HOW nalbinding from Scandinavia rose to glory and laid the foundations for today’s handicraft techniques

HOW nalbinding from Scandinavia rose to glory and laid the foundations for today’s handicraft techniques

NordenBladet – Handicraft is no longer considered just a grandmother’s hobby. Among fashion gourmands, knitted, crocheted and embroidered items are highly priced, from sweaters to mittens. Also at fashion weeks you can see more and more knitted, embroidered and crocheted fashion.

If we talk about the history of knitting, we should start with needle weaving or nålbinding*. Nalbinding is an ancient yarn technique. Today, people often associate it with the Vikings and Scandinavia, and in Finland it is considered a special feature of Eastern Finland, although nalbinding has been used in other parts of the world aswell.

However, it is true that a rich selection of words related to needle binding come from Finland: neulakinnastekniikka (nalbound mitten technique), kinnasneula (nalbinding needle), Karelian nieglomus (item made using nalbinding technique), etc. The oldest surviving nalbound item dates from Israel from around 6500 BC. Some fragments also come from Denmark and China. The dead buried in the Tarim River basin found in China about 1000 years ago were wearing nalbound clothes. Later, this type of handicraft spread all over the world: to Peru, Egypt, England and elsewhere. Today, nalbinding is still practiced among the Pemon Indians of Venezuela.

As it was not customary in Finland to burn the dead in ancient times, and the ground there does not preserve textiles well, the first nalbound items date back to around the first millennium BC: mitten fragments from Eura, Mask, Köyliö and Kekomäki, and two different mittens, from Tuukkala, reports However, the second oldest mittens have survived from the 19th century. In Joutseno, couples wishing to marry had to pay in cash or in nalbound mittens, whereas mittens knitted with needles were not accepted. The reason may be that it is almost impossible to undo the stitches of a nalbound item. Women, and even men, made not only grey work mittens, but also white party mittens, decorated with red and green loops, fringes (in western Finland) and yarn pendants (in eastern Finland), which were customary to give as a thank-you note. Black-and-white mittens or mittens with round decorations were considered Sunday mittens. The jouhikas or fishermen’s work mittens were made from strong animal hair, and in West Karelia men had to make mittens themselves.


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At the end of the 19th century, it was assumed in Parikkala that a well-equipped household would have 20 pairs of nalbound socks and mittens. The needles were kept very well and passed on. Items knit in this technique were mostly not sold (everyone could make them), but there were exceptions. At the beginning of the 20th century, the imaginary border of nalbinding tradition went through Sipoo, Tampere and Kokkola: the technique was known to the east of the imaginary border, whereas the Åland Islands were the only point of reference for nalbinding in the west. The imaginary border kept moving eastwards and during the Second World War such mittens were already known as Karelian mittens. Although knitting and crocheting became increasingly popular and the skill of nalbinding began to be forgotten, the needle binding technique was still very popular until the 1950s. Later, however, the two aforementioned techniques took over the Finnish handicraft world, and nalbound mittens were worn by forest workers and reindeer herders alone, who soon began to prefer waterproof mittens bought from shops.

According to the data of the Estonian Sheep Conservation and Breeding Society, the oldest nalbound textile fragments in Estonia date from the 12th to the 13th century. Although over time the technique was forgotten, mittens of this kind still retained their place in wedding rituals. The fragments of the needle binding technique found in Estonian burial sites are mostly spun from coarse yarn, but there is one big difference with Finland: while Estonian mitten fragments have strong aging marks and nalbound mittens were commonly known as felts or felt mittens, a survey conducted in Finland in 1957 revealed that almost no one felted the mittens. Of course, it can be that mittens were turned into felt also in Finland hundreds and hundreds of years ago, simply not being the case anymore. About a dozen nalbound mittens from the 18th and 19th centuries have been stored in Estonia. When you type in keywords “nõelkinnas” (nalbound mitten) and “nõelkindad” (nalbound mittens) in the Estonian museum database MUIS, you will find more modest items than those of our northern neighbours, but in several pairs you can notice colourful wrist parts and the beginning of the Finnish style. Today, interest in nalbinding has started to grow again in Estonia, Finland and elsewhere. Courses and trainings are offered (see, for example, bone processing course / needle binding course on the website or the needle binding course for beginners at Räpina Horticultural School) to keep this type of handicraft alive.

For each of the previous sections, you could witness the victory of knitting with needles over needle binding. It really was like that. There is not much information on the formation of knitting with needles. It is believed to have evolved from needle binding in Roman Egypt, where stockings and socks were made. However, places and times are difficult to identify because the exploration site does not mean that the fragment originated there and it is often difficult to date the fragments. The first knits to be dated are 13th century Spanish pillows and Egyptian socks. Richard Rutt, a researcher of the history of knitting, has argued that in the past people knitted only in circle, and although in the past it was possible to knit purl stitches for heels, they were used as decoration only from the middle of the 16th century. By the 19th century, flat knitting had become completely common. Today, knittings are produced on machines, but knitting is a widespread hobby all over the world and an important part of almost every culture. There are hundreds of variations in knitting techniques and they vary from region to region. For example, Haapsalu lace and specific types of kiri mittens and chains come from Estonia. In recent years, thousands of different knittings have become fashionable, which has also inspired enthusiasts.

Crocheting is significantly younger than the previous two techniques. It was not until the 16th century that the technique developed as we know it today. There are three theories about the origins of crocheting: its emergence in Arabia and its spread along trade routes, its development among the South American tribes (rite-related crafts) or its emergence in China (the origin of ancient crocheted dolls). However, you can be quite sure of the fact that this type of handicraft evolved from the tambour embroidery technique and spread in Europe in the 19th century as a way of making lace, helping the Irish to survive the famine. Gradually, crocheting also reached Estonia (for making the wrist part of mittens; bags and blanket edges) and became less elaborate over the decades. Today, in addition to knitting, crocheting is one of the most common handicraft techniques in the world, and there are also huge regional variations. For example, Dolce & Gabbana, Rodarte, OHMYGOSSIP Couture, Moschino, Versace and Chanel have used crochet in their collections.

All these handicraft techniques have a long history, but they have reached the modern day and even the catwalk. Let us not consider them obsolete, but admire their beauty and take them up without letting them be forgotten.

* Nålbinding is a handicraft technique in which textile objects (especially mittens and socks, but also hats, sweaters, etc.) are made of yarn by forming loops and intertwining them with the help of a needle with a single bone or wooden blunt end.

Nalbinding is a likely precursor to loop knitting and crocheting.

The nalbinding technique also allows the use of shorter pieces of yarn and therefore does not require complex spinning technologies.

Probably the nalbinding technique was already known in the Stone Age. In Estonia, the first archaeological finds in the nalbinding technique with remains of objects from the 12th–13th century. From the 17th century onwards, knitting with needles spread in Estonia and the nalbinding technique was forgotten over time, but nalbound mittens made in this way sometimes remained a ritual object in wedding customs. In recent years, those interested in history and handicraft have begun to revive the nalbinding technique.

Photo: Pexels

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