antique textiles Boreray Knitting nalbinding Textile Arts

Trawling For Red Herrings

Credit: Wikipedia. This photo was taken as part of ‘Britain Loves Wikipedia’ in February 2010 by David Jackson.

“Textile historians often find it difficult to tell whether early knitted objects are made using a single needle, as here, or using more than one needle, as the finished articles are so similar in appearance.” [From the holy writ, source of all sources ™, Wikipedia, text to the image shown left].

Just back from the British Museum and London, I am enjoying reading about nalbinding, at the moment. We have just acquired some Boreray and Ouessant fleece – some of which may well end up nalbinded for the “professional Viking” in the family. Husband works as an historical interpreter so wears Viking clothes to work!

I have only learned to nalbind this year and consider my efforts too embarrassingly bad to photograph. So the image of contemporary nalbinding below, is the work of Karen Carlson, an experienced and accomplished nalbinder whose work shows you what it should look like.

Nalbinding has been seen as some as a forerunner to knitting. But it owes more to sewing, as a technique. You use a single needle, with yarn threaded through an eye and short lengths of yarn, to build a 3D structure from loops, as you go – hat, glove, sock, bag, or whatever.  If you look at this video, re. Coptic stitch in nalbinding, you will see how closely it resembles knitting. It would be easy to confuse with knitting.

Even museums can mislabel nalbinding and, confusingly, some museum descriptions use ‘knitting’ or ‘sewing’ or ‘nalbinding’ in the same breath.  Nalbinders know nalbinding when they see it, however. Consider these nalbinded socks at the British Museum  (I was there earlier this week but didn’t see these – so much to see!) Also a fragment from down the road from me, at Coppergate:

Coptic sock 1

Coptic sock 2

Coppergate (York) sock

These have that characteristic-of-nalbinding ridge before the instep (after heel is turned).   You don’t really see that in a knitted sock.

Knitted socks have no instep ridge.
Knitted socks have no instep ridge.

Click on ‘object details’ and you will see the description of them as being ‘naalebinding’ although the initial, general description has the word ‘knitted’. Nalbinders on Ravelry have already reproduced similar socks, in case there is any doubt that stitch that looks knitted, is in fact nalbinding.   Nalbinders turn heels in whatever way seems good to them, so there are no hard-and-fast “recipes” for nalbinding.

I know how nalbinding is done, as I have learned to do it. I wouldn’t normally feel I was qualified to write much about something – even if I can do it – if I can’t yet do it well.

So it was fascinating to read a blog full of half-arsed opinions about nalbinding, from a person who cannot physically do it and confuses coptic stitch nalbinded items with knitted ones. Knitting historians have not always been knitters themselves – and dilettante bloggers may well be average knitters/spinners but not historians (or, apparently, attended universities where they were trained to think rigorously).

Some museums have mislabelled textiles in the past. No big deal. Museums have also attracted experts with phenomenal knowledge, in the past, such as Grace Crowfoot.

I deal with curators frequently – they are people with formidable levels of knowledge and ability. I suspect the bitchiness about them “getting it wrong” can only come from someone who wants to write online about textiles, yet does not inhabit that world, or know any of the deeply impressive people whose world it is. Sure, people can get it wrong. But generally – they don’t.

Firstly, let’s deal with the assertion that the V & A don’t understand their own collection (as well as our amateur, non nalbinding hero). We’re talking here about these ‘Coptic’ socks, familiar to anyone who knows a smattering of textile history.  Our intrepid hero would have us believe that the V & A has mislabelled them as nalbound, when they are knitted.  Yet they resemble the other nalbound ‘coptic’ socks in other collections. And presumably,  whoever assessed them – was an expert. And (this is where our hero may have to go and fan his red face as he realises what an embarrassing faux pas he has committed) possibly they have even handled the items. And looked inside.

In fact this statement comes from someone who wants to posture as an ‘expert’, but has only seen historic textiles as a tourist peering through a glass case. I’ve considerable experience of physically handling old textiles “behind the scenes”, having been privileged enough to have been allowed to do this at various museums, in the past few years. This does not make me an expert – just someone with a growing body of experience. I’d hesitate to opine about crafts I can’t even do.  Hell… I’m hesitating to opine about nalbinding even though I can do it!

Whoever examined these socks, would have done exactly what I do when I handle textiles – look at the inside/underside/wrong side.  You would see it was nalbinding pretty quickly, I’m guessing, by looking at the inside of the item – nalbound socks would have lots of joins which may be apparent or less so, depending on the experience level of the person doing the looking.

The first thing I do is look inside an artefact, if I can. You can tell far more about how something was made by looking at the bits that people who create museum displays/photograph artefacts for books, don’t want you to see. For example, with knitted items you are looking for the start of a round; you may be more interested in the holes/repairs and subsequent history of the thing as with a lot of 19thC knitting, a broken stitch tells me far more than a perfect stitch (using a needle gauge where there has been a break with an intact stitch below, I can find out the size of needles used, for example).  Finding the maker’s “mistakes” is very informative about how something was constructed.  A tourist will marvel at the item behind a display case. I will pick it up and look at the backside (so to speak!) The bits the curator thinks you don’t need to see…  Anyone who tells you old knitting was ‘swaved on pricks’ (pardon my French) by the Most Wonderful Knitterz In The World has not seen a single extant piece of professional knitting from 18thC/19thC England, is all I’m saying as they often abound in mistakes and errors and glorious problems that may not be immediately apparent from Wikipedia, or your average shot you can find of an artefact online.

I’ll give you an example. There is a very well known pair of 19thC gloves that survives at a museum in the UK. They were donated in the early 20thC and have been on display permanently, since then. The pair is displayed with one glove placed prominently above the other. The reason being, at some point, someone unpicked an entire finger, so one of the gloves bizarrely only has 3 fingers.  But that point at which the fourth was frogged and then left on a thread, tells a knitter so much about how that glove was made… you can get a clear view of the handspun yarn and see its precise grist; you can get a needle gauge and figure out the size needles used; you can see inside the glove which is rather fragile and could never be turned inside out…  In the display case, the gloves look pristine and none of this is apparent. Museums are becoming more aware of people being interested in the workings, and how things are made, and the ‘Fashion in Detail’ series of books have also cottoned on to this concept – that we want to see close-up construction details, so there are an increasing number of museums who will display textiles ‘wrong-side’ up. But that blog post is clearly the result of someone who is not a rigorous thinker, or experienced textile historian. Which of course wouldn’t matter, if they weren’t trying to sell you something, and doing it with an authority that is not backed up by experience or education.

This is me knitting with a stick; handspun Wensleydale yarn.

Historically, nalbound items would be wool in Europe (cotton in Egypt, of course). And most spinners/knitters know how to splice wool so joins would be almost invisible. But they are detectable, and there – especially to the experienced hand-spinner.  (I think it might be more obvious with cotton than with wool but I have never seen or handled anything Coptic – yet).

Nalbinding can be confused with knitting – especially if it is the Coptic stitch and you are only looking at images online and you are not a nalbinder. Pretending well known nalbound objects are knitted, so you can claim that knitting sticks were around about 1300 years before they were – making them a must-have item for anyone who wants to do ‘real’ knitting – is beyond disingenuous.

Fineness is achievable in nalbinding; dependent on the grist of the yarn used and the tension of the nalbinder.

If the V & A say those socks are nalbound – they have looked inside them and can see they are nalbound. I’m back in London next month, and I am tempted to set up an appointment to go take a look, but I won’t because if I was going to spend a morning looking at a museum textile, my time is too limited to make it this one when there is something at the Museum of London I’d give my eye teeth to spend a couple of hours examining and documenting. And it is not nalbinding.

Nalbound socks do tend to have that typical ridge at the instep. Some nalbinding stitches look just like crossed (Eastern)  knitting.  Some nalbinding looks nothing like knitting too, as the extant nalbound items across Europe and elsewhere, have different stitches. Including one rare item with a stitch only found in York, I believe.

And finally, of course, even if the Coptic socks were knitted – it has no implications whatsoever for the history of knitting in Europe. None. Nada. Zilch. They are Coptic. There’s your clue. They are not English.

The first mention of knitting in England is from medieval times.  Knitting sticks  in England do not predate the 17thC. Coptic nalbinded socks were not knitted and certainly not with knitting sticks – a European (ie: different continent’s) technology from well over a thousand years later.

It seems an odd thesis; to be desperate to prove knitting existed in Europe a thousand years before it did. And knitting sticks in Egypt a thousand years before they existed at all! A nalbinded coptic sock  tells me as much about the history of English knitting, as a Mesopotamian jug would tell me about Napoleon’s foreign policy. That red coptic sock is a red herring, in other words.

Nalbinding Resources

Some brilliant how-to videos in English and Finnish: Neulakintaat

Karen Larsdatter links to resources

Phiala’s String Page – Nalbinding

Nalbinders on Ravelry Group

This is nalbinding. Credit: Karen Carlson

6 replies on “Trawling For Red Herrings”

The earliest knitted evidence in Europe is not in England, but in Spain, in the 13th c, in the form of fine colorwork pillows with Arabic script on them. Knitting originated in the middle East and migrated to Europe a few centuries later.


I’m going to Pennsic next week, and I’m going to be camping with, and taking a nalbinding class, from a young lady originally from Sweden. I’m fascinated by this technique (something I can at least partially attribute to our intrepid blogger). I might just make a pair of Coptic socks…and post ’em somewhere…


That would be brilliant. If I could get the hang of it, I’d so make a pair, too. Interesting how the focus has shifted now to “coptic knitting”. So long as the “expertise” stays in Egypt, and leaves Yorkshire alone, I’m happy! But I’m with “Gordon”, who said in the Comments, somewhere, that nalbinding deniers are the knitting equivalent of flat-earthers. It’s nalbinding – get over it!


Excellent article here. What a pity a certain someone would never pay any attention to someone who knows more than him…..


For the last two Viking Festivals in York I have enthusiastically attended Mari’s nalbinding sessions. Each time, taking photos on the way, I have been convinced that I have cracked it, only to forget it totally as soon as I get home. I just can’t figure out why my brain will not fix this technique!


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