Dr. Good: Yes I did indeed learn from my mother’s mother- she was from De Rijp in Holland. It was wonderful because she taught me how to do crochet with only my fingers, so I didn’t need to ask permission to have a sharp metal implement that my mother might have worried about for my safety! It was very liberating. But alas, I have not kept up with it as much as I’d like- though I did graduate to using hooks, large and small, and have made a few blankets and hats and composite crochet-knitted and silk-lined pieces (with my homespun wool and silk!)…I think it gave me a taste for textiles that stayed with me my whole life. My mom was a seamstress, so it was very natural for me
Dr. Good: Well, It is almost surely a matter of preservation. Netting and knotting were very early, and we can deduce this from artwork. Patterns formed by nets are also reiterated in woven cloth patterns that have deep histories. Look for example on some of the classic Oriental carpets with diamond and rosette patterned fields – it is from nets!
Dr. Good: Winter! The insulating qualities of most fibers is even known to other primates- it didn’t take much for us to harness that insulating quality. Basts are not as insulating as animal fibers, but they can stave off wind and wet. The Otzi mummy (scroll down to see photos of his clothing) is testament to the use of grasses for shielding from the weather.
Dr. Good: Nålbinding and crochet are closely related, in that they use one rather than two needles, and they both interlock loops, though in nålbinding the free end of the yarn is passed through loops, making it nearly impossible to unravel. I believe this may indeed have been independent of twining (a form of basket weaving), which most textile historians view as a precursor to loom weaving. It may be that crochet developed as a quicker way to do much the same thing as in nålbinding, but there is little evidence at present to even address this question. Knitting and crochet both appear much later in time. The woolen type of yarn (as opposed to worsted) is also relatively late- the springiness we expect for knitting and crochet yarns didn’t exist until much later in time (in the Middle Ages).
Dr. Good: I do think much of our understanding of these techniques and traditions is skewed by a lack of evidence to the contrary. When I was doing fieldwork in the Pamir Mountains of Tajikistan, I was astonished to find a traditional (and likely very ancient!) textile craft being practiced using a short and nicely handled awl, making footwear that looks very much like knitting.
Dr. Good: It is certainly possible that crochet could have an evolutionary relationship with certain carpet knotting techniques; some knot types are more relevant than others- specifically the asymmetrical and ‘Spanish’ knot. I see more an evolutionary connection between Soumak and knotted pile. However I think crochet could also have arisen out of a much simpler practice- of simply tying and knotting cords and ropes for harnessing and cartage. Slip knots and chaining are very simple, useful and probably very, very ancient. It is also likely that crochet was independently invented in different areas, as were no doubt these simpler techniques. That’s my opinion at least.
[The illustrations here of various carpet knotting techniques are well worth a visit]
Dr. Good: This is controversial [read more about it here], but as far as techniques for textiles is concerned, nålbinding and looped netting were known in all of North America. To me this shows the antiquity of these techniques – they most likely came over with the first Americans across the Bering Straights.
Dr. Good: The main differences are the in the use of fiber. Different areas had different fibers available which in turn played a role in the development of distinct technologies for processing, spinning and weaving. Thus, Native American looms were distinctly different from those used in prehistoric Europe. In fact, New World looms were more closely related to those from East Asia, signifying an early date for those technologies.”
MG : Fiber and cloth are notoriously fragile in the archaeological record. Unless the environment is exceptionally conducive to its preservation, we don’t see very much left at sites aside from secondary evidence of its presence, such as spindle whorls, loom weights and clay impressions from fiber. In general, what percentage of artifacts world wide are actual fiber relics?
Dr. Good: A very small percentage indeed. However, they do exist and they can tell a lot- and there is much more preserved than people usually think- archaeological textiles have not had much attention in the past and so many remain unpublished.
MG : You work with electron microscopy to study ancient fibers. Other than direction of spin employed when they were manufactured, can you tell what these remnants were used for? Can you tell if they were woven or used in non-weaving fabric manufacture?
Dr. Good: I use this kind of instrumentation usually for degraded fiber identification, and only secondarily for other queries. Certainly one can distinguish between woven and non-woven when a structure is retained. The immediate context is also very important, which is why proper excavation of these rare and delicate materials is of paramount importance.
MG : We know that the Coptic textile fragment (possibly a sock) found at Dura Europos between 1920 and 1937 and dated to around 250 AD, was actually reported in the initial findings as knitting, but has recently been proven to be nålbinding. One can assume that the investigators who found the remnants were familiar with knitting, but not the older craft and therefore interpreted what they saw through the screen of their own experience. In Russia, knitting and crochet are considered to be one and the same only done with different implements. Likewise the Spanish language communicates the same concept. In what other ways has Archaeological Chauvinism, as you termed it in your paper, “East meets West,” affected the interpretation of fiber remains across the world? How available for new study and new interpretation are the fiber artifacts from these older sites?
Dr. Good: I think the answer to that question would be too long for this short interview! It has been a constant battle to promote standard terminologies, and it is indeed very difficult to do this across languages and cultures. More important, perhaps, is promoting a basic understanding, a literacy if you will, of textiles and their techniques, so that the average archaeologist (or historian or curator, etc.) will know how to make a judgment call and when to call in a specialist.
MG : How prone to misinterpretation are the tools used to create fiber in archaeology? I recently saw one blog site that showed pictures of nålbinding needles compared to photos of an implement found at a middle eastern dig (I can’t recall the name of it, nor can I seem to find the site any longer). The archaeologist interpreted these as scribing tools though they were IDENTICAL in size and shape to a nålbinding needle, even to the hole at the end that would carry the thread. Is it possible we’ve missed knitting needles and crochet hooks in such a manner?
Dr. Good: Very. Some tools are so simple they could be multi-function. Also many times implements are simply called ‘textile’ tools because they might be. It is indeed a challenge going though site reports and finding possible textile-related artifacts. It is not a straightforward task!
MG : Psuedomorphs are the metal salt casts of fiber remains that you work with a lot. Can you explain how these form and how often they are the sole remains of fiber at a dig site? When you find these casts, can they show more than just the single fiber or can you sometimes see a whole section of the cloth that was once present before it deteriorated? How detailed can these pseudomorphs be? How delicate are they?
Dr. Good: Yes, it all depends on the specific microenvironment, and the type of interactions with the metal salts and soil chemistry. Much detail can be gleaned, both in terms of textile structure as well as down to the fiber surface level.
MG : There are all manner of archaeological remains that can point to a cultural fiber tradition. Overt artifacts, such as spindle whorls, weaving frames and actual fabric samples are the first things that come to mind, however there are many other ways in which to determine a people group had fiber technologies available to them. Can you explain the principal methods you use to flesh that out for a dig site?
Dr. Good: Certainly when it is possible to look at these types of artifact at a site by their frequency and distribution, it is sometimes possible to adduce the level of organization of production, and whether it was a controlled production or was more organically practiced. The level of standardization in these tools can reveal quite a lot of information, and also the level of variation in their value- for example a silver spindle or a semi-precious stone whorl as opposed to a whorl made out of a broken pot’s sherd.
MG : Thank you, Dr. Good, for talking with us today. It has been a real pleasure to learn a little about fiber history and it’s preservation from you.
Dr. Good: Thank you! I enjoyed this conversation very much!