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!