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Nalbinding: Protecting an endangered heritage craft for the future

By Emma Boast

Nalbinding is a craft that has been done for thousands of years. This form of knitting has been shrouded in isolated corners of heritage interpretation and within living history groups; but are there other groups of interested individuals who could help learn and develop this craft? As interest in this heritage craft grows there are considerations to think about as to where this craft can find further places to thrive.

Imagine the scene, a modern day wool show and a historic nalbinder, the specialist stood in Viking clothing; nalbinded items on display. Everything is accessible and the scene is set ready to draw people in to engage with nalbinding as a heritage craft. The show opens; to begin with the atmosphere seemed filled with a sense of intrigue, people walking past with a quizzical look on their face thinking ‘what is this?’

This thought appeared to spin around the table for most of the first day, with polite smiles and glances being given. The traders and public alike seemed confused, they were interested in the setting and spectacle but there were common remarks that kept reappearing, ‘what on earth are you doing?’ people would say, someone very forcibly stating ‘wow, what is the point of you doing that?’ as they walked on by.

Fair enough questions and easily explained, but these reactions got me thinking. I purposefully wanted to see how the modern-day wool community and the general public reacted to nalbinding; and it was fascinating to experience people’s responses.  Many times over this weekend I explained the historical and archaeological applications of nale, nal or naal-binding; and had brilliant discussions with very advanced wool and fibre workers about spinning and fibre making in the past. As constructive as these discussions were people struggled to see the relevance of this craft in the modern world.

So, on the second day rather than explaining everything I sat giving demonstrations, actually creating an item in front of people and that really seemed to draw people in. People slowly started to gather around the table and you could see they were warming to the idea of this “weird craft” becoming more accessible. The ‘what on earth is that?’ turned into a ‘ah okay, so how do I do that?’ which was exactly the question I wanted people to start asking right at the beginning!

The historical knowledge, the “what and why” was certainly very important and gave authority for the context I was putting across, but it was not as important as the “how” are you doing that? I could have stood there and taught with all the information and enthusiasm in the world, but if I could not physical show them or talk them through the actual stitches then I would have failed to engage them in understanding this craft. When people “see” the action and the process taking place and then immerse themselves in the knowledge, there is more of a chance for the physical craft to be retained and shared. That, more than anything seemed to spark a fire within the modern wool crafters and public alike and that was what I was there to do, to ignite that spark and inspire them to give this heritage craft a try.

The Home of Nalbinding

Within the United Kingfdom, nalbinding has been undertaken as part of Anglo Saxon and Viking period living history displays since at least the 1970s.  These in turn have meant that those individuals who have learnt the craft in a hobby-type setting, have then taught it to people within a relatively isolated audience. The living history portrayal of this craft is also very variable; it depends very much on the individual crafter and their nalbinding skill level, as to what stitches and techniques are taught and retained. People’s teaching ability and understanding of the craft is also varied within this setting so these are aspects to be considered when starting to learn. As a way of introducing a new craft to a complete novice it is a great platform. It is a very easy way to keep a craft going by mimicking an existing crafter within a re-enactment and living history setting. However, with changing group dynamics and shifts in people’s interests not everyone wants to learn to refine the craft of nalbinding.

This over time means the techniques can get distorted into a slightly different form, where the finished product becomes more important rather than the technique of how you got there. An example of this in recent years has been the need to keep the tension in the stitches quite loose, so the finished textile almost mimic’s modern crotchet. This type of finish is perfectly suitable for beginners learning to nalbind so you can see the development of the stitches. However, from archaeological examples of these finished items; like mittens, socks and hats we can see the tension is tight, the stitches interlock and a solid textile is produced. The basics exist, it’s just the confidence and patience to see the craft through to the finished item needs to be encouraged more within this setting.

When constantly immersed in historical interpretation or living history it is very easy to forget that not everyone is coming from the same understanding or foundation as yourself. Most of the time as a heritage interpreter your busy deciding what level of immersion you are going to be in on a daily basis. Is your character going to start the day as a full force 10th century persona, with a textile and nalbinding setup or are you going to be yourself in a costume but with added “Viking facts”?

Of course allot of this is dependent on the environment you are set within. To a member of the public experiencing your interaction with them, it is either going to come across very personal; which a very talented heritage interpreter can do with ease or it may come across as a passing interaction on the way to something else, which means your influence on the public is minimal. Every individual member of the public is also going to perceive and understand historical interpretation in a slightly different manner; people are going to react to the way you look, the way you talk and carry yourself.  All of this is true for a heritage crafter as well, the public are going to get more of an immersive experience from a nalbinder who is actively crafting, but also has the people skills, awareness and historical knowledge to field any questions that an inquisitive mind may generate, whether you are in character or not.

One thing a member of the public won’t necessarily think about is why are YOU taking part in an immersive Viking experience? Why are you a Viking? Why do you want to spend 140 hours making a nalbinded hat? Is it for your own personal enjoyment as a hobby or are you there to earn a living? Earning a living from being a professional heritage interpreter or crafts person is a relatively recent concept. It still surprises the public even though there are many individuals working in heritage and living history, who are now second or third generation specialists in this field. It appears that the issue is there isn’t a big enough public platform to vocalise heritage interpretation and heritage crafters. In the United Kingdom over the last 10 years this has started to be addressed with organisations such as The Heritage Craft Association who are trying to save and nurture these skills and the crafters that have them. However, one place a member of the public is likely to come into contact with a heritage crafter, is at a heritage centre or museum and these places can only do so much to support and facilitate the growth of heritage crafts.

The responsibility for developing crafts is ultimately on the heritage crafter themselves. There seems to be a constant need of having to publicly justify “why” heritage interpretation and skills across all levels of interaction are valuable to modern society, but one way to break that deadlock is getting people to engage in heritage crafts and physically interact with the past. The engagement in a craft such as nalbinding not only gives people practical skills but also gets them thinking about a historical time period, which in itself can be a very beneficial and reflective process. In recent years the psychological effects of crafting have also shown to greatly aid an individual’s mental health and increase wellbeing. Taking all these different facets of heritage and interaction into consideration, it just goes to show how important it is to keep heritage crafts alive by increasing awareness and supporting fellow nalbinders who exist in the world of heritage.

Where does that leave this craft now?

Trying to assess whose undertaking nalbinding and in what form is something that’s not been considered before. From a recent poll on nalbinding carried out in the United Kingdom, 200 people submitted responses. This poll was done to measure the state of nalbinding as a heritage craft in the UK and determine what kind of groups, audiences and interactions this craft was most prevalent in. There appeared to be 5 main groups that this craft was being utilised in.

There were 41% of individuals who stated they did nalbinding as part of a re-enactment group or in a living history setting. It’s clear to see that this traditionally has been the home of this heritage craft, where small groups of passionate people have demonstrated and shared this skill, not only to new re-enactors but also to members of the public. This group’s contribution to nalbinding needs to be recognised, the commitment for it to be taught has ultimately sustained the craft up to this point and that is due to the dedication of passionate re-enactors and living historians.

Nalbinding poll results

There were 37% of people who stated they had given nalbinding a go by themselves and were self-taught. Whether they had learnt from online source material, books or kits these individuals are engaging with the craft from a different starting place.

Within the heritage and museum industry in the UK surprisingly only 5% of individuals said they undertook nalbinding within their heritage setting as part of their job. In many cases it appears that someone had taught them from the heritage centre and the skill had been learnt and developed from there to use in an existing heritage experience.

Looking at the results from a craftsmanship perspective there were 6% of individuals who stated they considered themselves to be professional nalbinders, but who only did it part-time to supplement another income, as a home-craft enterprise. A very small 1% of individuals stated that they are pursuing nalbinding as a full-time crafting role; this is a very difficult category to develop and survive within as a heritage crafter; as you very much rely on the support of the hobbyist nalbinders and those within the re-enactment and living history community who need nalbinded items to wear for heritage portrayals. There were a further 10% of individuals who stated that they did nalbinding in an “other” form, whether that be teaching or working generally in historical fibre, this is certainly a category that could be investigated further to determine how people are using nalbinding in different forms.

The results from this poll shows are that there are groups where nalbinding can continue to be taught as a heritage craft, there is certainly scope for development. The re-enactment and living history community are the first group of individuals who need to be encouraged and supported to keep this craft going. One way that this can be done is through direct engagement within re-enactment groups and offering of talks, workshops, lectures to focus on specific aspects of nalbinding; but to also broaden their knowledge of this particular skill by offering different cultural developments of the craft. Nalbinding within this group most certainly needs to be nurtured further. If this poll was run again to a wider audience, I would expect the majority of individuals practicing this craft would still come from this significant group.

The interesting area for scope and development of nalbinding as a heritage craft is very much within the hobbyist and self-learning category. There are always going to be those individuals who have an interest in crafting or wool craft that are intrigued by a different form of historical ‘knitting’. It is this group that modern knitters, crotchet and fibre workers would fall into. There are modern guilds and support networks for those that weave, spin and dye fibres. However, there needs to be an attempt to bridge the gap and provide accessibility, knowledge and guidance as these individuals could shape the form nalbinding takes in the modern world.

Surprisingly only a small amount of individuals seemed to come from the heritage and museum sector, so may not represent the full potential from this group in the poll. Heritage interpreters tend to engage on a one-to-one basis or with large groups of individuals. It is important to impress on heritage centres the need to allow interpreters the opportunity to demonstrate a heritage craft. Other ways these centres could assist in safeguarding and promoting nalbinding as a heritage craft would be to offer areas that could be used to teach the craft, or engage with individuals that do teach nalbinding to promote it to a more public audience. Even within a museum or heritage environment the long historical time span that ‘Nalbinding’ as an ancient craft has, means that workshops could be focused around different cultural aspects of nalbinding; for example, Roman and Egyptian Coptic stitch nalbinding through to the 13th century. There is a “Nalbinding Narrative” that could be used by heritage centres to engage with those who learn from actively involving themselves in an immersive environment.

What this brief assessment has shown is there is a community around nalbinding already, it is small but it exists and there are audiences that are yet to be engaged with it fully. What has also been demonstrated is that it is certainly worth while attempting a more compressive survey regarding this heritage craft, to answer some of the questions that the first set of results and discussions have generated.

For many years, nalbinding has been seen as craft on the periphery, with limited examples surviving from the archaeological record and a general disinterest in the length of time needed to create items. People have overlooked it as a craft and dismissed its validity within a historic setting, but no longer. Nalbinding is a heritage craft that will continue to grow and develop through those dedicated individuals who seek to make the old ways relevant in present day.

Emma ‘Bruni’ Boast is a Viking Age Archaeologist and historian based in York.

To learn more, please visit:

www.yorku.academia.edu/EmmaBoast

www.etsy.com/shop/nidavellnir

www.facebook.com/nidavellnir

See also: Nalbinding for Beginners



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