An interview of Dr. Irene Good, by Mik Gain
Have you ever walked into a yarn store, held a skein of something wonderful that would crochet up into that perfect project and wondered how, over the course of many millennia of human history, that ball of fiber wound up in your hand? Dr. Irene Good, an Associate at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University where she has worked on the preservation and interpretation of one of the largest pre-Columbian textile collections in the world, a Research Fellow at the University of Oxford and an Assistant Curator of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where she currently works, has dedicated her life to this very question. Dr. Good has graciously taken time from her busy schedule to grant Crochet Insider an exclusive peek at her views on the ancient fiber, tools and technology that have brought us the wonderful craft we enjoy today.

Tajikistan woman wearing two woven scarves and an embroidered hat. Photo by Irene Good

MG : According to your profile on the web, you learned to crochet from your grandmother. Have you kept up with it? How has crochet influenced how you approach archeaology?

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

MG: The manipulation and use of fiber, in general, is many thousands of years old. We see evidence of spinning and weaving as far back as 20 to 25 thousand years ago. According to what I have read, the earliest we see a non weaving textile art is 6500 years ago with nålbinding (an ancient needlework technique that predates both knitting and crochet). Why do you think it took so long for other fiber arts to develop?

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!

Twined Weaving Photo David Gain

MG : In your opinion, how did we go from picking up some bast fibers (fibers processed from plant stem material, like flax and rushes) and spindling them through our palms to taking up a crochet hook and making a cute cardigan? How do think the fiber arts evolved over time from that humble beginning?

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.

Tambour Embroidery Photo David Gain

MG : I can understand how Nålbinding developed. The weaving process can leave a lot of short ends of thread or yarn and nålbinding is an excellent way to use up these otherwise wasted resources since it uses short pieces of thread or yarn to create a series of interlocking loops that are eventually stitched into a fabric. Do you think knitting evolved from this? Or do you think it was an independent discovery? What about crochet?

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).

Reproduction Antique Crochet Lace, as on Metropolitan Museum dress, Photo David Gain

MG : According to everything I can find on the subject, scholars think that Crochet came from Tambouring, a needlepoint art using very fine hooks to pull thread through a cloth base, making chain stitches on the surface of the fabric. In fact, we don’t see any example of true crochet before the 1740’s, such as this trim found on a period dress on exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Since making chains with a crooked finger is the simplest thing in the world, and many people have discovered THAT on their own through out time, why do you think Crochet develop so late? Why do we not see any evidence of it before the mid 18th century in Europe?

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.

Tajikistani Awl Crafting Photo Irene Good

Awl and sock Photo Irene Good
MG : Speaking of Pamir, in the last issue of Crochet Insider, Larissa Valinsky put forth an interesting theory as to when and where crochet may have arisen. She suggests that crochet came from the carpet making techniques of the Tadzhik people of the Pamir plateau between Tajikistan and Afghanistan, and that it possibly could have developed much earlier than we have previously given the craft credit for given the area’s rich tradition of colorful jourabs (socks) made in slip stitch crochet. Obviously, from the question and answer above, you have been able to investigate any of the fiber traditions of these people, and study any digs in this region. What are your thoughts on crochet arising from carpet making techniques rather than embroidery? How close is embroidery to carpet making, in a craft evolution sense?

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]

Three women from Tajikistan, woman at center awlcrafting. Photo Irene Good

Chainstitch Embroidery diagram courtesy of Project Gutenberg
MG : Was there prior contact with European culture to the 1500’s in the Americas? We all hear about the Vikings and how they possibly came to the Americas 500 years before Columbus. Is there an introduction of European technologies at this time in the Meso-American archaeological record?

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.

Looped Netting Photo David Gain
MG : Considering that these world cultures developed in isolation from each other, contact not being established prior to the 1500’s (or somewhat earlier if you subscribe to the Viking theory), what are the similarities in the fiber technologies and traditions developed and what are the differences?

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.”

Knotted Netting diagram courtesy of Project Gutenberg

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!