opinion

Handmade: Ancient fiber art is practiced by re-enactor

Cristina Yonce, 30, who does nalbinding, shows off her materials and tools as well as finished items.
Cristina Yonce, 30, who does nalbinding, shows off her materials and tools as well as finished items.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News
Aa

 

Nalbinding has been around for centuries, yet few, especially here in the U.S., know of this ancient technique for looping pieces of yarn together with an instrument shaped similar to that of a sewing needle.

Cristina Yonce of St. Clair Shores is a self-taught nalbinder who has practiced the rare art form for about the past 15 years, using it to create "traditional pieces" -- socks, mittens, hats and coin purses. And, both she and her mother, Cyndi Keith of Roseville, are part of a medieval re-enactment group, called The Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). Many of her nalbinded accessories are used with the re-enactments.  

"It was very hard to learn because Youtube wasn't a big thing at the time, so I had to learn off of written instructions," said Yonce. "A lot of it, I Googled and was able to find it online. There was one website that a Finnish lady had put up with instructions with a small video that was in all Finnish. I couldn't understand the words, so I just watched it over and over -- probably for days. It was very, very confusing. No one in our (SCA) group was doing it at the time." 

A wool hand bag by Cristina Yonce using nalbinding.
A wool hand bag by Cristina Yonce using nalbinding.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

One might wonder, what attracted her to nalbinding, instead of a more commonly practiced needleart? "It interests me because it is typically associated with the Viking culture," she said. "My interest was in the historical aspects of it, and nobody else, locally, knew how to do it, so I wanted to figure it out for myself. (Now), there are some nalbinders here in Michigan, but it's a lesser known art. It's more of an online community, rather than meeting-up in person and doing it. 

"Knitting was developed around the year 1000, and nalbinding fell out around the 15th century because knitting was faster," she continued. "Crocheting developed after knitting. I think one of the earliest documented patterns for crochet was around the 18th or 19th century. It was practiced before then, but not written down. It's hard to document a lot of this stuff. We have to go by when it was written down, or appeared in paintings."

Yonce said one of the oldest nalbinded pieces ever found dates back to 6500 B.C. "It developed independently around the world," she said. "There are pieces found in China, Peru, Scandinavia and Egypt."  

In terms of fiber, Yonce said "I always use wool because you have to cut off short pieces (of yarn) and bind them together. It's more akin to sewing with yarn, than it is to crocheting or knitting because you have to keep cutting pieces off and felting the ends together. I get the ends flat and I strand them together, and then rub them between my hands, felting them so there's no knot or anything,"

She said, needles for nalbinding come in different sizes, shapes and materials. "The ones I like to work with are made out of bone and antler. I feel they're a little smoother and easier for me to work with, but it's all about personal preference. That's actually how I named my shop -- Bone and Birch Needleworks. "The holes (or eyes) are (also) different sizes, and some of the needles can be very round with a pointed end. I like a thinner needle with a very pointed end for dense stitches, and I like the flat, wide needle for loser stitches." As with knitting and crocheting, the stitch determines the amount of give in the fabric. 

Yonce, 30, sells her work mostly through Etsy.com, under Boneandbirchnw. "I mostly sell to historical re-enactors across the U.S. and Europe, so I try to keep the pieces historically accurate. I don't follow patterns. They're more difficult than knitting or crocheting patterns." Prices range from $10-$12 for a coin bag, up to over $100 for a pair of knee-high socks.

The nalbinding aficionado is happy to share her knowledge and skills with others, and at no charge! " I just like showing people and spreading the word," she said. "Typically, the audience I get are people interested in the historical aspect of it. People joke that 'It's not your grandmother's knitting.' They contact me about learning. I (also) have people, who have done knitting for a long time, who are very interested in learning it to, I find." 

This image demonstrates the size of nalbinding needles.
This image demonstrates the size of nalbinding needles.
Clarence Tabb Jr., The Detroit News

Yonce, who recently taught her mother nalbinding, hopes to do more teaching, but said, "It can be hard to teach in a group setting, so when I teach, I do it one-on-one. I think it's easier for a lot of people to learn in person, than it is to learn online because you have someone there to help you troubleshoot." 

At the recent "Textile Takeover" event, hosted by Post in Detroit, Yonce attracted many interested show-goers -- knitters and crocheters among them -- as she demonstrated nalbinding stitches, and offered needles and accessories for sale. The needles, she said, were purchased from a friend who "makes them off of trees from her yard."  

Detroit News columnist Jocelynn Brown is a longtime Metro Detroit crafter. You can reach her at (313) 222-2150, jbrown@detroitnews.com or facebook.com/DetroitNewsHandmade.

Contact Bone and Birch Needleworks through Etsy (Boneandbirchnw), or on Instagram (boneandbirch). Email: boneandbirchnw@gmail.com.

Share This Story