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 (needle binding) 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.

History · Nalbinding · Nålbindning · Techniques

Nalbound mittens in 1917

The 1917 volume of the Swedish periodical Fataburen includes an article by Maria Collin titled Sydda vantar. This literally means ‘stitched mittens’ and is an inversion of the term vantsöm (mitten stitch) seen in preceding posts. She discusses alternate designations at length, including a dialectal reference to a mitten that was “bound with a needle or needlebound” (bunnen med nål eller nålbönnen).

The article was a watershed both for research into regional forms of nalbinding and the practical description of the underlying technique. Mittens provide the point of entry into the discussion but it extends to other items that were traditionally nalbound. Collin’s approach to relaying information provided by tradition-bearing practitioners and then turning it into illustrated instructions, has been applied by almost all subsequent writers on the subject in Sweden.

Collin begins by reporting the first time she saw nalbound mittens, shown to her in Värmland as an example of a characteristic old craft of that province. (She was born in 1864 but does not say when the encounter took place.) She asked how the mittens were made and was told:

“They are called needled [nålade] mittens and it is old women who make them. They sew them on their thumbs but do not want to teach the art.”

Collin got no further in obtaining the desired information until a regional handicraft exhibition in Uppsala, in December 1915. Many exhibitors displayed what the catalog listed as stitched mittens (sömvantar or sömmade vantar), and she was taught how to make them. Despite the way the mittens were named in the catalog, she said that the makers spoke about them as påtade (a term that lacks a direct English equivalent, explained below). That word also appears in the introduction to the catalog with the parenthetical clarification that the designated technique is also called stitching, in precisely the same sense as in the title of Collin’s article.

The word påta (which may be a cognate of the English ‘putter’) has otherwise been broadly applied to various crafts over time. In the context of mitten making in 1915 it would normally be taken to designate slip-stitch crochet made on a flat hook. (It retains that meaning but is also frequently applied to making i-cord on a small knitting dolly.) In fact, the catalog lists a number of påtade mittens, raising an interesting question about whether they were sömmade and the name was simply not normalized, or if some were slip-stitch crocheted on a flat hook notwithstanding the introductory remark.

In the next post, I’ll provide more information about the overlap in the use of påta to name the structurally and technically different crafts of nalbinding and slip-stitch crochet.

History · Nalbinding · Nålbindning

Nalbinding: derivation and description

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 is 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 Nordic 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 on a few important points of fact (nor was Hansen the first to make it). The most glaring in the present discussion is a failure to acknowledge Hald’s prior use of the word naalebinding. She included it in a Swedish article about a mitten published in 1945 and again the following year in the Danish journal Acta Archaeologica, in an English language article comparing early Egyptian and Scandinavian textile techniques.

“…there is a rather special sewing technique which in Scandinavia is usually spoken of under the name of ‘Naalebinding.’”

Hald uses the term yet 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, in which the term appears in the form cited by Hansen.

“‘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, especially in light of her use of naalebinding in the English article from 1946, but vantsöm (lit. mitten stitch) was a common designation at the time. 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. The 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 officially 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 inflected forms already noted). A review (in Swedish) 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.” She also states that the English term introduced by Margrethe Hald — “needle binding” — would have been less prone to misunderstanding as 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 Nordland’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 haven’t located.

It is also worth noting that the term knotless netting first appeared in late-19th-century German texts to designate a fabric structure seen in archaeologically recovered Egyptian head coverings before the associated craft was recognized as sprang. This is a major topic in Hald’s article from 1946.

The standard reference work on Swedish handicraft, 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. 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. It is a typescript produced on a typewriter that did not have an å. The rings were drawn in above the base letter by hand at many points where they were needed but several were overlooked. These 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. It has, however, yet to be universally accepted in scholarly publication about the eponymous craft, where the alternatives noted above and others still appear.

In colloquial usage within the reenactment and craft communities the term nalbinding has led to the coinage “nal” as a designation for what is believed to be a characteristic form of needle used in historical practice. This is despite much extant nalbound fabric having far finer-gauged stitching than can possibly be produced with the imagined archetypal nal. (If nothing else, this gainsays the notion of a single type of needle having a characteristic association with the craft.)

Where the native orthography is the starting point, the first component of the form used by Hald — nålebinding — is often shifted to “nale” and then “nail.” The latter part of the compound designation has similarly spawned the participle “binded” as a replacement for “bound” despite a complete lack of grammatical warrant or need. This has led to a by no means uncommon discussion of “nail binded” objects, which is not reasonably a borrowed representation of the original term. Both binding and binded are also frequently pronounced with a short i, as in “tint,” further distancing the word from recognizability.

Given the total absence of lexicographic rigor in the genesis of the anglicized nalbinding and its widespread corruption, it can reasonably be suggested that “needlebinding,” “needle-binding, ” or the fully assimilated “needle binding” (cf. needle knitting, needle lace, loom knitting, etc.) might have been preferable alternatives. In a publication venue with a strong Scandinavian language identity it might even be justified to retain the native nålebinding (or nålbinding or nålbindning) as an italicized term in text otherwise presented in English.