Nålbinding 101: Introduction to the “Åsle” stitch
Lady Sabine du Coeurgris
I took an intensive hands-on nålbinding at Pennsic War XXVIII, and these instructions are based on what I learned there. The stitch covered here is the “Åsle” stitch, after a mitten found in the Åsle Mose in Vestergotland, Sweden, which was dated (by the pollen in it!!!) to the 4th century. Even though the actual stitch when done in a line diagram looks a bit daunting, working the stitch is rather simple, once you get going. Some say that nålbinding is MUCH slower than “regular” knitting; I’m not an exceptionally experienced knitter, so I’m not a great judge. This stitch seems to go somewhat slower, but not incredibly so.
Starting from Scratch
Get a nice blunt needle. The one I used at War was “Jumbo Tapestry Needles, bent point” (brand name Clover, ART No.219). This needle works rather well; it is the needle in the photos. You can use just about any needle that has a very blunt point. I recommend a short needle, one not much over 2 inches.
Get some honest-to-goodness wool of about worsted weight. You can use either plied or unplied yarn. If you choose a plied yarn, get one that is not loosely plied, as a loosely plied yarn can make it difficult to figure out which two bits are plied together when you pick up stitches from the previous row. The only drawback I find with single ply wool is that it doesn’t survive being pulled through the work as well as plied wool, so you’d need to work with shorter lengths of yarn. I recommend trying a light color for learning, as the lines of the threads are easier to see.
One perk of wool yarn (there are many!) is that it can be joined in a felted fashion as follows: fluff the ends of the yarn to be joined, over lap them, wet them with something readily available (spit works nicely, and wherever you are, it’s there with you…), then rub the mass between your palms until you feel a goodly bit of heat. The join thus made is strong enough to work with, though it is a weakness in the yarn and if you tug on it hard enough, it will give. Note that the yarn should be broken and not cut to join in this fashion; the joins will be smoother.
(Note: click on any image to view a larger version)
Break off about a yard of yarn and thread the needle. Start by wrapping the yarn twice around the top of your left forefinger, then cross the needled end over the wraps as in figure 1 below.
Cover the cross with your thumb, and carefully slide the loops off of your forefinger so that you end up pinching the crossed area between your thumb and forefinger as in figure 2. Adjust the loops so that the top/forward loop is “up” and the bottom loop is “down,” as in the figure.
Weave the needle under the bottom loop, over the top loop, under the bottom, and finally over the top. Make sure that the yarn at the top is behind the needle (figure 3).
Pinch the weaving/loops between your thumb and forefinger. Drape the big loop of yarn in such a fashion so that it will be caught on your thumb, and pull the needle through, snugging the loop down to your thumb, resting somewhere along or at the base of your thumbnail.
IMPORTANT: Your thumb is your gauge in this technique. By always snugging the loop down to the same tautness and to the same spot on your thumb, you will achieve a nice even stitch. Take a moment now to feel where the loop is and how tight the loop is.
Now, rotate your hand a bit and look at what you’ve got on the pad of your thumb. It should resemble figure 4. Take note of the important features: the bottom loop, the top loop, and the point where the needle yarn crosses under the thumb loop.
Starting from underneath the loops, pick up the bottom loop on the needle (figure 5), then the top loop. Then twist the needle so that you can slide it under the cross of yarns (figure 6).
Pinch the weaving/loops as you did before, slide the loop off of your thumb, and pull the needle through, catching a new thumb loop and snugging it down as you did before.
On the pad of your thumb, you should now have something resembling figure 7. The key features here are the top loop, the old thumb loop, and the cross of yarns. You’ve completed the foundation stitch, and now you’re ready for the Åsle stitch proper.
The Åsle Stitch:
Starting from underneath the loop, pick up the top loop on the needle and give it a GENTLE tug down (figure 8). This GENTLE tug helps keep the stitch nicely balanced, maintaining an even gauge.
Next, pick up the old thumb loop from underneath (figure 9), and then slide the needle under the cross (figure 10).
Pinch the loops between your thumb and forefinger, slip the loop off of your thumb, and pull the yarn through, catching a new and “snug” thumb loop.
Continue for a few more stitches. If you look at the work from behind, you should see something akin to figure 11.
Where you begin the pivot is a matter of taste. If you want your sock tapered to the line of your toes, work sufficient length to span the big toe and the next 2. If you want a very square toe, work sufficient length to span the width of your foot. Or you could shoot for something in between. (I should note that this method of pivoting is not the only way to start a sock, but we’re only going to cover one method here. In Nålbinding 102, I intend to cover variations to the sock, including a circular start.)
When you’re ready to pivot, select a loop near the bottom of the work, near the last worked stitch and put the needle into this loop before working your next stitch (see figure 12).
You will probably need to work about 5 stitches (more or less, depending on your yarn, your thumb, etc.) into your pivot. With each new stitch, pick up the original “pivot loop” before working the stitch. (You can create a very nice pivot by alternating between two loops, but it’s easier to learn this way. Using the same pivot loop for all stitches in the pivot tends to make a little hole, and you may want to experiment with pivoting before actually beginning a sock.)
Once you’ve gotten a 180º pivot, you’re ready to work across the bottom of the previous row. Look at this edge; you should see that the threads look almost like a chain of crochet. Slide the needle under a “link” of the chain, as shown in figure 13, and then work the stitch. Continue across the bottom edge of the previous row, slipping the needle under the a new “link” for each new stitch.
At the end of the row, you need to do another pivot. Choose a pivot loop (or loops) just like before, and work until you’ve gone through 180º. You’re now ready to work across the top of the very first row of stitches. This method of working across the top of a previous row will be repeated throughout the sock, with one row worked across the bottom of a previous row in the heel.
Look at the work. You should notice pairs of diagonal threads, rising from left to right, in the row. In between each pair of threads lies a thread running along the opposite diagonal. Slide the needle through the first possible pair of diagonal threads as in figure 14 (note the needle is pulled a bit to the right in figure 14 to show the thread between the pair). Figure 15 shows the row almost finished, with the needle inserted in a pair of diagonal threads, ready to work the next stitch.
Figure 15 also shows the work at a point where an increase needs to be made, namely where the pivot was.
To do an increase, work a normal stitch, having caught a pair of diagonal threads. Then work another stitch in the SAME pair of diagonal threads. Figure 16, if you look closely, shows the needle being put into a pair of diagonal threads in which a stitch has already been worked.
It’s a good idea to do at least one “regular” stitch in between increases or decreases to keep the work smooth. It’s not always possible to do this, but is does look very nice if you can. I’ve found that to create a nicely tapered toe, you need to do an increase on each side (at each pivot) for the first 2 or 3 rows, then just increase on the outside of the foot until you’ve worked to the ball of the foot. Slide your foot into the work every once in a while to see how it feels. It shouldn’t be exceptionally loose, but make sure it’s not tight if you want to be able to get your foot in the sock when it’s done. You should work to just behind the arch of the foot, where there’s a little bump of bone on the inside of the foot (not to be confused with the BIG bump of bone at the ankle). You’ll then be ready for Nålbinding 102: Turning the Heel of the Sock and Some Variations (which is under construction).
One final technique that I’ll cover here is decreasing. You probably won’t have to decrease until you start working the heel, but I thought it might be better to present this now, just in case.
A decrease sort of combines 2 adjacent pairs of diagonal threads from the previous row, treating them as one, and then the stitch is worked. For ease of rotation, the pair of diagonals that would normally be worked next is the “first” set, and the pair immediately after those is the “second” set. Pick up the bottom thread of the second set and then the top thread of the first set, as in figure 17. At this point you either need to do some interesting twisting of the needle or you can pull the yarn through, and then you need to pick up the top thread of the second set. In figure 18, I took the pull-through-then-pick-up approach, which is what I do in my own work. You must be careful that the thread does not knot or bunch when you do the final pull-through of the completed stitch.