Antler Needle for Nalbinding

Summary:  I had a notion to create an antler nalbinding needle of my own.  The original plan was to create the needle and then use the needle to create a pair of socks out of nalbinding.  While this did not occur, I did finish the second needle in time and to my liking that it was put to use in creating the heel on my second Coppergate sock.

Picture of Needles from York Archaeology
Extant Examples:  Two surviving antler needle like objects, as well as many in bone, were found in the Coppergate digs.  One, ref# 7919 (MacGregor, et al. p. 2001), is an undecorated antler tine, 103 mm long by 14.1 mm wide by 12 mm thick.  It has a hole through top at a 45 degree angle, entering through the top of the tine and exiting one side.  This could have been used as a nalbinding needle, but I do have my doubts as to it's actual use or effectiveness.  Aside from the placement of the hole, my first needle is much like this surviving sample.  Another extant antler needle, ref# 7706 (MacGregor, et al. p. 1952), is 126.8 mm long and 8.8 mm wide, no notation is given for thickness except that instead of it being an entire tine of antler it is taken from the wall of an antler and is an ovoid flattened section instead of round.  My second needle is similar to 7706 in kind, if not an exact copy. 

IMAGE: Ref: 002215 Needle-like objects from 16-22 Coppergate, 9th/10th century. First needle on the left is the antler needle ref# 7706

Process:  Finding instructions online from Mistress Gunnora Hallakarva, I set forth to make my own needle for nalbinding out of some antler I had on hand.  The antler was a gift from a hunter in Indiana and I am assuming it is white-tailed deer, but I am not certain of the specific breed.   I cut off two tines and set them to soak a few days in cold water.  On the third day I boiled the antler for an hour to soften the material temporarily and worked with the antler wet to control the dust.  MacGregor tells us of a grave site that was originally attributed to a smith that is now thought to be for an antler comb maker.  One of the tools found in an Orkney toolbox (MacGregor p.58) was a pumice stone likely used for sanding the antler to shape and smoothness.  I used a drywall sanding sponge instead of sandpaper or a belt sander to simulate the use of a pumice stone.   In all cases I used only hand tools, except the stated use of the band saw, for sawing, shaping, drilling and sanding to produce the needles.

The first needle was made using the entire sawed off antler tine.  I sanded it smooth and rounded off the blunt edges from where I had separated the tine from the rack.   Once I got it as sanded as I deemed possible, I used a hand powered drill to make the eye of the needle and filed it out to smooth.  The final step was to rub the antler tine with beeswax to finish.   The finished needle is 82 mm long and 14 mm wide and 12 mm thick.

For my second needle I attempted to use a coping saw to split a tine of antler in half, but had to break down and use my lord and his band saw, to obtain only a flattened wall section of the antler.  I used similar drilling, wet sanding and smoothing techniques as with the previous needle.  The finished needle is 91 mm long and 11 mm wide.

Second Needle
my needle
my needle

my needle


Stephan's Florilegium, section on "Strainers" with Gunnora Hallakarva's instructions on making a needle out of antler.

York Archaeological Trust, Picture Library, Image reference #'s 002214, 002215, 002216

MacGregor, Arthur.  Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials Since the Roman Period,  Rowman & Littlefield 1985, ASIN: 0389205311

MacGregor, Arthur. et al.  Craft, Industry and Everyday Life: Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn from Anglo-Scandinavian and Medieval York (The Archaeology of York), Council for British Archaeology, 1999, ISBN: 1872414990

Gunnora's instructions found on Stephan's Florilegium:

Date: Wed, 20 Aug 1997 21:55:46 -0500
From: Gunnora Hallakarva <>
Subject: ANST - Naalbinding and Sieves

Stephan li Rous asked what naalbinding was.
Naalbinding is also known as "single-needle knitting."   The technique produces a looped fabric, much as true knitting or crochet does.  Naalbinding is an extremely ancient technique and examples can be found in almost every culture.  Certainly it existed in the Egypt of the pharohs, as well as the Viking Age.  

Mistress Alix Tiburga has been working on developing instructions with step-by-step diagrams for the technique, which is extremely simple to do but very difficult to explain without a hands-on demonstration.  ideally, the technique uses a thick needle with a big eye, often made of antler or bone, but a tapestry needle can be substituted in a pinch. 

(snip) You can buy expensive $15 needles direct from Iceland (snip), but I've been making them from antler from fallow deer and from whitetail deer for no cost other than the labor.  The best needles to work with are curved near the tip.  Mine looks like a finger crooked in a "come here" gesture.  If you want to make your own needles, soak the antler two days in cold water, then boil them for about an hour or so.  Use a sharp knife to shape and smooth the needle.  It doesn't need a sharp point, and in fact does better with a rounded one.  Leave the butt end large enough for a hole up to 1/4" in diameter.  Drill the hole, and carefully smooth the edges and inside of the hole.  Sand to finish, and buff well with beeswax.


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