It started like this.
Every year, I meant to get on the Nalbinding For Beginners workshop, run by the York Archaeological Society at the VikingFest. Every year, it sold out before I could get on it. But, I noticed a few years back, the course for Advanced Nalbinders didn’t sell out. So, a few years back, I reserved a place on it with only a few weeks to go, thinking:
“I’ll teach myself the basics, then go on the second course. How hard can it be?” Well, I discovered, nalbinding is pretty hard to teach yourself. I’ve never had a problem picking up new knitting techniques from video tutorials, and I found some excellent nalbinding tutorials on YouTube. But, pause and rewind as I might, I couldn’t get the hang of it. Just couldn’t. So, in the end, I gave in and didn’t go to the course booked. It’s inexpensive so not such a loss of money but still, really disappointing as I’d so wanted to learn this from the inspirational Mari Wickerts of Gothenburg Museum, who teaches every year during the Jorvik Festival.
Each year, I’d have another go at teaching myself. Each year, I’d fail. I had watched living history folk nalbinding, and they’d patiently answered all my questions and I’d think “When I get home, I should be able to do this, this time!” But no. Failed every time. Some things about nalbinding are counteriuntuitive for knitters, I have to say. And I alternated between over-thinking it, and not thinking enough about the right things…
This year – same old, same old. January comes around and I realise I forgot to book a place on the now sold out Beginners’ course. This year, like an idiot, I gave myself a massive task: I booked myself again onto the second course. I had 13 days to teach myself to do something I’d utterly failed at several times.
I decided to buy one book, and luckily for me, stumbled on Ulrike Classen-Büttner’s Nalbinding – What In The World Is That?
Using it in conjunction with Samato09’s Neulakintaat YouTube channel, I managed, over those 13 days, to just about learn to nalbind. I found Ulrike’s book filled in the gaps for me and I was also mesmerised by her account of the history of this craft; a precursor to knitting. Help and support can also be found on the Facebook nalbinding groups, and the Ravelry group Nalbinders of Ravelry.
I already had several bone needles, bought hopefully by husband at re-enactors’ fairs, as he had long hoped I’d learn how to make him a nalbinded hat/mitts for work. But as the days progressed, I realised none of my needles were quite right for me. And making my own was a craft too far, right now. Darning needles work well – especially for thinner yarns, but it is easier to learn, and develop some consistency, with thicker yarns at the start.
I wanted a needle about 9cm long; flat in profile, light and comfortable, and pointier rather than blunt – but not too pointy. Which reminded me of another peril of learning a new craft – you have to start with tools that you may have selected before you had even done the craft. And personal preferences are key, I think. Especially when it comes to needles and having consistent tension. Via one of the Facebook groups, I had seen beautiful needles made in Tranby, Norway, by William Solberg – and gathered he’d make them precisely to your specs. So, with a mighty couple of weeks’ experience but now firmly knowing what kind of needle I’d like, I bought an antler (reindeer?) and one of Mr. Solberg’s special ‘parrot wood’ (dyed birch?) needles – requesting one of a certain length and with two eyes, and these suit me much better than the needles I started out with:
Only two pieces of nalbinding are extant in the UK. One, a ‘sock’ (more like a slipper) from Viking York, down the road. The other, apparently, an eighteenth century baby bootee which is in the National Museum of Antiquities in Scotland. I haven’t been able to find a photo of this or any information about it yet. The jury is out about the eighteenth century piece til I can see it, but the Coppergate sock can be seen at the Jorvik Centre, and is made from a stitch unknown elsewhere in the world – so is called ‘York’ stitch. It appears to have been undyed white/cream wool with a narrow madder dyed edging and was found in a corner of one of the collapsed houses, at Coppergate.
I also intend to be running some workshops and one to one teaching over the summer – spinning, maybe dyeing, certainly traditional knitting. And when I trained to be a teacher all those years ago, we were told that it is wise to be a learner yourself. Every now and then pick a new to you skill and try and learn it. Whilst you learn it, take note on all the things you struggle with, or find difficult, or those things that get in your way. It makes a better teacher if you can revisit how it feels to be an absolute beginner, every now and then.
The day I knew I’d passed my PGCE and we officially got QTS (Qualified Teacher Status), I remember our course leader finally addressed us all as ‘colleague’. It was profoundly important, in the profession, and only someone who was qualified could ever be called ‘colleague’ by another teacher. People can be gifted natural teachers but that is rare. You have to learn how people learn as well as knowing how to do the thing you’re trying to teach. And you have to walk a mile in your students’ shoes, as well.
As I’ve been learning to nalbind, I’ve also been taking mental note of the process of learning itself. Long forgotten insecurities surfaced, like: If I ask this question in front of other people – will I look stupid? Why am I doing (certain steps of the process)?
At the start, I set myself a number of finite goals, all of which I wanted to reach, if I was going to do the Nalbinding Advanced course (which was, as it turned out, essentially Intermediate, anyway).
The goals were:
1. Learn Oslo stitch. (One of the simplest to learn). Basically, just figure out how to make a chain, and start, this stitch, like a crochet foundation chain.
2. Practice that one stitch until it is vaguely neat. Tension is an issue when learning, as for knitting!
3. Learn a second stitch. I didn’t know how many of the literally hundreds of possibilities, the other workshop attendees might have. As it turned out, some had been going more than a year, or years, with just one, so I needn’t have worried! By the end of my 13 days I could do Oslo, York, Korgen and Mammen stitch. Korgen was my most reliable.
4. Learn the first two connection stitches (known as F1 and F2). Although I spent some brief time with the F2 connection, where you pick up two connecting stitches, (Mammen), I spent 98% of my time mastering F1. It was into the second week before I even truly understood what a connection stitch was! At first, I thought it was the initial stitch when joining in the round, the first round to the second. It slowly dawned on me that you do a connection stitch every stitch you work, once beyond the initial chain/circle.
5. Learn how to start off in the round. This was hard! Learning to do a foundation chain first meant I had to ake my first hats from the brim (bottom) upwards. But it is easier to shape, and more typical of historical nalbinded artefacts, to start from the top down. I didn’t have this learning to work from a circle, in my original bucket list, but also managed to achieve this before Day 14. For a while, joining then starting the second round was hgely difficult for some reason, so I hit on the idea of joining it any old way just to get going, then switchcing colour for the second round, so I could figure out visually, what stitches were where. I quickly figured out to improvise over stumbling blocks, then go back and fill in the blanks in my knowledge, later. It was a good strategy.
It wasn’t till Day 6 that I could join in the round reliably. I just persevered. I had to get it, this time.
6. Learn to increase. (This was easy. Two stitches into one stitch from previous round).
7. Learn to decrease. (Again, easy. I’d allowed myself a day to master this but it took a few minutes).
To these I quickly added: Learn a start I can remember! It was one thing doing them with videos in front of me; quite another trying to do them without. I also wrote in my notes:
And by end of the crash course:
Make at least one small thing that is vaguely recognisable as nalbinding!
I wasn’t going to refine it much in 13 days but just needed to get the basics down.
In my notes to self, I wrote:
“Lots of ‘penny drops’ moments, but really just persisting. ”
Practice and more practice was the only thing that worked. When you have been practising a craft like knitting all your life, you have put in the hours long since, to make everything effortless. Learning a new craft, it is back to the start, which is kind of cool.
I figured that if I could do the handful of things I’d decided on, vaguely reliably, then I might be able to busk it and do the course. By the end of the 13 days, I had it so I only had one loop on the thumb, and was working confidently with everything else behind. I thought it was still a bit of a risk but went to the course, anyway.
On the day when asked how long I’d been nalbinding, I kept it vague, as I didn’t want to say “This is Day 14!” so just said something like “Only a short while!”
Now anyone who has ever taught workshops that are not for beginners in a certain thing, knows that although you can put out ahead of time provisos like: “Only suitable for people who can already knit in the round!” you will, inevitably, have at least one person turn up who, despite the ads, leaflets and emails, admits “I can’t actually knit in the round yet!” or “I tried but it was about ten years ago and...” It happens pretty well constantly. You end up trying not to spend the entire session getting that one person to the point they can participate at all – at the expense of the others in the room, who came already with the requisite skill level to benefit from the course. I didn’t want to be that person.
Yet at the same time, I wanted to be able to nalbind and in the round and was prepared to just sit there and busk it, if necessary, just to get the benefit of an interesting workshop and OK, if I couldn’t do something, at least I’d have seen it done and could go away and figure it. As it happened, I was able (just about) to keep up. I think a couple of the attendees had only learned the day before, at the Beginners’ class, so, technically, I had 13 times the experience of them!
On the day, I felt like the dumbest person in the room but regardless, I learned a new way to start off from a circle – a method I haven’t seen anywhere online, on blogs or on YouTube. Although I have for now reverted to starting with a slip knot and some backwards loops cast on to the nalbinding needle, as per knitting, then pulling the yarn through the loops, which works for me. I saw some interesting pictures of artefacts and learned much more about nalbinding in an Anglo-Scandinavian context, which is precisely what I was hoping to learn. And – over a month on – I can nalbind! I do it as a break from writing and knitting. It’s great fun as you work without patterns and I can see if I did this forever there would always be plenty of new things to learn.
We hope to be teaching a real, basic nalbinding how to, (or several) over the summer in one of the viking houses at the museum, if possible. Just the absolute how to get from not nalbinding at all, to doing a basic stitch. Mari is keen to keep the craft alive and hopes her students teach as many people to nalbind as possible, and hopefully we can do that. Will keep yous posted.