Textile heritage

Flemish tapestry weave with a woman spinning on a spinning wheel.

Sometimes I envy spinners who have a textile heritage. Their mothers taught them how to spin, they spin on their grandmother’s spinning wheel, they learned because everybody did it, that kind of heritage. I have no textile heritage. In this post I will reflect over where our spinning genes come from.

Family

I have no spinners in my family. My mother used to sew a lot when I grew up and I inherited that from her, but I know of no one in the family who has had any kind of interest in spinning. My mother may have taught me how to knit (because that is what you did in the -80’s), but I wouldn’t call her a knitter.

Josefin Waltin knitting a pastel purple sweater in a garden chair 1985.
A 12 year old Josefin knitting. The year was 1985 and I was sitting in my aunt’s summer house garden in Austria.

Somepeople are fortunate enough to have a well defined textile heritage. They can point out a person in their life who taught them how to spin or who has in some other way been important to them when they learned how to spin. I have no inherited tools with a personal history, no treasured family textiles, no tales to tell of old hands showing the motions.

Tradition

Some cultures have a strong textile heritage. Perhaps especially cultures where sheep are an important part of the agriculture and the landscape. With the sheep comes crafting that becomes an important part of people’s cultural and personal history. Textile crafting is a natural part of the culture and anyone who doesn’t craft is the odd person.

Shetland textile heritage

In 2015 I visited Shetland with my wool traveling club for Shetland wool week. Sheep are everywhere in Shetland. I think there are about 10 times more sheep than two-legged inhabitants. The treeless landscape is shaped by the sheep and the infrastructure needs to accommodate for sheep and pastures. Shetland looks like a sheep planet with tiny villages scattered in the landscape for people visiting.

Sheep grazing by the Bressay lighthouse, Shetland. East coast of Mainland Shetland in the background.

It was of course a wonderful week that none of us will ever forget. But the one thing that made the biggest impression on me was the textile heritage. Every Shetlander knows their textile heritage. And I do mean everyone. Their mothers and grandmothers have knitted when walking and shepherding and whenever their hands were not occupied with something else. Because they had to. Knitted items were sold and used as an important means for trading.

Every Shetlander knows what a hap stretcher, jumper board or a knitting belt is. There is a beautiful flora of special knitting terminology with influences from the Norse language and Scots. Hentilagets=Tufts of wool found in the pastures. Sprettin=ripping back (Sprätta in Swedish means ripping up a sewn seam). Makkin=knitting.

A person standing behind a stretched Shetland Hap
The Moder Dy hap. Photo by Dan Waltin

The textile heritage is tightly woven into everyone’s cultural and personal history. Since oil happened in Shetland, women haven’t needed to knit to provide for their families anymore, but the heritage is still very strong.

Navajo spinning and weaving

After having read a review of the book Spider woman’s children in the latest issue of Spin-off magazine, I knew I needed to buy the book. I ordered it, and when it arrived it proved to be a beautiful book that warmly told the stories of Navajo women (and a few men) who spin yarn from the Churro sheep.

Spider woman's children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas
Spider woman’s children by Lynda Teller Pete and Barbara Teller Ornelas

The wool is spun on Navajo spindles and the yarn is used to weave traditional Navajo tapestry rugs. The tradition is passed down from mother to daughter (or son), as are the textile tools and specific patterns or styles. It is a strong matriarchal culture with a true and genuine respect for the craft and the crafter. Many Navajo have spent a lot of time at trading posts where they have sold their rugs. The rugs are well sought after today and sell for thousands of dollars on auctions.

Master Artist workshop: Navajo weaving

Spinning, knitting and weaving in the Andes

This week I bought the video Andean spinning from Interweave. It features the talented Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz in a gentle conversation with Linda Ligon. Nilda shows how the women of the Andes spin sheep’s wool, alpaca and llama on bottom whorl spindles, pushkas. They spin constantly, and usually very thin yarn for weaving. Hands are never idle and there is always some textile crafting going on. The women spin, ply, dye and weave together and create a textile treasure to take great pride in. Men spin bulkier yarn and often in llama wool for weaving potato sacks. Imagine that, storing your potatoes in handspun, hand woven llama sacks. What a potato feast!

Nilda Callañaupa Alveraz tells Linda Ligon about Andean spinning. Short clip from the downloadable video Andean spinning.

They spin the wool on simple hand-carved and very lightweight bottom whorl spindles. Just a stick and a whorl. No hook, you just secure the yarn with a couple of half-hitches and you are good to go. They don’t prepare the wool with any tools other than your hands. They just separate the fibers with their hands and turn them into clouds that they drafts from.

Another video that shows Andean spinning from unprocessed wool.

The process is mesmerizing and my heart was singing when I watched the video. The simplest of tools make the most beautiful, yet sturdy and useful textiles. I instantly felt a need for a pushka spindle. Even as we speak, two pushkas are on the way to me. I intend to get myself a fleece that I can tease and draft directly from without tools. I don’t know what breed they use, but since the Spanish brought the sheep, chances are that there is at least some amount of merino in today’s sheep grazing the Andean slopes. I’m thinking some Jämtland wool or Norwegian crossbred, NKS, will do the trick.

Abby Franquemont who grew up in the Andes as a daughter of anthropologists learned the technique from an early age (but shockingly late in the eyes of the locals). She is currently back in Cusco, Peru, and sends daily sweets in the shape of videos from her visit. It makes me want to go to Peru right now and spin with them. Anyone know of a decent train line from Europe to South America?

A Swedish textile community

There are places in Sweden with a cultural textile heritage. The county of Dalarna for example is a region where twined knitting has been the dominant textile technique for centuries. Women were knitting whenever their hands were free to knit. Idle hands were a sin. Many people in this region today can show a treasured vadmal jacket with twined knitted sleeves, safely stored in the attic. And they treasure it.

Future textile heritage

Next generation

My children don’t know how to spin and they don’t share my passion for textiles. But they do have a passive knowledge of spinning and wool. They can tell the difference between a Texel sheep and a Finewool sheep. Probably Rya and Gotland too. They know the names of quite a few of the spindle types I have and they enjoy the sound of the spinning wheel. How many city kids have this knowledge today? Every time I see a sign of this passive knowledge my heart smiles. I know that I have passed a treasured knowledge to them, even if they don’t share my passion.

Urban spinning

Recently I got a new supported spindle and bowl. The bowl had a metal piece underneath to fit a magnet so that the bowl doesn’t slide off my lap when I spin. The other day I went to the hardware store to get a strong magnet. I had brought the bowl to check if the magnet would be strong enough. When I waited in line I imagined what I would answer if the sales person would ask what the bowl was used for. I imagined answering “the line is too long for me to tell you what the bowl is used for”. I was a bit disappointed when he didn’t ask me. Not even after testing the function with my handspun hat between the magnet and the bowl! But he did get me a decent magnet.

Supported spindle and bowl by Björn Peck
Supported spindle and bowl by Björn Peck. Few people outside the spinning community know what they are used for, let alone why I would want a magnet for it.

In a culture with a strong textile heritage this situation wouldn’t have occurred. The hardware store would have exposed the magnets in the shop with a sign saying “Get your spindle bowl magnets for safe commuter spinning here!”. Wouldn’t that be something?

Metro crafting

I wouldn’t say that Stockholm has a textile heritage, at least not one that I know of. I don’t often see textile crafting in Stockholm. Whenever I see a person trying to untangle their earphones on the metro my heart jumps because I instantly think they are knitting. But they are not. The irony of this is that they wouldn’t have had to untangle their earphones in the first place had they only had the knowledge to knit them in!

No untangling necessary with knit-in headphones.
No untangling necessary with knit-in earphones. Picture from 2012. Photo by Dan Waltin.

The few times I don’t get around by bike I spin or knit on the metro. First and foremost because I want to, but also to make textile crafting visible. I want people to know that spinning exist. I want people to reflect over what it is that I do, perhaps dig out threads of memories of knitting grandmothers, weaving aunts or just old hands showing how it’s done. Some people are brave enough to ask me what I’m doing, or just seek eye contact and smile. Once I was standing in the metro, nalbinding away. A man in his 60’s was watching what I was doing. After a while he smiled at me and asked “Isn’t that that nalbinding?” I was so shocked I nearly forgot to get off at the next stop. Never have I experienced anyone outside the textile community recognizing nalbinding, let alone a man.

A pair of striped socks in backlight
Nalbinding socks. Photo by Dan Waltin

I treasure moments like these. They give me hope that I can be a part of passing at least a passive knowledge of textile tradition on.

Online heritage

Most of my you who follow me on my blog and YouTube channel are spinners. A few just appreciate the serenity of my videos and another group is fascinated by the textile techniques without an intention of crafting themselves. Recently one of my videos was spread in a non-spinning context. In one week the amount of viewers grew from 600 to 21000 (!) and is now up in around 36000 views. Spinners are my target group, but seeing so many other people appreciating my textile heritage makes my toes dance of joy.

Making my own history

I may not have a textile heritage. But I have made my own. The positive side of not having a textile heritage is that I don’t have a given thread to follow. I’m not expected to follow a pre-destined tradition. I make my own thread and my own discoveries based on my curiosity and love for the craft. That is a heritage I am proud of.

What is your textile heritage?


The featured image I chose for this post is a Flemish tapestry weave made by my sister-in-law’s grandmother Birgit. Birgit was a weaver and left tons of hand woven pieces when she passed away. My sister-in-law does have a textile heritage is by her grandmother and mother, but she is not a textile crafter herself. When she was sorting out her grandmother Birgit’s belongings she thought of me and gave me a whole bag with beautiful handwoven kitchen towels and a few tapestry weaves. This way I can say that I have adopted my sister-in-law’s textile heritage.


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Nalbinding socks

A pair of striped socks in backlight

One of my favourite textile techniques is nalbinding. I have made lots of mittens in nalbinding and showed you glimpses of the technique. In this post, though, I go a bit deeper into the world of nalbinding. This is my first pair of nalbinding socks.

An ancient technique

Nalbinding  is a simple technique where you seam with a blunt wooden or bone needle with your thumb as your gauge. It is an ancient technique, dating back at least to the Viking age, but probably further back in pre-history. It is basically a sewing technique, since the thread goes in loops through each other. There is no way to rip the seam, you have to pick it up stitch by stitch. When you are out of yarn, you simply join in a new yarn and felt it together by rolling the ends together between your palms with the addition of a little saliva. Perfect for handspun yarns! It might be a good idea to practice joins in a subtle way if you are amongst people. I am a master of subtle joins. The resulting fabric is dense and sturdy and lasts for a long time. If you waulk your project, it will basically last forever.

Stitches for all tastes

While the basic technique stays the same, there are lots of different stitches to choose from. In the beginning, I chose between the few stitches I could get access to in a leftie description. After the initial learning period, I advanced to the whole spectrum of stitches and learned how to make them from the right-handed descriptions. Lately, I have made most projects in the Dalby stitch.

Close up of nalbinding
Nalbinding close-up using the Dalby stitch. The technique leaves a sturdy fabric, perfect for socks and mittens.

I love the rhythm of the Dalby stitch – pick, pick, over, under, back in a cross and under again, hold the threads with your thumb and pull the yarn to a new thumb loop. It is like a choreographed dance. It also makes a quite dense and firm fabric, great for mittens and socks.

Here is a quick tutorial of the Dalby stitch from a leftie’s perspective.

Mittens for everyone

I have nalbound (?) several pairs of mittens for me and my family. It is quite easy, beginning with a small spiral worm, increasing until you have a suitable circumference and keep spiraling until you have reached the proper length. A hole and gusset (with decreases) for the thumb of course and then you just add the thumb. Increasing, decreasing, hole and plain stitches. The challenging part is the waulking. I’ll get to that later.

Nalbinding socks

This time I wanted to try to make a pair of nalbinding socks. The technique is the same, a spiral worm to start with, increasing until a proper circumference, plain stitch and a big hole for the heel. Continue the spiral in plain stitch until you have the desired length. The new part for me this time was the heel. I started the heel at the hole and decreased until I only had a small hole left, and then I just closed it with a few stitches.

Stripes!

I had seen lots of beautiful striped nalbound mittens and socks and decided that it was time for me to investigate that level. Also, I wasn’t sure there would be enough yarn for single colour socks. After I had made my first spiral worm, I just added another colour. With this technique, I could only bind one round at a time, until the end of the round of the previous colour. This helped me keep track of the rounds and make sure both socks looked the same (I always make both mittens/socks at the same time to keep track of my increases and decreases).

The material

I used two needles, one in bone, bought at the museum at Birka, and one in elm, which I have carved myself. It is a bit too short, but I still love it.

The white yarn is a 3-ply yarn I originally spun (woolen) for a blanket. It is a rya/finewool cross. I also used the yarn for a pair of nalbound mittens for my brother-in-law as a thank you for arranging and playing the music for my video Slow fashion 2 – from sheep to shawl. And as it turned out, I had some yarn left. Rya wool is long and silky and finewool soft and crimpy, a good combination in a cross. The dark grey yarn is 2-ply (worsted) from a crimpy and long-stapled Shetland Eskit fleece.

Pieces of scrap yarn
The nalbinding part is over and all the ends have been woven in.

Waulking

As I wrote earlier, I have made lots of pairs of nalbound mittens. And they have all ended up too long after waulking. Only recently, it occurred to me that nalbinding material shrinks more widthwise than lengthwise. This means that I need to make the mittens proportionally wider to be able to waulk them to a proper size both lengthwise and widthwise. I can tolerate some margin of error in a pair of mittens, but socks need to fit. So, waulking the socks was a challenge.

 

A person waulking a garment on a waulking board.
Waulking away with my waulking board.

Waulking takes time at the beginning.

Close-up of a hand waulking a garment on a waulking board
Still waulking.

Lots of time.

A person waulking socks on the feet.
And waulking some more.

Suddenly, magic happens and you can see the waulked character of the fabric. I am thankful that the different yarns waulked relatively in the same manner.

A pair of waulked nalbinding socks on a waulking board.
The waulking is finished!

Final touches

I had made a slit in the top of the sock shaft to make it easier to put them on. After the socks had dried from the waulking, I added a simple blanket stitch.

A pair of striped socks hanging on a wash line
Waulked socks with a simple blanket stitch edging.

Now, my feet are ready for my hiking boots!

Featured photo by Dan Waltin

Composer’s mittens

A pair of hands in white nalbinding mittens, holding autumn leaves
Nalbinding mittens for Jens.

I finished another pair of nalbinding mittens.  The yarn is my handspun 3-ply from hand carded rolags of a finewool/Rya mixed breed from Åsebol sheep farm, a leftover yarn from the woven blanket I finished this summer.

Nalbinding is usually a summer project for me. On the rare occasions when I fly, I always bring a nalbinding project, since it is the only craft I know for sure there is no danger of confiscation in the security check. Who could do anything violent with a blunt wooden or bone needle? I have made several pairs of mittens for my family and they have all been very loved through the winters.

This time the recipient was my brother-in-law Jens, as a thank you for arranging and playing the music so beautifully on my second Slow fashion video (he also arranged the music for my first Slow fashion video, and for that I knit him a hat in my handspun yarn). I finished the mittens almost two months ago and I invited Jens to a release party at our house where we watched the video together. Afterwards I waulked the mittens in our kitchen sink for a perfect fit. This morning he texted me and asked if he could pick them up today. It is a cold day and wearing handmade mittens on a day like this would make anyone’s wooly heart beat.

A pair of hands in nalbinding mittens in autumn leaves
Handmade mittens will make anybody’s heart beat.

Happy spinning!