It makes sense, really. Naalbinding is perhaps the most ancient form of creating garments from yarn. The craft utilizes a large-eyed needle, which could easily have “morphed” into a crochet hook; both arts pull yarn through loops to create intricate and beautiful patterns.
A TIME magazine article, Science: Cave Cache, published Monday, April 8, 1985, describes some astonishing artifacts found in a cave in Israel, and dated around 9,000 years ago from today (give or take several hundred years). The article says that in addition to the oldest painted mask ever found, the artifacts include:
“…basket and box fragments made of woven rushes waterproofed with asphalt, delicate thumbnail-size human heads and a rodent figurine, carved wood and bone tools, clay, stone and wooden beads and a human skull adorned with asphalt. Perhaps most remarkable are the fabrics, which are woven in eleven intricate designs, some resembling knotted macrame, others fine mesh.” (italics added)
In a previous post, I described a tomb wall-painting found at Beni Hasan in Egypt, dated around 2000 BC, that depicts at least two weavers and a spinner in great detail. That’s old!! But the remnants described above date 5,000 years earlierthan those tomb wall paintings. We are now stepping so far back into the past that it is fuzzy and mysterious. Who really knows what was happening in 8,000 BC? It is precisely at the point of “fuzzy” and “mysterious” that our biases emerge. (There’s lots of room for MSU.) For many scientists and archeologists, “primitive” and “intricately designed” just don’t go together, and that interests me.
I thought of this assumed contradiction again as I read descriptions of Naalebinding as “primitive knitting.” Primitive is most often used in a pejorative sense, implying not only from the fuzzy past, but also meaning “being little evolved, uncivilized, characterized by simplicity or crudity.”
When I finally saw examples of Naalebinding, my first thought was “there’s NOTHING primitive about this!” In fact, Naalbinding is a complicated series of intricate loops created with yarn threaded through a large needle’s eye, rather than looped with two straight needles, as we know knitting today. I will agree that this form of constructing garments is primitive, but only if we use THIS definition: primitive: “not derived by something else; basic.”
Naalebinding is primitive in that it is the first form of knitting. Nothing about it is “crude, unevolved, uncivilized.” The technique produces quite lovely, smart, well-designed material objects such as dense, warm mittens, socks, hats, and sweaters. So, our 8,000 year-old ancestors not only made warm clothing to survive their winters, but they also expressed themselves creatively in design…isn’t creative expression the most basic way we are distinguished from animals?
We are definitely making progress, backward though it is, to find out more about the first fabric techniques. We’ve already found woven flax to be exceedingly ancient, and new finds keep pushing the date back (I’ve seen the date now at 6500 BC, and 32,000 BC!).
So where does that leave knitting? The oldest techniques using needle and yarn are not what we know as knitting today on two needles; however, the variety, beauty, and usefulness of the objects made with the ancient technique of Naalebinding, make it no less a stunning hand craft. Watch this:
The Naalebinding stitches are quite simple, as the knit and purl stitch are in the knitting you might have just put down. And with the same astounding flexibility, the Naalebinding stitches can be endlessly turned into hundreds and hundreds of different patterns, edgings, and embellishments, due to our bottomless capacity for creative expression.
This picture is of a commonly used stitch. The top photo shows the stitches in white cotton, so that the shape stands out:
The bottom photo shows the beginning of an actual garment in bulky weight wool. Garments made from Naalebinding can be extremely dense and warm. When made from wool, the garments can then be felted for additional warmth. Compare the above stitch to this more “complicated” stitch:
You can begin to see that the variety in looping, crossing, and otherwise stitching with the flat needle and yarn can produce beautiful work in the hands of a skilled naalebinder! (Look here on Flickr at the Naalebinder Group! I knew the first garments probably included a purse!)