It’s All In The Thumbs
Nalbinding (also known as needle looping, needle binding, or knotless netting) is a method of creating a stretchy textile using short lengths of yarn and a single-eyed needle. Fabric is formed by looping the yarn around one’s thumb and then through at least two previously created loops, and the previous row, thus gradually building up a mesh of loops. Gauge depends on the size of yarn and of the individual nalbinder’s thumb. When the end of the yarn is reached, a new piece is felted onto the end, and the process continues.
The only tool needed, besides a thumb, is a needle. Traditionally, these were carved from bone or wood. They are broad at the eye end, and tend to have a stubby point. The shape of the point is actually crucial since you are jamming it, over and over, into your thumb. The yarn must, of course, be wool, as only this material is capable of being felted together, and knots are not allowed.
Nalbinding, as a technique, actually predates both knitting and crochet, by at least 2000 years. Ancient samples are notorious for their misidentification, as knitting, by archaeologists and hopeful textile historians. Fragments of fabric, with the appearance of knitting, excavated from third century sites, in the Middle East, actually turned out to be nalbinding. Additionally, samples of toed anklet socks from fifth and sixth century AD Egypt are also examples of nalbinding, previously misidentified as knitting.
Nalbinding, as a practical needle craft, survived longest in Scandinavia before being supplanted by easier-to-produce knitting. Nalbinding is still regarded as the superior craft, because it requires more skill, and the fabric created is thicker and warmer. Once felted, it creates a waterproof fabric that will protect the wearer during the nastiest blizzard.
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