The history, origins, construction and use of 'needle-binding' with specific reference to the 'Coppergate sock'.
Nålebinding is a textile technique where the material is produced in a darning technique, with a coarse needle and length of plied yarn, and where the thread of the new stitch is passed arbitrarily through at least two unfinished thread loops of arbitrary size.
Several different forms of nålebinding are known, from very simple to highly complicated and they are described by the course of the needle and thread through the loops already. Up to 1024 variations of one form of nålebinding are possible. The arbitrary way in which nålebinding is produced means that the technique can be employed for thick materials using small loops as well as for more loose materials. Most of the preserved fragments seem to have had a finger used as a gauge for the size of the loops.
Origins and history
The technique of working a fabric of interlocking loops with a needle and thread may be traced back as far as the neolithic period. From C4-C6 Egypt there are several examples of sandal socks worked in a form of nålebinding which resembles true knitting, and for this reason the technique is sometimes called 'single-needle knitting', to distinguish it from knitting on two needles.
From the Viking period there are two examples of nålebinding mittens from Iceland and some fragments from graves in Finland. There is also a panel of gold mesh worked in the technique in a C10 silk from Mammen, Denmark, and from further afield, a nålebinding cap from C9-C10 Antinoe, Egypt. From Novgorod, there are nine fragments of nålebinding but only one of these is C10, the rest being medieval. Most examples of the technique from the medieval period come from excavations in Scandinavia, Finland, Poland, Russia and from wealthy royal and ecclesiastical tombs scattered through Europe. A nålebinding sock was also found from late medieval Uppsala, Sweden. The technique is best know from mittens, and appears to have been climate-dependent as, apart from Northern Europe, it is also widely know in the mountain areas of Central Asia, where it is still as common as knitting is here.
The 'Coppergate sock'
During excavation of the Coppergate area of York, a find came to light from the backyard of one of the C10 wattle buildings, which clearly indicated a Viking influence in the textiles. This was the wool sock, worked in nålebinding, a technique never before recorded in England. The sock is slipper-like in style, that is it would originally have covered the whole foot, probably stopping short of the ankle. It was constructed using an unsophisticated and interesting variant on method of nålebinding, using the stitch UU/OOO F2 in the Hansen notation. The sock is worked with S-spun, and Z-plied wool. There is evidence of some of the yarn used being dyed with madder.
Construction of the 'Coppergate sock'
The work starts at the toe, where a single loop of wool yarn is made and then a circular row of loops is worked into it. For the next row, the looping is continued, passing the needle through the centre of the first row; after two loops have been completed, the needle starts to be brought back through the next to last loop of the current row. The work is continued in this manner, passing the needle through the row below and back through the last loop. The effect of this technique is to produce a heavy, almost double-thickness fabric, of great elasticity.
New lengths of yarn must have been joined in at intervals but, as there are no loose ends visible, they must either have been joined by splicing or stitched into the fabric. As the work was continued round after round, shaping was added by working extra loops into the row below, or by missing a lower loop out. At the heel, the line of work has been turned back on itself several times to form the heel shaping. At the ankle it circles round a few more times until the last row, which is worked in a smooth dark yarn, dyed with madder (dye tests on the rest of the sock were negative). Because this technique does not unravel, no special finishing border is needed, and it is therefore uncertain whether this last row was a decorative edge or whether the sock continued in to a stocking with a red coloured leg.
Reference: Walton, Penelope. 1990. "Textile production at Coppergate, York: Anglo-Saxon or Viking?" in Textiles in Northern Archaeology (NESAT Symposium 3) ed. Penelope Walton and John-Peter Wild. London
Evidence of nålebinding socks in our period
Whether socks, in our meaning of the word, were known at all to the Anglo-Saxons is open to question. Evidence from graves is sparse since the area around the foot is rarely well preserved. It is possible that a female child in a C7 burial at Totternhoe, Bedfordshire, may have been wearing stockings or slippers made of textile, but the evidence is based only on an imprint in mud. The words meo, socc and caerles are to be found in Anglo-Saxon texts, indicating foot covering of some sort, but whether these represent socks, stockings or shoes is uncertain. In Anglo-Saxon manuscript illustrations both sexes either wear ankle-height shoes which would hide socks of the Coppergate style or else they go barefoot. Men are usually depicted wearing what may be loose wrinkled hose, presumably of cloth or puttee-type leg-bindings - the illustrations are not clear. However, Scandinavian King Cnut (in BL Stowe MS 944 of A.D. 1020-30) appears to be wearing closer fitting hose or knee length socks, with a decorative band just below the knee.
Original article by Elaine Hutchinson 1992
Corrected in line with new datings Hazel Uzzell 2004. Reviewed by Jane Anders, 2020.
Evidence of nålebinding in our period
Coppergate Sock (see above) Fragment, Fishamble St, Dublin, Ireland