Nalbinding, weaving waste and the end of thumb bondage.

I have in the last few weeks been looking into Nalbinding.  I have done some before and made a few pairs of socks for people but have always thought I was doing a pretty “non standard” version of it in my opinion.  The viking era,  living history club I am part of  has a few newbies who have asked me to teach them some basic nalbinding stitches.  I thought I better hit the books and learn “Oslo” stitch with the thumb bondage etc.  I came across a few interesting things that I don’t see replicated very much in living history circles here in Australia at least.

10th century woollen sock from Coppergate made using the nålebinding technique Copyright © York Archaeological Trust 2004
The first thing I came across was information on the importance of using natural fibres and not modern versions of fibres,  sort of a no brainer really,  vikings just did not have superwash wool or acrylic folks and acrylic dont felt or splice that well.  

The second interesting thing I came across was that the stitch size was quite often much smaller than I had seen replicated in peoples reproductions.  A good visual example of this is the above picture of the Coppergate Nalbinded sock.  Its stitches are very fine.  In the below reference they specifically point out that there were 36 rows of nalbinding in 10cms of the sock.  Pretty fine stuff.

Thirdly superthick multi-plyed wool wasn’t really a happening thing either in the viking era that I know of,  does that coppergate sock yarn look super thick and multi-plyed to you?  Happy to see some example otherwise please!

Forthly, narlbinding is made out of pieces of wool that you splice together as you go.  It never made sense to me why you would cut a piece of wool from a ball,  nalbind it and then splice another newly cut piece of wool from a ball of yarn.  That’s just rediculously counter productive…isn’t it?  Well yes….until I started dropspindle spinning and weaving cloth (more about that in a moment)

I can tell you with some authority that when you dropspindle all your yarn from scratch and you dye it with period dyes and methods,  nothing on earth is going to make you throw your cloth weaving, loom waste away. NOTHING! The labour involved you certainly appreciate.  Yarn bombing becomes the most repugnant thing on earth… 

So there I was amassing quite a collection of precious loom waste in a box and my only solution for its use was to keep it for future tapestry weaving.

As you can see there is quite a lot of fine spun, period dyed and natural coloured icelandic and spelsau wool offcuts.


Fine Nalbinding was probably made of loom waste!  Yes that’s it.  No one was cutting little strips of wool from a ball and resplicing them,  they were frugally using their weaving waste and splicing it together. It also explains some of the interesting colour usage!  Totally makes sense in my opinion.

So I started Oslo stitch with some of my period loom waste, which is fairly fine wool as you can see above.  The thumb method was giving me rediculously big holes and not really making anything that would keep head, hands or feet warm.  What is with the thumbs?  It’s quicker and works great with a fat single ply yarn but not so great for me with thin yarn.  So I decided to just use a needle and eyeball it as I went.  Freehand!  A bit more research and I find it was a perfectly legitimate way of nalbinding.

So I have started freehanding instead and I am getting okay results for eyeballing stitches with thin, dropspindled yarn. It’s not the best nalbinding in the world so far,  I need to practice more but its done with thin dropspindle spun, icelandic wool, dyed with madder and it is most likely a much more period accurate way of using up precious loom waste to make handy warm items and I am just eyeballing it as I go.

My next project will be to buy this excellent reference book which came up when ever I googled one of my questions and I have highlighted some of the helpful info that came up.  Thankyou Ulrike for your book and knowledge!

which can be found at this link.


Spindle Whorl

Opening up the letter box this morning I was surprised to find a smallish parcel from a good living history friend from Victoria, Australia.

Josh (my friend) knows just how much I like messing around with period drop spindles and spinning period wools with them and was fortunate to come across an original spindle whorl. He then thought of me and posted off the little treasure.

After initial squees of delight and marvelling at the weight of the whorl, (which Josh told me was because it was made of lead) he gave me a bit of info about the providence of the spindle whorl.

It’s apparently from Norfolk in England and was being used about 950AD. I cant get over how old this item is. White European settlement in Australia is not even anywhere as old as this little lump of lead

I want to now make a spindle for it and give it a go, spinning some fibre with it and see how well it works. Its a bit lop sided, maybe it was squashed somewhere in time or has worn away a bit. Don’t know how badly it will affect its usefulness.

How astounding that over 1000 years ago someone may have used this spindle whorl to spin wool like I am doing today.

A good tool, works no matter the time period it would seem.

Viking Age and Living History Wools in General

Getting wool from local sheep in Australia which the Vikings may have worn around 700AD onwards isn’t viable. Our breeds of sheep are very well up the evolutionary line. The first breeds of sheep documented in Australia were only arriving in the late 1700s and were Spanish Merinos and South African fat tailed sheep. To my knowledge there are none of the Swedish or Norwegian Ancient breeds here but there are some Finn sheep. (I would love to here from any sheepy people who are raising ancient breeds because I would probably want your wool ) So what was a girl into ancient vikings from Staraya Ladoga in 700AD to do?

I was pretty sure the wool was going to be a heck of a lot different from what the modern world appreciates as wool and many Aussie re-enactors and living history people and I was quite right. Below is a picture of Spelsau Wool and Merino wool after they have been washed and then after they have been combed. The Merino is the lighter, finer wool. IMG_3931.JPG


If you are serious about accurate living history you really have to think about the wools that were around at the time and I set out to look into this area which seems to have been neglected all the way down here in the Southern Hemisphere amongst those interested in this educational hobby. I don’t think people mean to, I just don’t think anyone stopped to think about the breeds of wool around in their chosen time periods. For many, wool is wool and they are unaware or unconcerned about the providence of their wools. I sat down and thought that perhaps I could do some of the leg work and some of the hard yards and even make these more accurate fibres available. I sat down to write this to introduce the subject and damn the torpedoes. I’ve got a much longer journey ahead and I would appreciate your help.


So the first ancient breed I was able to get some wool from was the Icelandic sheep. Evidently this breed has been in Iceland since the Vikings bought them there. It’s a long way from Staraya Ladoga. It’s a long way from anywhere but the creatures have not had too much chance to interbreed with other sheep breeds however they arrived much later than the 700s from what I have read. It’s an interesting hairy wool and spins very nicely on a drop spindle but wasn’t quite my period, I noticed they descended from sheep in Norway but I put that on the back-burner. I Nålebindedålebinding some socks with it and I made viking leg wraps with it which sold on ETSY as soon as I put them there. Here is a picture of them


Next I tried to get some Russian sheep wool, the type I could find was Romanov sheep and I am not really sure how long this breed has been in Russia it seems they were only noticed in the 1800s. Not helpful. Not enough info and I can only translate so much Russian Cyrillic with Google translate. Still not happy but I played around with it, spun it on a drop spindle and then woven it on my floor loom into a beautiful shawl. Which is up on ETSY for those interested.

Then I found a lady from Norway who was able to provide me with Old Norwegian Spelsauælsau and wild Norwegian sheep wool. This is another very interesting hairy wool that spins well and has long hair and wooly fibres. I spun a whole swag of that on my drop spindle and then wove a herringbone patterned shawl out of that. This one is not on ETSY its in my living history kit and comes out for exhibitions. Im rather proud of it. It is pictured here.

I really am pretty happy with this wool, but its not from Sweden, and there seems to be evidence that Vikings who were hanging out in Staraya Ladoga were most likely Swedish.

I have been patiently waiting for a Swedish contact to move house and get back to me as she knows someone who has ancient Gutefår sheep and may be able to provide me with some, that will probably be the closest wool I can get to something that may have been worn by Swedish Vikings in Staraya Ladoga around 700AD. Phew. Mad I hear you say, well just a bit :). I really want to know what the wool and the fabrics were like.

I also inadvertently came across another reason why people doing re-enacting and living history might look at their woollens more closely. If there is no demand for supply, these ancient breeds will die out. I recently purchased a DVD from a fibre lady, Debra Ronson, to supplement my interest in ancient wools. She has made a little video promoting her DVD but she pretty much sums up the importance of rare wools as passionately as I would have to say on the matter so I will let her explain it to you here.