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Nalbinding in the Faroe Islands?

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Ingvar Svanberg at Uppsala University
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  • Uppsala University
Abstract
Archaeological findings of needles, now in the collection of Føroya Fornminnissavn, from Kvívík and Tjørnuvík, may indicate that nalbinding did exist as a textile technique in pre-modern Faroe Islands before knitting was introduced in the 16th century. Large-scale knitting dominated the export from the Faroes during the 17th and 18th centuries and may be the reason why the more time-consuming nalbinding technique did not survive. An interpretation of a passage in Tarnovius might, however, indicate that nalbinding was still used in the Faroes in the 17th century. No textile artefacts support this conclusion, and the evidence in the source is weak, so the passage in Tarnovious must be treated with much care. Although the needles for nalbinding are simple in their construction, they do have a specific and recognisable form. The needles in the collection of Føroya Fornminnissavn from Kvívík and Tjørnuvík may confirm the conclusion that nalbinding was known earlier in the Faroes.
NALBINDING IN THE FAROE ISLANDS?
190
Úrtak
Á goymsluni á Føroya Fornminnissavni eru varðveittar
nálir, sum fornfrøðingar hava funnið í grevstrum í
Kvívík og Tjørnuvík. Hesar nálir kunnu bera prógv um
at føroyingar nálabundu áðrenn teir lærdu at binda í
16. øld. At bundnar vørur vóru høvuðsútflutningsvøra
Føroyinga í 17. og 18. øld er kanska orsøkin til at
nálabinding, sum er ein meira tíðarkrevjandi tekstilur
teknikkur, doyði út. Ein tulking av Tarnovius ber kanska
prógv um at fólk nálabundu í Føroyum í 17. øld. Eingir
nálabundnir gripir eru varðveittir, sum kunna prógva at
so er, og próvføri í kelduni er eisini veikt.
Sjálvt um nálirnar til nálabinding eru einfaldar eru
tær eyðkendar. Nálirnar úr Kvívík og Tjørnuvík bera
kanska haldgott prógv um at føroyingar nálabundu,
áðrenn teir lærdu at binda.
Abstract
Archaeological findings of needles, now in the collection
of Føroya Fornminnissavn, from Kvívík and Tjørnuvík,
may indicate that nalbinding did exist as a textile
technique in pre-modern Faroe Islands before knitting
was introduced in the 16th century. Large-scale knitting
dominated the export from the Faroes during the 17th
and 18th centuries and may be the reason why the more
time-consuming nalbinding technique did not survive.
An interpretation of a passage in Tarnovius might,
however, indicate that nalbinding was still used in the
Faroes in the 17th century. No textile artefacts support
this conclusion, and the evidence in the source is weak,
so the passage in Tarnovious must be treated with much
care.
Although the needles for nalbinding are simple
in their construction, they do have a specific and
recognisable form. The needles in the collection of
Føroya Fornminnissavn from Kvívík and Tjørnuvík
may confirm the conclusion that nalbinding was known
earlier in the Faroes.
Introduction
Sheep have probably existed as domesti-
cated animals in the Faroe Islands for as
long as there have been human settlements.
Shepherding was one of the main economic
activities in the pre-industrial Faroe Islands.
Some scholars believe that sheep have ac-
tually bestowed their name to the islands
– ‘Sheep Islands’. Sheep may be viewed as
a key symbol of the traditional local culture
(Ortner, 1973). They yield mutton, intes-
tines, blood, horn, bone, lard and manure,
but wool and skin have always been signifi-
cant products. The usage of wool and skin
was probably the main reason, why human
beings domesticated sheep (Hjärpe and
Olsen, 2001). Being able to manufacture
leather from sheepskin for clothing, such as
shoes and outdoor jackets and trousers, was
Fróðskaparrit 51. bók 2004: 190-199
Nalbinding in the Faroe Islands?
Nálabinding í Føroyum?
Osva Olsen1 and Ingvar Svanberg2
1 Føroya Fornminnissavn, FO-110 Tórshavn, Faroe Islands. Email: osvaolsen@yahoo.se
2 Department of East European Studies, Box 514, SE-751 20 Uppsala, Sweden.
Email: Ingvar.Svanberg@east.uu.se
NÁLABINDING Í FØROYUM? 191
important for the inhabitants of the Faroes
in the pre-industrial period (Olsen and
Svanberg, 1998). Our viewpoint is that the
human being has always been able to man-
age resources for economic purposes, and
has constantly been adapting to changes
wrought by external conditions (Svanberg
2001a; b). We shall demonstrate the viabil-
ity of this idea through examining the lo-
cal textile techniques, which have changed
during the centuries.
Thanks to archaeological discoveries of
various implements, such as spindle-whorls
and warp weights, we know that spinning
and weaving on warp-weighted looms
were techniques during the Viking age of
the Faroe Islands. Findings from the Viking
site of Kvívík for instance support this con-
clusion (Dahl, 1951). Spindle-whorls made
of e.g. lead, steatite and a local red tuff have
also been unearthed at a medieval site at
Leirvík (Arge, 1997: 32). But it is beyond
our power to fully ascertain how the textile
techniques were used in the Faroes during
the Viking and Middle Ages. Few textile
fragments have been found which could be
analysed (Diklev, 1980: 24; Arge and Øster-
gaard, 2002). Knitting was probably not in-
troduced to the islands until the early 16th
century. Sverri Dahl mentions, however, in
his report on the findings from the excava-
tion at the Viking settlement in Kvívík, two
needles of wood, which attract our interest
(Dahl, 1951: 87). There are unfortunately
no further descriptions and details available
on the needles, but in July 1966, another
ten wooden needles were found in the site
‘Á Grundini’ at Tjørnuvík (Fmnr 4601), see
fig. 1.
Although forests have been absent for
as long as human beings existed on the
islands, the inhabitants have always man-
aged to construct buildings and manufac-
ture tools and domestic utensils by relying
on wood brought from abroad or driftwood,
cast ashore by the ocean currents (Jóhansen,
1985; Malmros, 1994; Arge, 1997: 35;
Svanberg, 1998a: 86).
Regarding the needles from Kvívík, Dahl
did not provide any interpretation of their
possible use, and other scholars have yet to
examine them more closely. Dahl only re-
ports that similar needles are known from
Norse settlements in Greenland. No writ-
ten analyses of the needles from Tjørnuvík
have so far been published.
Needles in Archaeological Records
Occurrence of needles is known from exca-
vations of Viking and medieval settlements
and graves in other Nordic countries. Sew-
ing needles made of iron or bronze are usu-
ally between 2 and 6.5 centimetres, but it
is difficult to decide the difference between
sewing needles and pieces of jewellery.
Other materials used for needles are bone,
elk antler and wood (Slomann, 1967; Nor-
berg, 1967; Westman, 1986: 55; Anders-
son, 2003: 83–87, 127–130). A report from
an excavation in central Lund in Sweden,
with findings from around year 1000, dis-
cusses various kinds of needles. Around
thirty needles were then discovered in the
soil. Most of them were made of bone. The
authors state, that it is hardly possible to
determine the use of the needles, but they
suggest three conceivable fields of applica-
tions. A large kind of needle with widening
NALBINDING IN THE FAROE ISLANDS?
192
handles was probably used as shuttle for
weaving in warp-weighted looms. Needles
lesser in the size – around 10 centimetres –
might have been used for making a pattern
in the texture. A third way of using the need-
les has been to make textiles in a special
technique known as nalbinding (Blomqvist
and Mårtensson, 1963: 176). Commenting
on needles in archaeological context, a tex-
tile historian suggests a fourth use for nee-
dles with a sharp point and a round cross
section; until recently Shetland fishermen
used such needles to repair their woollen
sails (Andersson, 1996: 17). As Andersson
(2003: 87) in a recent study points out, a
needle with an eye need not to have been
used as a textile tool at all. They could, for
instance, have been used as stylus.
Nalbinding needles seem to be prevalent
at Nordic excavations. Lindström (1976)
describes 44 needles with eyes, found at
another excavation in Lund. These needles
were made of bone and antler. The author
states, despite the fact they vary in shape
and design, that most of them are prob-
ably used for nalbinding. Some of them
were made of fibula from swine, which
is a material used until recently for such
needles in both Sweden and Norway. The
bone needles are polished slightly and have
a flat and in some cases round cross-sec-
tion: some of them have decorations. Need-
les have also been found in early medieval
sites in Uppsala, Sweden. Franzén (1963:
40) describes two such needles, one of bone
and the other of wood. These needles are 8
to 10 centimetres in length. A pointed stick
with a hole in the end from the Viking set-
tlement of Elisenhof (southern Jylland) in
contemporary Germany is construed to be
a wooden needle for nalbinding (Grenander
Nyberg, 1989: 90). One similar needle in
wood was also found during excavations at
the Norse settlement of Sandnes in Green-
land (Roussell, 1936: 135, 189).
Hald (1950: 283) describes and illus-
Fig. 1. Needles from Tjørnuvík discovered in July 1966
(Fmnr 4601). The needles are of two different kinds.
Seven of them are thin, flat and has a semicircular or
a circular hole in one end. Three of the needles are
thinner and evenly cut at the upper end with a small
circular hole. (Courtesy: Føroya Fornminnissavn).
NÁLABINDING Í FØROYUM? 193
trates needles of bone, which, according to
her, have been used for nalbinding. They
are the same size and shape as those in the
archaeological finds of Sweden and are
even similar to contemporary nalbinding
needles. The needles described by Hald are
dated to the Viking Age, but similar needles
from the Neolithic period have been found
in Denmark. Crude bone needles are also
described amongst the findings from Ribe.
It is suggested that they had been used for
nalbinding. However, another possibility,
according to Bender Jørgensen, is that they
actually are dress pins (Bender Jørgensen,
1991: 67). Some bone pins from Brattahlid
in Greenland, which in shape and size are
similar to modern needles for nalbinding,
are interpreted as hair-pins rather than nee-
dles. However, in the early 1930s, most ar-
chaeologists were hardly aware of nalbind-
ing. It has not been possible to date them,
but they seem to be from the Middle Ages
(Nörlund and Stenberg, 1934: 137).
Nalbinding
Nalbinding is an ancient textile technique,
which requires needles of the same size and
shape as the needles found in Tjørnuvík.
The technique is for producing a looped
fabric, and relies on an eyed needle thread-
ed with a relatively short length of yarn.
There are several different forms of nalbi-
nding known and used in various parts of
the world, see fig. 2. The technique is also
known as looping, needle-knitting, eyed- or
single-needle knitting and knotless netting.
Textile historians have characterised the
technique as simple interconnected looping
or lateral linked looping (Seiler-Baldinger,
1994: 13). Rutt (1987: 8), who has written
an indispensable book on knitting, suggests
nalbinding for a technical term in the Eng-
lish language.
Nalbinding has existed in many differ-
ent parts of the world and the technique
has often been used for producing nets,
string bags and baskets (Danielson, 1981:
9; Seiler-Baldinger, 1994: 13–16). Ancient
garments produced in the nalbinding tech-
nique, mostly socks and mittens, are found
in various archaeological sites. A well-
known Egyptian sock made in a nalbinding
Fig. 2. Mitten made in
looped needle netting
(From: Collin, 1918).
NALBINDING IN THE FAROE ISLANDS?
194
technique is probably from AD 300 to 500
(Schinnerer, 1895: 22–25). This particular
sock has erroneously been described as an
example of early knitting in many popular
books. Analysis of other Coptic collections
from Egypt confirms that the found fabrics
were produced in a nalbinding technique
(Turnau, 1983: 369). Other examples of tex-
tile items made in the nalbinding technique
are also found in the Middle East, e.g. tex-
tile fragments excavated at Dura-Europos
in Syria in 1922, dated to the year AD 256
(Rutt, 1987: 28–29). Fragments made in
this technique are also found in Novgorod
in Russia. One of them dates from the 10th
century, while the others are from the Mid-
dle Ages. The so-called Coppergate sock
from York was also made in a nalbinding
technique (Walton, 1989: 342).
Viking and medieval textiles clearly in
the nalbinding technique are found at vari-
ous archaeological sites of Iceland, Sweden,
Finland and Denmark. The oldest examples
of nalbinding in the Nordic countries are tex-
tile fragments of plant fibres from Bolkilde
bog on Als and the settlement Tybrind Vig
in Denmark dating from BC 3,400 and BC
4,200 respectively, i.e. the Neolithic period
(Bender Jørgensen, 1987: 65). A mitten
from Arnheiðarstaðir in Iceland might be
from the 10th century (Hald, 1951). Medi-
eval mittens have also been found in Lund,
Copenhagen and Oslo (Hald, 1945; 1950:
309; Nordland, 1961: 43). Medieval socks
in the nalbinding technique were found
in Uppsala and Söderköping in Sweden
(Franzén, 1963: 44). An almost intact mit-
ten was discovered 1918 by a farmer in
the Åsle bog, in the Swedish province of
Västergötland (Arbman and Strömberg,
1934). It has for a long time been dated to
Iron Age, but newer investigation shows
that it is much younger (Nockert and Pos-
snert, 2002: 65–66). A mitten found in Tu-
ukkala, Finland is supposed to date from the
14th century (Ahlbäck, 1943: 138; Kauko-
nen, 1960: 44). A fillet at Mammen, Bjer-
ringhøj, in Denmark, has been dated to the
10th century; with inlaid golden centres, the
fillet was made in a nalbinding technique
(Hald, 1950: 109–111; Hansen, 1992).
Nalbinding is probably also mentioned
in two Norse texts. The word bandvetlin-
gar in the sentence Móðir mín, segir hann,
fá Þu mér út krókstaf minn ok bandvetlinga,
reproduced in Fornmannasøgur, might, ac-
cording to Hoffman (1967: 427), refer to
mittens made in a nalbinding technique.
Another text is found from a bone needle
excavated in Lund. It is written with runes
and says tofana skefniG, i.e. ‘the skävning
of Anna Tove’ (Blomquist and Mårtensson,
1963: 176). Skävning is probably a name of
the nalbinding technique.
We may therefore state that there is an
ancient textile technique, which requires
needles of the size and shape that were
found in Tjørnuvík, Faroe Islands.
Recent Use of Nalbinding
The nalbinding technique has survived in
some regions of Sweden, Finland and Nor-
way, where it has been used to make small
garments, suited for the cold climate in the
North (Ahlbäck, 1943; Hald, 1950: 313–
314; Kaukonen, 1960; Danielson, 1981;
Westman, 1986; Liby et al., 2003). It is also
known from Karelia, Ingermanland and
NÁLABINDING Í FØROYUM? 195
Estonia (Ahlbäck, 1943: 139). Labourers,
such as lumberjacks, fisherman and hunt-
ers, appreciated mittens, socks and other
footwear made in the nalbinding technique
(Campbell, 1942: 114; Odstedt, 1953: 430).
The great regard of the superiority of such
mittens was perceived in the Finnish say-
ing: ‘He who wore knitted mittens had an
unskilled wife’ (Kaukonen, 1960: 48). Nal-
binding was still practised among Swed-
ish-speaking islanders along the Estonian
coast in the 19th century (Söderbeck, 1940:
113).
Until recently a nalbinding technique
was used to make milk strainers out of hairs
of cow-tail or goat in Sweden, Norway and
Iceland (Hald, 1950: 313; Eldjárn, 1960;
Nordland, 1961: 108–112; Ankert, 1982;
Hjärpe and Olsen, 2001). ‘The women
sieve the milk through tofos planos [flat
mats] made from the hair from cows’ tail,
Carl Linnaeus observed at Åbacka in Väs-
terbotten in May 1732 (Linnaeus, 2003:
30). During the early years of the 20th cen-
tury, fishermen from the Danish West Coast
still made shoes and other garments in the
nalbinding technique during the winter.
Margrethe Hald writes about an old man,
who during a stay on the island Føhr had
learned and used nalbinding in his youth
(Hald, 1950: 310–311).
The needles used for nalbinding in the
historical records were often quite large
and they were made of wood, bone, antler
or metal. It was common to use fibular bone
from swine (Sus scrofa) for needles. Some
needles were made of the fibular bone of
sheep (Ovis aries). Also needles of hare (Le-
pus timidus) bone is known (Hyltén-Caval-
lius, 1868: 123; Collin, 1918: 73; Ankert,
1982: 64; Dahl, 1987: 343; ULMA 8933;
ULMA 2424: 3), see fig. 3. The eyes were
usually in one end or in the middle and the
needles were blunt, in contrast to awls or
prickers (Campbell, 1942: 114; Kaukonen,
1960: 52).
A common feature for nalbinding need-
les is that they vary in material, size and
design. The nalbinding needles used nowa-
days are usually made of wood, antler from
elk (Alces alces) and reindeer (Rangifer
tarandus) or plastic, but any hard material
will do. Those who make use of the nal-
binding technique seem to agree upon the
fact that the form, material and design are
subordinate. Many practitioners actually
seem to find joy in making their own per-
sonal design, see fig. 4.
Since the 1970s, there has been an in-
creasing interest in nalbinding for making
mittens, socks and caps; and we may talk of
a resurgence of the technique in the Scandi-
navian countries. Nalbinding-needles and
descriptions are readily available in handi-
craft stores and practical handbooks are
available in Danish, Swedish and English
Fig. 3. Needle to make shoe liner, Björkvattnet, Swedish Lappland (From: Campbell, 1942).
NALBINDING IN THE FAROE ISLANDS?
196
(e.g. Brodén, 1981). On the Internet there
are several WebPages that deal with nalbin-
ding.
Written Records of Nalbinding
in the Faroes?
Many textile historians conclude that knit-
ting has replaced the nalbinding technique
(Svensson, 1941: 145; Wintzell, 1963: 105;
Turnau, 1991: 14). Large-scale knitting
dominated the export from the Faroes dur-
ing the seventeenth and eighteenth centu-
ries and may be the reason why the more
time-consuming nalbinding technique did
not survive. Norwegian ethnologist Odd
Nordland explicitly states, that nalbind-
ing is not known to have been practised in
the Faroes in later generations (Nordland,
1961: 99).
An interpretation of a written source
might indicate that nalbinding was still
used in the Faroes in the 17th century.
There is a passage in Tarnovius 1669: ‘oc
den gemene mand naar de sidde inde i hu-
set og arbeide, da bruge de huer, som de
self der knytte og binde [’and the common
people, when they are sitting indoor work-
ing, use caps that they make by knytte and
knitting’] (Tarnovius, 1950: 69). Danish
scholar Tornehave (1964) suggests, in an
elucidative study based on linguistic argu-
ments, that the verb knytte, in the referred
Fig. 4. Contemporary Swedish needles for nalbinding made of elk antler and various kinds of wood (Photo: Ingvar
Svanberg).
NÁLABINDING Í FØROYUM? 197
article actually means nalbinding. She ar-
gues that nalbinding co-existed with true
knitting in the 17th century in the Faroes.
No textile artefacts support her conclusion,
and the evidence in the source is weak, so
we think the passage in Tarnovius must be
treated with much care.
From the viewpoint of a textile historian,
the presence of nalbinding during the Mid-
dle Ages is of great interest in studying the
introduction of knitting in the Faroes. It is
much likely that nalbinding existed in the
Faroes before knitting was introduced in
the 16th century. Archaeological records
from other Norse settlements in Scandina-
via and the British Isles support our conclu-
sion. When evidences in the written records
fail, the use of recorded folkloristic and
linguistic evidences is, of course, one way
of tracing otherwise forgotten traditional
techniques and knowledge (Svanberg,
1997; 1998b; 2001c; 2003). Tornehave has
through linguistic arguments suggested the
presence of nalbinding in the Faroes, al-
though her argument is not fully convinc-
ing.
The form of certain tools fulfils very
specific functional requirements. Although
the needles for nalbinding are simple in
their construction, they do have a specific
and recognisable form. The needles in the
collection of Føroya Fornminnissavn from
Kvívík and Tjørnuvík may confirm such a
conclusion.
Acknowledgement
We are grateful to Símun V. Arge, Føroya Fornminnissavn
(Tórshavn), and Ling Ong, (Darien, Connecticut) for
critical reading of earlier drafts of this manuscript and
for their helpful advice.
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The Swedish Institute of Language and Folklore
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