Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Nalbinding in Unexpected Places

"Tailor's" buttonhole stitch.
Original graphic by Grace Christie,
"Embroidery and Tapestry Weaving",
 downloaded from Wikimedia Commons
Open buttonhole stitch.
From "Ancient Danish Textiles", p. 284 
Now it's October, and I'm still working on nalbinding at odd moments.  I have no news to report on that project, but while looking for more information about nalbinding I learned a few interesting facts that relate to nalbinding and that may not be commonly known.  In particular, simple nalbinding turns up in textile finds where I did not suspect it existed.

The one that surprised me most is that the neckline of the Skyrdstrup blouse is decorated with a few lines of nalbinding.  I learned that from Susanna Broome's booklet, Nalbinding from Finds. The stitching is what we know of today as "buttonhole stitch."* However, if you work buttonhole stitch along a line of previously worked buttonhole stitch, or along a loop of thread, instead of through fabric, the result is a very simple form of nalbinding.  Ulrike Claßen-Büttner, in her recent book "Nalbinding - What in the World Is That?: History and Technique of an Almost Forgotten Handicraft," (Books on Demand 2015), calls this technique "simple looping"(page 21) and classifies it as a simple nalbinding stitch.
Twisted buttonhole stitch.
From "Ancient Danish Textiles," p. 284

In "Ancient Textiles from Bogs and Burials", Margrethe Hald discusses the Skrydstrup blouse and other instances of buttonhole stitch that were used as ornamentation.  One might deduce from this that the humble "buttonhole" stitch had many decorative uses in antiquity and the early medieval period.  Hald notes that at least one find of a cap worked in open buttonhole stitch has been found.  More interestingly, a scrap of textile worked in twisted buttonhole stitch, a variation of buttonhole stitch, was found at Ordrup Mose and has been dated to the New Stone Age (Hald, p. 283).

Another interesting use for buttonhole stitch involves using it to create loops for a button, toggle, or similar fastener.  On her blog, "Research Dumping Grounds", Mistress Sylvie la chardonnière discusses Penelope Walton Rogers's analysis of 6th century CE Kentish finds which indicate that Kentish women fastened their long coats with a brooch though such loops, worked in linen thread.

The lesson here, as is so often the case in examining archaeological textile finds, is not to import one's assumptions into the examination.  Many of us do not think of buttonhole stitch as embroidery, let alone an art that can create a textile, but it's clear from early finds that it has been used that way, and that use of needle looping (which is what the term "nalbinding" means) goes way back into the distant past.  Clothing technologies change, and any study of pre-modern costume must remain alert to that fact.

* Some people equate "buttonhole stitch" with "blanket stitch", but the two stitches, though very similar, are not the same. This site has a good explanation of the difference.  By the definition provided on the Nordic Needle, Hald's diagram of buttonhole stitch on p. 284 of "Ancient Danish Textiles" is actually blanket stitch, which is why I have not reproduced it here.


  1. Clueless sewing n00b here (my wife Kathi has to stifle a laugh every time I try to sew on a button, and I delegate every other more complicated task to her):

    Is there any pragmatic reason (strength, durability, etc.) for using anything more than a simple buttonhole stitch in places where people have historically used fancier stitches? Or is it just decoration beyond the merely functional?

  2. Actually, John, part of the point of my post is that the "simple" buttonhole stitch is not so simple; it can be very decorative (e.g., made into a bit of looped trim or a background for embroidery) as well as practical (strengthening the naked edge of a piece of fabric).

    Historically, stitches used on garments were practical first and foremost; the uses of buttonhole stitch I talk about above are the first flamboyantly decorative stitch I've heard of on early garments. But then, as more archaeological remains of early garments surface, it becomes clearer that early garment making (and by early I mean anything before the Renaissance) combines the decorative and practical. For example, Viking age remains of a woman's garment at Hedeby feature two-colored cord being sewn over the seams.

    Buttonhole stitch's cousin, blanket stitch, adds a nice touch to edges and strengthens them as well. In fact, buttonhole stitch wasn't typically used for buttonholes until later in history. Until about the 14th century most garments closed with pins or by being belted.