Hello everyone. This month we celebrate the 1st May 2021 with a post by Emma ‘Bruni’ Boast (MA). Emma is a champion of what I think is a really exciting fibre craft, nalbinding. In this post she tells us all about this ancient craft from an archaeologist’s and heritage crafter’s perspective in ‘The never-ending explanations, interpretations and educations of a Heritage Crafter in the UK’.
Emma is an archaeologist specialising in the Viking Age and a Heritage Craft Specialist, currently promoting, safeguarding and researching the ancient fibre-craft of Nalbinding, focusing on the Viking-Age.
After 10 years working in the commercial Archaeology and Heritage Sector in York, UK, Emma has built up her own heritage craft business “Nidavellnir”. As an independent heritage crafter and researcher Emma belongs to an assortment of supporting organisations such as the Guild of Master craftsman UK, Heritage Crafts Association, Finds Research Group and Exarc Int. Recently, Emma has released a public presentation on the archaeological evidence for Nalbinding in the Viking-Age, as well as installing her own handcrafted nalbound items in a local High Street handmade shop in York.
Nalbinding – naalbinding, nalebinding, needlebinding, whichever cultural terminology you use, the general response when talking to people about it is………. “nail-biting?”. Cue, the spurting out of coffee! Doesn’t it just fill you with hope and confidence when people misread your craft specialism? But all jokes aside, there are some diligent people who are interested in Viking Archaeology and Craft History that do “get” this obscure fibre-craft. Nalbinding has mainly been kept isolated within the realms of reenactment and museum interpretation, which is why it’s so difficult to bring it out into the light of everyday crafting. Some have even accused nalbinding of being a modern anachronism within heritage interpretation, that it’s been “invented” as a re-enactorism. Well, I’m here to tell you lovely folks, it’s very much a historical craft; and I have a long tale to tell with it.
I had always been interested in historic crafts. I am the daughter of a carpenter and patternmaker, so as a child, I was always helping my Dad out in his workshop. My Grandma tried to teach me knitting when I was young as well, I always remember having frustrations learning it, but wanting to use wool to make things from. I tried to learn nalbinding myself throughout my teenage years, whilst I was studying archaeology. But I just couldn’t grasp the technique and found that the available resources were either in a different language that I couldn’t understand, or the instructions were not easily understandable. When I came up to York to study for my Masters degree in Medieval Archaeology, I met a visiting Educational Archaeologist from the Gothenburg Museum in Sweden who taught me a stitch and application that finally clicked. This was actually during York’s yearly Jorvik Viking Festival. After a while, I started to use a preferred fibre and develop my own stitch tension and shaping, using the archaeological examples as a foundation. This meant my nalbound items took on their own individual shape and style. That journey started 11 years ago and the rest, as they say, is history.
What are the three most common things I get asked about Nalbinding:
- It didn’t exist, did it?!
- Did Vikings really do that?
- How much?!
Nalbinding is an ancient fibre-craft that’s normally presented to people as a difficult, time-consuming and old skill to learn, and is frequently classed as “Viking Knitting”. Whereas in reality, Nalbinding predates both knitting and crochet as a fibre-craft and is completely different in form, structure and technique. Yes, it did exist in the past. I seem to be constantly having to justify the existence of a craft we have archaeological evidence for! What’s with that? Historically, the nalbinding technique would use a single needle, approximately 3inches in length, normally made from bone, antler or wood, as the main tool. The crafter then pulls out a length of around a meter of spun yarn, threads one end through the needle and creates a knotted loop at the other end of the yarn. A simple enough premise, you may think. However, the thing that trips people up when learning nalbinding, is thinking that they can just do one ‘technique’ or one stitch and then they’ve cracked it! If only it was that easy!
There are over 200 different cultural and historical stitches to learn from around the world. Thankfully, however, the Viking-Age archaeological material uses around 7 of the most commonly used historical stitch types, which narrows it down a little bit. These are York Stitch, Oslo Stitch, Mammen Stitch, Saltdal Stitch, Dublin Stitch, Finnish Stitches, Russian Stitches.
Many of these stitches are named after the city or excavation in which they were uncovered for example, York stitch was named after the discovery of the ‘Coppergate Sock’, during archaeological excavations undertaken in the city between 1976-81. In reality, these names just highlight a “stitch family”, which show particular traits and are helpful to use when identifying textiles of similar form and finish. But if we just stop and think about that for a moment…… the UK has one of the only surviving existing examples of Viking-Age Nalbinding and it’s in York!!! Perfectly preserved at the Jorvik Viking Centre! Go see it! So, an Anglo-Scandinavian person living in Coppergate in the Viking City of Jorvik during the 10th Century, wore out their wool nalbound sock so much, it ended being thrown away in a backyard. Incredible!
When it comes to reconstructing nalbound items, most examples can give the wrong impression of the craft because the finished textile tends to be quite open and loose in form; very akin to crochet. I’m all for people being beginners and practicing this craft, but it seems that there are many people that demonstrate nalbinding but don’t actually understand the historical application. Therefore, the public are getting a false sense of the craft right from the get-go, because the final look is not how nalbinding would have appeared in the past. This is something that was actually highlighted in 2018, when nalbinding was entered on the ‘Red List of Endangered Crafts’ with the Heritage Crafts Association in the UK. Many individuals stated they had “given-it-a-go”, but the number of actual professional nalbinders with the knowledge and expertise to either make items, teach or create resources was actually very slim.
This research also highlighted a key observation. When you encounter a nalbinder, you can tell their skill level by looking at their work, the tighter and more uniform the stitches, the more experience the nalbinder has. So, when we look back at the Coppergate Sock, from a heritage craft point-of-view, this item is made by someone who knows the craft well and has probably made many more items in this particular stitch previous to the Coppergate Sock. That’s an interesting thought, isn’t it? To look at an archaeological item from the crafter’s perspective. To start to think about what choices that individual 10th-century crafter made is fascinating. What made them choose the yarn for the sock? Did they spin and dye the yarn themselves? Did they purchase the yarn from a trader visiting the city? Was the sock nalbound whilst the crafter was sitting outside the front of their Viking home on Coppergate? Did the person learn nalbinding from a passing settler or did they see it worked by someone visiting Jorvik and try to mimic or reconstruct what they saw themselves? I find that last point particularly fascinating to think about. The Coppergate Sock could be a mimicked recreation of nalbinding, in that the crafter may have inadvertently created their own whole new stitch! It’s certainly a plausible suggestion, seeing as we have so many other stitch variants within the archaeological finds from Scandinavia, and anyone who has ever done nalbinding knows how easy it is to pick-up or miss a particular loop. This is something I think is invaluable to the archaeological study of craft culture actually; that someone who has the practical nalbinding-craft experience and expertise, can actually assess and understand the craft application of a nalbinder over 1000 years ago. How cool is that!
Value, the “how much” paradox!
Another reason I think nalbinding gets dismissed, is that it takes such a long time to make anything, because you are having to create one stitch at a time. It may take me several days to create a pair of full mittens. But as a heritage crafter I have to charge for the materials and my time, which is why nalbound items tend to be more expensive than some other fibre-craft items. If I charge my items in-line with more “modern” fibre-craft handmade items, not only am I underselling my own time, skill and paying myself under the minimum wage; but I’m doing the safeguarding of this ancient heritage craft a dis-service by not creating a standard for myself and others to strive towards. That’s one of the reasons why I joined the Guild of Master Craftsman in the UK. I want to be able to improve my own skill level over time, but also inspire and encourage/show others that they can also create nalbound items.
With all that said, there is some positive news relating to Nalbinding as a heritage craft. At the moment in the UK, the ‘handmade craft movement’ is extremely popular. People are starting to support independent crafters and value their skills and expertise. People seem to like supporting individual crafters, when they can understand their skills and back-story. It really is true that “people will buy you”, which is obviously a really unique and positive position to be in as a heritage crafter. The ‘Nalbinding for Beginners Resources’ that I’ve self-published continues to sell-out, and throughout the Pandemic I’ve made a point of learning and adapting my wider skillset to provide digital resources so that people around the world can engage with Nalbinding. It’s been a fascinating learning curve, as has building a presence on social media. It’s meant I’ve been able to engage with so many different audiences. In turn, this not only supports me as a full-time heritage crafter, but it really helps safeguard the longevity of Nalbinding for the future.
Nalbinding has a very relevant use in the present day. Yes, it can be used to show the historical application, making hats, socks and gloves that we have evidence for in the archaeological record, but some people are adapting the craft to modern uses such as making phone cases and coffee-cup covers. The important thing to remember is that both of these applications have a place and that both keep this craft alive for the future.
The next step for me? Well, with my heritage craft shop ‘Nidavellnir’, I’m aiming to bring Nalbinding to the York High Street! It’s the first time a heritage crafter has brought Nalbinding to the High Street like this in the UK, so I’m very excited to be working with the wonderful social-enterprise ‘Fabrication’ on Coney Street, York.
So when I’m wandering around the shop, rather than hearing, ‘what is that?’, what I’m now starting to see and hear is more, ‘OOOoo I love that!’, or even people starting to say, ‘Look, that’s Nalbinding!’.
So somethings working somewhere!
Thank you Emma for an interesting post that, I think, gives us a really interesting insight into how practitioners can work with researchers to tell even more detailed and exciting stories about archaeological objects; a subject after my own heart. Also, the importance of keeping ancient craft skills alive, how this can be done and how we can support.
Next month, Roisin Aiston tells us about weaving linen as part of her museum interpreter role in the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum, Northern Ireland.
Contact: If you would like to contact Emma or keep up to date with her work, please use one of the links below:
an Almost Forgotten Handicraft. On Demand Books.
Ewing, T. 2007. Viking Clothing. Tempus: London.
Finch, K. 1991. ‘Needlework Fabrics’ in Papers from “The Walrus Said”, at the MEG Meeting on Materials and Techniques. Held at the Pitt Rivers Museum on the 2nd October 1987, and Papers from the MEG Meeting at Brighton and Durham in 1988, pp.15-28. Museum Ethnographers Group. http://www.jstor.org/stable/40795033 [accessed 12/02/2020]
Fredheim, L.H. 2018. Endangerment-Driven Heritage Volunteering: Democratization or ‘Changeless Change’. International Journal of Heritage Studies. Vol.24: 619-33.
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Pasanen, M. 2019. With One Needle: How to Nålbind. ChronoCopia Publishing.
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Walton-Rogers, P. 2007. Textile Production at 16-22 Coppergate. The Archaeology of York 17/11 Fascicule. Council for British Archaeology and York Archaeological Trust: York.
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Perry, S. 2019. Enchantment of the Archaeological Record. Access Volume 22, Special Issue 3 (Digital Archaeologies). August 2019: 354-371. Cambridge University Press.
Poole, S. 2018. Ghosts in the Garden: Locative Gameplay and Historical Interpretation from Below. International Journal of Heritage Studies. Vol.24 :300-14.
Redfern, N. 2017. Archaeology. Where Next? How to Maximise Archaeology’s Benefit to Society. Paper delivered to YOHRS Seminar. University of York- 04/11/2017.
Shorin, T. 2018a. The Disbeliever’s Guide to Authenticity. http://subpixel.space/entries/the-disbelievers-guide-to-authenticity [accessed 12/02/2020]
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Tucker, H. 2016. Empathy and Tourism: Limits and Possibilities. Annals of Tourism Research. Vol.57:31-43.
Vajanto, K. 2014. Nålbinding in Prehistoric Burials – Reinterpreting Finnish 11th- 14th Century AD Textile Fragments. The Archaeological Society of Finland. http://www.sarks.fi/masf/masf2/SLT02Vajanto.pdf [accessed 12/02/2020]
Boast, E. 2020. ‘Nalbinding: Protecting an Endangered Heritage Craft’ in ReConference 2018. Papers and Summaries at the ‘Hands on History Conference’. Copenhagen, 2018. https://www.handsonhistory.no/portfolio/reconference-publication/
Boast, E. 2020. Book Review: With One Needle: How to Nålbind by Mervi Pasanen. Exarc Online Journal 2020/3. Available at: https://exarc.net/ark:88735/10515
Boast, E. 2019. Nalbinding: Protecting an Endangered Heritage Craft for the Future. Article published on Medievalist.net. https://www.medievalists.net/2019/05/nalbinding-protecting-endangered-heritage-craft/
Boast, E. 2018. Nalbinding for Beginners. Blurb Publishing.
Baillie, B., Boast, E. 2018. Frostbite: Keeping Warm in the Viking-Age. Hugin and Munin Magazine. Issue 3. https://issuu.com/davidscott59/docs/ham_03-may_2018_Ir
Pihlajapiha, S.M. 2020. Nalbinding – Nålbindning – Nålebinding.http://www.en.neulakintatt.fi/1 [accessed 12/02/2020]