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Tatting, an Old-World Art

On the altar of my church lies a tatted coverlet adorned with hundreds of small, intricate knots and rings. I’m always fascinated with this coverlet, and I’ll confess to having heard less than all of a sermon on more than one occasion because I was distracted by the beauty of this lace.

Tatting is a needlecraft made by tying a series of knots into rings through the use of a shuttle and then connecting those rings to make elaborate designs. The threads used in tatting are coarser than those used in traditional lace making, giving the final piece an added heft and stiffness.  Tatting became wildly popular in the mid-1800s and was used to adorn tablecloths, linens, and clothing. In the twentieth century, it was largely forgotten, although it’s making a comeback with the recent resurgence of interest in home arts.

History of Tatting

Tatting is believed to have descended from the art of knotting, a decorative craft first practiced by the Egyptians. Early Chinese also used decorative knots on clothing. As European traders traveled to the Orient, they brought the tradition of knotting back with them. Knotting became very popular in Europe during the Medieval period, and Chaucer even mentioned it in the Canterbury Tales.

Queen Mary is said to have been an ardent knotter, taking her shuttle and threads with her when she traveled. The shuttles used in knotting became something of a status symbol and were often elaborately designed and made of valuable materials such as tortoiseshell. Knotting shuttles were much larger than the shuttles we use today for tatting. Fine ladies carried their shuttles as a fashion accessory, along with a “knotting” bag, containing thread and other knotting materials. Many paintings of the time feature women displaying their shuttles or knotting bags. Today, tatting enthusiasts collect antique shuttles made from metal, wood, or ivory. Very valuable shuttles may be inlaid with gold, silver or mother of pearl.

When knotting evolved into tatting is anyone’s guess, although most experts believe the transition occurred in Italy during the sixteenth century. Italian nuns made knotted lace work consisting of rows or groups of rings sewn together, the likely precursor to tatting.

Tatting, as we know it today, appears to have begun in England. Mrs. Mary Delaney made a pair of chair covers in 1750 that contain a tatted edge. In 1843, the Ladies Handbook of Millinery, Lacemaking and Tatting was published, which is the first published mention of tatting.  Between 1850 and 1866, Mademoiselle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere, a French lacemaker and embroiderer, published eleven books containing tatting patterns.

Soon, the tatting craze spread to England and America, where it remained popular through the 1930s. Popularity waned after World War II, although many needle crafters have rediscovered it in recent years.

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Buying Vintage Tatting

Because tatted items are heavier than traditional lace, they tend to last longer, making vintage tatted pieces easier to find. You can still scour flea markets, estate sales, antique stores, and even yard sales for heirloom tatted tablecloths, doilies, or bedspreads.

To care for heirloom tatted pieces, display them out of direct sunlight and vacuum  gently with the brush attachment of a vacuum. To launder tatted pieces, baste the tatting to a piece of cotton or linen fabric. Mix some pure, gentle soap, such as castile soap with water to form suds. Gently blot the tatted piece with the soap suds. Pour water on it to remove the soap suds. Lay the piece in the sun until dried, but no longer than an hour. Remove the tatting from the cloth and place it on a thin, damp cloth. Iron it with a medium-hot iron.

Getting Started in Tatting

Tatting looks complicated but is actually reasonably easy to learn. Although some crafters use a long needle to tat, tatting with shuttles remains more common. You should definitely use a shuttle, available at craft stores, when you first begin tatting. Modern shuttles are made from plastic and are much smaller than vintage shuttles. A modern shuttle will easily fit into the palm of your hand.

As far as thread goes, standard crochet or mercerized cotton is fine. DMC is one well-known brand that makes tatting thread. Check at your local craft store or shop online. How large your finished project is depends on the size of thread you use. Crochet thread is labeled using a numbering system and the larger the number, the thinner the thread. Thicker threads, such as a size 10 thread, are easier to manipulate and are best for beginners.

Historically, tatters used white or cream thread only. Modern tatters may incorporate colored threads or even beads into their work. If you want a traditional look, stick with white or cream, although some instructors use two different colors of thread when teaching beginners because it’s easier to detect errors.

Finding Resources

Like most needlecrafts, the simplest way to learn tatting is at the hands of an experienced tatter. Ask around. You’ll likely find someone in your church or community that knows how to tat and is happy to share her knowledge.

Another option for learning how to tat is to take a class at a local needlecraft store, or read books. Printed resources for tatting are often scarce at local book stores, but shop online for an abundant selection. Everything You Wanted to Know but Couldn’t Find Out About Shuttle Lace by Rebecca Jones is considered by many to be the bible of tatting. Learn to Tat by Connie Ellison comes with a DVD, a must-have for the visual learner. Atheen Wilson’s Beginning Tatting: a Lesson Book: Arts and Crafts comes with graduated lessons to take you from beginner tatter to advanced pro. Once you’ve mastered the basics, shop around for heirloom tatting patterns. Ebay and other online vendors are a great source to find inexpensive, old-time tatting patterns.

Tatting is a beautiful home art that deserves to be rediscovered. Tatting materials are inexpensive and widely available. The shuttle and thread is small enough to pack in a compact bag to take wherever you go. Take up tatting and you’ll have a rewarding hobby you can do anytime, anywhere.

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