn wantar, mössor, strumpor och såckor.

sömma — v. sö̅m (from sömm) [lit. ‘seam’] 1. sew, sew clothes. 2. to loop in its own way with a large bone needle. By this means, wool yarn is looped or sewn into mittens, caps, stockings, and socks.

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 become 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 became a predominant such device.

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 but Hansen still proposed 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 result but is in error in a few important points of fact. 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 she 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 — literally ‘mitten stitch’ — was a common designation at the time and is manifest in the 1790s dictionary definition. A Swedish study from 1934, included in Hald’s 1950 bibliography, lists alternate designations for vantsöm, including nålbundna vantar — ‘needle bound mittens.’ Another Swedish text in her bibliography, from 1917 (mentioned again at the end of this post), makes a similar dialectal reference to a mitten that was “bunnen med nål eller nålbönnen” — ‘bound with a needle or needle bound.’

An expanded English translation of Hald’s book appeared in 1980 as Ancient Danish Textiles from Bogs and Burials and appears to have been the source of “the expression ‘looped needle-netting’” cited by Hansen. However, the captions to the photographs in it are bilingual and include the Danish nålebinding. (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 titled her book Nålbindning. It also appeared in a Danish translation with the title Nålbinding. Neither of these is the word ascribed to her by Hansen which he nonetheless put forward as normative. 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). His paper further cites the work of the Norwegian Odd Nordland, whose Primitive Scandinavian Textiles in Knotless Netting from 1961 also discusses Hald’s terminology:

“…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). 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 sömma). The 1976 English translation of Nylén’s book, Swedish Handcraft, calls it ‘needle looping.’ The text under that heading places nålbindning on a list of “different local terms” and there can be no doubt that the textile scientist and craft historian Nylén carefully discussed the English term with her translator, as well as the decision to use it rather than the native Swedish.

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 appears to have been in use by the time of Hansen’s presentation. Richard Rutt published A History of Hand Knitting in the same year, which discusses the historical significance and structural detail of nalbinding. He uses that term without any definition, indicating that he assumed his readers to be familiar with it.

The interest of the Swedish research community in the indigenous looping technique was triggered by a regional handcraft exhibition in Uppsala, in December 1915. Knit, crocheted, and sömmade mittens were presented side by side, with the proportional representation of each clearly recorded in the exhibition catalog. The first study making reference to that material appeared in 1917 and will be examined in a coming post.

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