Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Making Connections - Iceland - part 4 of 4

A basket of stones - someone has very carefully made a hole in each. They are in  Skogar museum, South Iceland.   They are weights used on a Viking warp-weighted loom. Watch this short video clip, recorded in Norway, in 1956. The film is part of the archive at Norway.

 Auður Hildur Hákonardóttir (one of our Icelandic hosts) has one of these looms in her house, a long term collaboration and research project she has been working on with other makers/artists. We didn't have time to see it in action. 

The Vikings used many different textile techniques, including  'needle-binding' (nalbinding / naalbinding). Like the term, knitting, within the term 'needle-binding', there are many many different variations, some simple and others very complex.  
Knitting was not introduced to Iceland until the 16th
Century.  Needlebinding pre-dates knitting
The basic technique involves making a loop and feeding all of your yarn through it to make the next loop. This means you will have to work with short lengths of yarn, adding more as required. 

Sound familiar? For those of you following my research, you'll know that this description also fits the technique one once used by Angus MacpPhee 'weaver' of grass to make garments .

  Looping - knotless netting - weaving without foundation - needle-binding and Vattarsaumur: 
Are all names given to techniques where you need a short lenght of yarn to work with, pulling all of your yarn through each loop to make the next. This sets them apart from knitting or crochet.
These gloves and mittens were made by Marianne Guckelsberger from Reykjavik Iceland.  Our Icelandic hosts arranged for Marianne to come along and demonstrate her needle binding.  She's done loads of research investigating the variations, and showed me two techniques, one was called 'coppergate', named after the needle bound sock found in  Coppergate,York in England and is on display in the JorviK Viking centre.  This sock had a red edge, and might have been an indication of status (I forget now where I read that)?  They were made from wool. At the end of the weaving process on the weighted loom, there is natural wastage as you have to cut your cloth free. Hildur wondered, if these short ends of woollen yarn were used for needle binding - nothing wasted, and short lengths are perfect for the technique.  
A few times a year, Sheila Roderick from the Scalpay Weaving Shed in the Western Isles, sends me this natural wastage from her linen weaving...... I make it into paper.  

This cow hair milk-strainer was made by Þórður Tómasson and is on display at his museum in Skogar,  South Iceland.   Þórður told me of the superstition that horse hair should be used for anything do to with horses, and cow hair used for anything to do with cows.  It was high up on the wall, and I couldn't see the technique used to make it.

This short film was recorded in 1943, Norway, and is now part of archive collection at    in Norway. The clip showing carding hair, then needle binding starts just under 6 minutes in to the film.
 Searching the net, I found this website from a textile museum in North Iceland, which shows a horse hair shoe, made using the needle binding technique. They also show examples of knitted in-soles.
Finds of Viking garments made using the needle-binding technique are few, there was however a significant find in Iceland. 
This 10th Century glove (Icelandic Vattarsaumur) was found near Geysir in South Iceland. It is now in the National Museum of Iceland on display.
   I was privileged to get a much closer look at the glove on our last day Iceland as Hildur had arranged from me to meet with Freja Hlidkvist Omarsdottir, Curator of Collections at The National Museum Of Iceland. 
 Freya is wearing a very nice cardigan, she knitted herself (she's just started making her second one!)   I was able to see that the only apparent damage to the glove must have happened while it was underground.  The technique of needle-binding is very slow, but it makes a very thick fabric. A Viking wife must have been annoyed, having just finished making it, her husband or son, then lost it !!   
 The sock found in York, England and this glove found in Iceland, might have both been made in Denmark/Norway/Sweden, or a  Viking continued the technique after re-settling. 
Over time, by different cultures across the world, people have had a need to make a bag to carry something, or wear for comfort or protection. With limited or no tools, using local materials, they have independently 'invented' this technique of looping. It continues today with Australian Aborigine looped bags. The Vikings developed it further into more complex structures, and brought it with them to Iceland and the UK.  Angus MacPhee also 'invented' the technique during his time at Craig Dunain - he would not have known about looping or nalbinding.  
The textile technique of nalbinding is now being revived in Iceland, but  apparently it is a living tradition in  some Scandinavian countries as it has never disappeared.
With much thanks to the National Museum of Iceland for permission to use the photographs I took of the glove.
The rich colours of these woollen gloves may have been the original colour of the wool, but  probably from the earth they were buried in.                          Watch this space....... while in Iceland we experimented with earth ochres and volcanic ash as pigments for papermaking........Auður Hildur Hákonardóttir may use the results of the groups collaborative pulping as part of her exhibition in at the Nordic Centre in Reykjavik.
I'll finish my Icelandic adventures with  a handful of stones.....   The first, I found near Geysir (Martin Clark shared info on the special location.....) They are petrified birch leaves.
And this Icelandic ghost stone.   At the last supper in Iceland (cooked by our friends from Slovakia), Arnþrúður Sæmundsdóttir  gave us each one of these special ghost catchers.
 Arnþrúður also talked about, obsidian. Now, there is a piece of obsidian in Mary-Ann's cottage, near my house in Caithness, Scotland.  This piece of stone was considered to be a healing stone, used on people and animals.  However, Arnþrúður said something very quickly, and mentioned that if given to a couple, it may result in divorce................! 
Thanks to our Icelandic hosts for a fantastic trip.
Halldóra Óskarsdóttir
Hildur Hákonardóttir
Harpa Ólafsdóttir
Þórey Axelsdóttir
Margrét Jónsdóttir
Arnþrúður Saemundsdóttir
Lots more photos on my flickr from our Icelandic trip here.

The funders for this Icelandic adventure were Grundtvig, ARCH and the partners in Iceland were Thingborg or 'The Wool House'. 


  1. Very very interesting your creative adventure in Iceland Joanne! lots of congrats. Thanks for sharing expertise so precious!

  2. Yes, amazing! I visited a small local archaeological museum in North Yorkshire a couple of years ago, and they had made up an Anglo-Saxon loom which used stones (from the East Yorkshire coast, where we get lots of naturally occurring holed stones) for the loom weights. I took photos and put it up on my blog; can't remember the date though, sorry! I love learning about all these connections, and overlaps. Of course around this part of northern England we were part of the Danegeld. There's a long history of Viking culture and interaction. Thanks Joanne

  3. a grand post, joanne, and so much interesting stuff! i watched that weaver and thought i'm not sure i would weave if it required such "grunt" work. and petrified birch leaves, well it boggles the mind. really fascinating! (iceland is one of those places i dream of visiting)

  4. I find the notion of using the scraps from weighted looms for needlebinding - that makes a lot of sense to me! Hm... must investigate further!