History · Nalbinding · Structures

Nalbinding: stitch structures

Margrethe Hald’s definition of nålebinding presented in the preceding post was intended to describe older textiles of Scandinavian origin. It covers a number of stitches that are named for the location where the earliest exemplar was found, or for a person with whom the stitch is strongly associated, all with predominantly Nordic representation.

Nålebinding is quite an apt term for a craft that is so strongly associated with the Nordic countries. There has, however, been some debate about it being equally appropriate as a generic designation for forms of looping with structural characteristics that don’t conform to Hald’s definition, or appear in a diverse array of craft traditions that have no particular tie to Scandinavia.

These structures include simple looping (aka buttonhole), loop-and-twist and cross-knit looping, which are frequently regarded as part of the nalbinding repertoire without being in any way specific to it. They can, and often are, made by other means other than leading the end of the working material through the burgeoning fabric with an eyed needle.

Regardless of how they are produced, these forms of looping differ from Hald’s nålebinding in a fundamental structural regard. By her definition, a stitch made by nålebinding is worked both into one or more loops in the corresponding stitch in the preceding row, and laterally into adjacent loops in the same row. With the other forms, the connection is with the preceding row only. (This is precisely the same structural detail that distinguishes crochet from knitting.)

Cross-knit looping, in particular, has a number of properties that differ from doubly interconnected nålebinding. For example, one of the salient characteristics of the latter is that its stitches don’t unravel when the fabric is cut, or the end of the yarn is pulled backward though and unsecured stitch. However, cross-knit looping unravels just as knitting does. Cross-knit looping can also be produced in different ways, of which nålebinding is one, and knitting either with needles or on a peg loom are others. The applied technique cannot be determined by examining the basic structure of a piece of fabric and can, at best, be ascertained by the presence of secondary characteristics that are specific to a single candidate technique.

There is no reason for practitioners to regard this as problematic. The tutorial literature distinguishes between simple and compound stitches, and generally categorizes them as Hansen does, by the path the working material takes laterally through the loops and the type of interconnection with the preceding row. Comparative research, on the other hand, often requires the description of fabric structures separately from the crafts in which they appear. If for no other reason, this is to avoid the conflation of structurally similar crafts that arose independently at widely separated times and places.

This is why so many generic designations for this form of looping have been put forward in scholarly contexts: looped needle-netting, knotless netting, one-needle knitting, etc. However, there has never been any general agreement about a single preferred term. My own initial preference was the straightforward translation ‘needlebinding’ and I’ve never quite understood why it failed to gain traction. I abandoned it after a discussion with someone with expert understanding of closely related crafts who clearly had no idea what I was talking about until I starting calling it nalbinding, at which point comprehension was instant.

Irene Emery, whose book The Primary Structures of Fabrics has been regularly cited in this blog, adopted Hald’s definition for her own preferred generic term ‘interconnected looping’ (with ‘single interconnected looping’ being the closest specific match to Hald’s ‘looped needle-netting’) and then strongly criticizes one pre-existing suggestion.

“…the expression knotless netting is hard to justify because knotless netting is used as a general term for a somewhat indefinite group of structures of undefined characteristics and only remotely related to the general concept of netting.”

And then another:

“Needleknitting is one of the terms ‘coined’ to express the idea of a fabric that is not really knitting although it looks like it. The term has been widely used in English publications on Peru in spite of many objections to it… Needleknitting is a term which non-specialists find particularly misleading and confusing. It is used to designate the cross-knit structure in whatever form it occurs in Peruvian fabrics.”

Emery does not use the term nålebinding in any of its alternative spellings but parenthetically notes that looped needle-netting is called vantsöm (lit. ‘mitten stitch’) in Swedish. It is the only time she uses a foreign term to designate a looped structure. It is included in Hald’s definition, to which Emery closely adheres, but reclassified and rephrased to fit into her broader framework. This suggests that she regarded its Scandinavian aspect to be worth retaining.

The term was carried forward by Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger in her book Textiles: a Classification of Techniques, which is a frequently cited complement or alternative to Emery, especially where a purely structural perspective is insufficient. The 1994 edition includes the following category.

“Pierced interconnected looping:  As in simple pierced looping the thread is also drawn through the loop of the preceding row in the interconnected version. The more distant the loops which are interconnected, the more complex the structure becomes. These methods are known collectively as ‘Vantsöm.’”

Seiler-Baldinger then lists terms used for this by other authors, including nålebinding. Given how firmly established that term had become in the craft literature by 1994, Selier-Baldinger placing it subordinately to vantsöm seems noteworthy, although she may simply have been maintaining consistency with Emery and Hald. In any case, vantsöm figures prominently in early–20th-century Swedish writing and remains a key theme in recent descriptions of the craft’s history.

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