by Linda Moore, Curator of Collections
In the world of museum collections the words “I think you’re going to want to see this” can always go sweet or sour, meaning either “You’ve better come see this right away if you want to have any chance of averting impending disaster,” or “I just found something really fantastic that you’re going to love.” I’ve learned not to bother asking questions when someone uses this phrase, so last week when my collections co-worker Leigh sent word that she’d found a shawl that I was “going to want to see” I zipped down to the Museum’s collections storage right away; bracing myself for the first possibility, while double crossing my fingers that it was the second.
What Leigh had uncovered in her inventory of our textile collection was a beautiful, airy shawl made out of fine black yarn using a technique I had never seen before. A net-like pattern of loose loops forms the shawl’s outer border, with the loops doubled up and crowded together intermittently into denser decorative shapes. The center portion of the shawl is more solid, but still formed out of rows and rows of loose loops. Between this center and the outer border is a single row of thickly layered, larger loops – loops just the size you’d get if you wrapped yarn ‘round and ‘round your thumb. The overall appearance of the shawl, while precisely and sturdily made, is loose, loopy, and wonderfully organic – as if it had grown rather than been made.
Word spread quickly among the crafty, knitty, and textile-loving members of our Museum staff, and each one examined the shawl. We remained stumped. Definitely not knitted, it doesn’t look like crochet either. There is no obvious network of knots, or interlocked chains. Someone suggested it could be Estonian knitted lace, or Chantilly lace but neither of these matched its look. Back in 1948 the shawl’s donor had identified it as a “mantilla” from 1840 this sent me Googling the paintings of Francisco Goya – but the somber black lace mantillas (which are, apparently always triangular, while our piece is rectangular) depicted on Goya’s senoras reflected none of the loose and whimsical nature of our piece.
Thankfully, an answer to this knotty puzzle came from a knowledgeable staff member of the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, in Berkeley, California. She confidently identified our shawl as a piece of nålbindning or needle binding. Nålbindning, I now know, is an ancient needlework technique that is said to predate knitting by about 2000 years. It is done with a single, eyed needle and short sections of yarn. The yarn is worked by forming loops, often around a thumb or needle, which are anchored but not pulled tight. Though much slower working than conventional knitting, nålbindning produces a more durable fabric because the thread is drawn and anchored through each stitch, and therefore resists raveling even if ripped. This technique was used extensively throughout Scandinavia during the Viking Age to create warm, woolen garments, and it remained popular in Sweden through the 20th century. A quick internet search reveals that it is still being taught and used among fiber artists; nålbindning instructions and patterns are available from a variety of needlework and folk art sites (take a look if you want to give nålbindning a try!).
I am so excited to come across a new needlework method to experiment with! And I find it so inspiring that the personal garment of one of our community’s residents, preserved in our local history collection, can provide us a glimpse of one of humankind’s earliest fabric construction techniques; an example of the global element in even the most humble and homey aspects of our lives. That phrase “you’re going to want to see this” definitely went the right way with this amazing shawl, giving us another one we use a lot, “Another great day in Collections!”