Nålbinding: An Ancient Craft for the Modern Maker

Fiber crafts have been passed down from person to person for hundreds ofyears, weaving generations together. I learned how to knit from my mother, she was taught by her father, and he was taught by his mother. I’m sure my genealogy of knitting could cross centuries and continents. While these old connections inexplicably link generations together, knitting’s family line pales in comparison to an even older craft: Nålbinding, alsoknown as needle coiling, has been used to weave wool for thousands of years. Sometimes spelled nalbinding, nalebinding, or naalbinding, nålbinding is like a cross between knitting, crochet, and embroidery. The maker creates a series of interlocking loops using one short wooden, bone, or metal needle. Sometimes the looping of the yarn is aided by the thumb. Despite the age of the craft, nålbinding is far from inaccessible or unuseful for the modern wool enthusiast. 

Nålbinding is one of the oldest forms of fiber art. Graves and archeological sites have revealed a wide variety of nålbinding stitches and garments. But these items aren’t limited to the northern regions of the world, as the Scandinavian name might suggest. Nålbound garments have been uncovered all over the world. One nålbound textile fragment was found in Nahal Hemar, Israel, and was dated to be 10,000 years old. 

What makes each artifact unique is that different regions and countries have uncovered a variety of stitches. Many stitches have been named after the place where they were uncovered including Asle, Broden, Coptic, Coppergate, Dalby, Danish, Dublin, Finnish, Korgen, Mammen, Omani, Oslo, Russian, Saltdal, Tarim, and York. All these stitches and their variants belong to one of three categories: simple looping, complex looping, and advanced looping. While Oslo stitch is considered complex looping, many beginners start with this stitch. Studies have found that dog, cow, and human hair, as well as wool and plant materials have all been used in ancient nålbound items. Yarn made with fibers that will felt are recommended for modern nålbinders, making wool the perfect medium. Because natural fibers deteriorate and decompose over time, it is hard to find complete and pristine nålbound artifacts. The examples that do exist are either preserved religious items or were discovered in types of soil with properties that slowed the decomposition process. Sometimes these artifacts are mislabeled as examples of early knitted garments. Coptic stitch looks identical to knitting’s twisted stockinette stitch. While archeologists have not identified a specific link between nålbinding and knitting, perhaps nålbound items served as inspiration for ancient inventive fiber artists. Below are some examples of nålbinding stitches and nålbound artifacts. 

Coptic Stitch
This is a wool child’s sock found in Al Fayyūm, Egypt dating back to the Late Antique - Early Byzantine periods (4th-5th century) currently in the Walter Massey Collection at the Royal Ontario Museum. (1)
York Stitch
York Coppergate Sock - Katie Joachim
The Coppergate Sock dates to the 10th century and resides in the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England. Here you can see that it has been mended by the original wearer. This is the only known example of York stitch.
Saltdal Stitch
Cap of St. Simeon dates back to 1000 AD. and is currently held at the Trier Cathedral in Trier, Germany. This woolen relic was once believed to cure the wearer of a headache. (2)

When I attended the Jorvik Viking Festival in York, England, I had no idea nålbinding existed. That is until I met Emma Boast, one of two full-time professional nålbinding artists in the world. She was just as eager to introduce me to the craft as I was surprised to discover it! I purchased her wooden and bone needles with the intent to give nålbinding a try, but she said a darning needle would work just as well for those who aren’t looking to dive headfirst into a new craft. I’m sure most fiber artists can find one of these notions lying around: who doesn’t love already having all the materials for a new project? With my new arsenal at hand, and a creative boost from Ms. Boast, I began my deep dive into the art of nålbinding.

My first nålbound project is an Oslo stitch hat. I made this from Mrs. Moon Plump yarn alongside a hand-dyed wool yarn I acquired at the Jorvik Viking Festival. The wool was dyed with madder root, which ancient Noresemen used to dye their textiles. This hat is sturdy. It feels secure on my head, almost like someone is warming my forehead with their hands. Some nålbinders have mentioned one hat taking 140 hours of work. But don’t be alarmed! Constructing my hat took me about 8 hours to complete once I understood how to make the Oslo stitch. I attribute my speed to the bulky yarn. I would highly recommend new nålbinders starting with thicker material. Not only will it be easier to manage on your needle and thumb, but it will also yield a finished project in no time.

One of nålbinding’s biggest draws for many makers is the lack of ends to be woven in once a project is finished. Spit-splicing is encouraged and highly recommended by expert nålbinders. However, if you are averse to working with damp yarn, it is possible to weave in your ends. But weaver beware! Nålbinding is worked with one to two yards of yarn at a time, like how hand stitching or embroidery uses thread in short lengths. This construction can lead to over 20 ends in one adult hat. Madness! Spit-splicing is indeed your friend. Another downside to this technique is that it is surprisingly hard on one’s wrists. Tugging and pulling the yarn fatigued my hands and wrists, and I had to take breaks every few rounds. But the product is well worth the trouble. Those who reside in cold climes should invest in a set of woolen nålbound hats and mittens. I could also see nålbound slippers being the ultimate luxury. This fabric does not have a great deal of drape because of the tight stitches, so garments that are intended to have structure would take to this technique beautifully. Adjusting your gauge to create larger loops with a thinner weight of yarn will allow for drape, but the final product will have wider gaps than what would be considered acceptable for traditional nålbinding. One of the best parts about nålbinding is that each stitch is a knot. You never have to worry about your whole project unraveling if you drop a loop, and you can end your project whenever you see fit. Additionally, you can work your fabric flat without needing to turn your work or you can just as easily work in the round. The simplicity of the nålbinding process makes it a great place to start for someone who is just beginning their journey into fiber arts.

Now why should you take my advice to give nålbinding a try? You probably already have a work-in-progress and are spending your free time perfecting your chosen craft. I have made one finished nålbound item and have attempted only a handful of stitches. The fact that I am a beginner who is eager to return should be convincing! Often, we crafters dip our toes into a new craft and immediately return to our first love. But expanding your technical repertoire not only will give you more options when it comes to using your ever-growing stash, but it will also make you a better artist. Practicing multiple disciplines always allows your creativity to run wild. Nålbinding can create durable bags and straps or even strengthen a hem; it can support a seam or be the warm lining of a mitten. The possibilities are endless! I firmly believe that engaging with the past enriches our present. Nålbinding is the perfect example of an ancient artform standing the test of time and continuing to be a relevant and useful technique for modern makers to apply to their projects.

If you would like to learn more about these techniques and the history of nålbinding, please reference Emma Boast’s YouTube channel Nidavellnir Nålbinding. Ulrike Claßen-Büttner’s book Nålbinding – What in the World is That?:History and Technique of an Almost Forgotten Handicraft includes patterns as well as a comprehensive history of the craft. If you would prefer to browse digitally, www.en.neulakintaat.fi/1 is a wonderful resource. Satu Hovi has also done extensive research on medieval practices, including nålbinding, and her wealth of knowledge can be found at www.katajahovi.org.

Katie Joachim is an actor, theater educator, and creative who is currently based in Kentucky, USA. She first learned to knit when she was 10 years old and has been actively pursuing the fiber arts for the last nine years. She has always been fascinated by the past, which spurred her interests in knitting, crochet, and, most recently, nålbinding. Her favorite part about the fiber arts is how it brings communities and generations together. Katie and her creations can be found on Instagram and Ravelry.



1) Coptic sock: Köstner, Barbara. Colourful Past: Nålbinding Objects from the Late Roman Times in the ROM.2016, Royal Ontario Museum, https://www.rom.on.ca/en/collections-research/research-community-projects/veronika-gervers-research-fellow/barbara-kostner


2) Claßen-Büttner, Ulrike Nålbinding – What in the World Is That?: History and Technique of an AlmostForgotten Handicraft. Books on Demand, 24 April 2015. Page 49.



Boast, Emma. “Nalbinding: Protecting an endangered heritage craft for the future.” Medievalists.net,

https://www.medievalists.net/2019/05/nalbinding-protecting-endangered-h  eritage-craft/.


Carpenter, Daniel. “Nalbinding.” Heritage Crafts, 9 March 2019, https://heritagecrafts.org.uk/nalbinding/.


Hamilton, Clare. “Before There was Knitting.” The Brooklyn Refinery. https://thebrooklynrefinery.com/nalbinding/.


Hemingway, Penelope. “Nålbinding: A Short History of an Ancient Craft.”

Spinofl Magazine, 17 October 2022,

https://spinoffmagazine.com/nalbinding-a-short-history-of-an-ancient-cra ft/.


“Nalbinding. The Archaeological Evidence 8th-11th Century AD. Free Online Lecture.” YouTube, uploaded by Nidavellnir Nalbinding, 11 April 2021, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kend-6O9hKQ&t=2925s.