Knitting · Nalbinding · Nålbindning · Terminology

All binding is not nalbinding

I’ve gotten myself fairly well bogged down (blogged down?) in Scandinavian etymology while examining the origin of the term nalbinding (starting here). This is also a recurring topic in the current craft literature. However, one of the conclusions sometimes reached there is incorrect. The appearance of the word ‘binding’ (or one of the many variant or inflected forms of its parent verb) in a Danish, Norwegian, or Swedish document without contextual information beyond a general association with yarncraft, cannot automatically be taken as a reference to nalbinding. The tool-based compound form nålebinding (needlebinding) has that connotation by definition, but a garment-specific one such as strømpebinding (stocking binding) does not, nor does the word binding on its own.

A Swedish travel chronicle from 1730 (presented in an earlier post) makes a clear dichotomy between knitting and binding. The first is the craft still known by that name and the second is now commonly termed nalbinding. The same post notes a dialect dictionary from 1766 that more ambiguously defines ‘to bind stockings’ (binna strumpor) as ‘to knit stockings’ (sticka strumpor). Since the purpose of that dictionary was to present regional usage to a distant readership, it is possible that a less widely known craft was defined in terms of a more familiar one without signifying the lack of a substantive difference between them.

In 1773, Anders Gustaf Barchaeus wrote a report about agricultural activity in the Swedish province of Halland from an economic perspective. One of the endeavors he discusses is “strumpe-bindning,” both for household use and for sale in nearby cities. He describes knitting needles as the tools of that trade, so there is no doubt that it was knitting rather than nalbinding, and uses the terms knitting (stickning) and binding (bindning) with equal frequency as interchangeable designations for it. This is illustrated in a section from his text on stocking production in and around the city of Laholm. (I use the term knitting consistently in the translation and indicate Barchaeus’s own choice in square brackets.)

“Wool stockings are knit [stickas] prolifically in this city; mostly women’s stockings with decorative gussets. This occupies everyone who has nothing else to do. Men’s stockings are knit [bindas] primarily in six parishes in the surrounding countryside…in others to a lesser extent. It is worth noting how intensively they knit [binda] both while underway and indoors, even where they have come as guests. One stocking is knit [bindes] per day by children aged 6 or 7 as well as elderly women. What counts against them is that they are not worked firmly and strong. The knitting needles [strumpstickorna] are heavy and the knitting [stickningen] in the stocking is as loose and open as a sack. This is believed to be a result of their being knit [sticka] mostly for sale to residents of the cities, who give them wool and soap for fulling, and pay 8 to 10 öre per pair.”

The chronicle then indicates the extent of this industry by naming a single urban client who provided wool for 10,000 pairs of such stockings annually, which he then sold to the Admiralty for twice what he paid for them.

The same synonymous relationship between knitting and binding is still recorded in larger Scandinavian dictionaries, albeit with the latter term generally presented as an obsolete or dialectal designation. A book on home and industrial knitting in Denmark was published in 1947 by H. P. Hansen with the title Spind och Bind — literally “Spin and Bind.” He also alternates between the terms binding and knitting, although it is not clear if he regards them as equivalent in all senses. However, he does use binding preferentially in several contexts, including the manufacture of stockings.

The first explicit use of the term nålebinding was in a Danish publication from 1945. Its author, Margrethe Hald, is certain to have been familiar with the strømpebinding described by H. P. Hansen but apparently saw no particular risk of confusion between the separate crafts of ‘needlebinding’ and ‘stocking binding.’ In contrast, Swedish researchers immediately after Hald appear to have dealt with the potential ambiguity by avoiding the term ‘binding’ altogether. They label needlebound fabric by association with mittens, which were commonly produced in that manner, preferentially using the term ‘mitten stitch’ (vantsöm) for what was nonetheless ultimately termed nalbinding.

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