This article is reprinted from The Citizens' Companion Feb-Mar 2001, Vol. VII - No. 6 with the kind permission of the author.
Tatting, or at least the forerunner of what we know today by that name, was first developed in Europe and in its early stages was called knotting (a series of knots sewn onto a base which created a design). It is only one form of knotting, with macrame, (developed in ancient Egypt), an unnamed Chinese method, and a style called purling, mentioned by Chaucer in The Canterbury Tales, being some other types. It is generally thought that, in sixteenth century Italy, knotting progressed from a string of knots to a ring of knots similar to what we now know as tatting. The art traveled to both Germany and France, and then to England, and the Pilgrims brought it to America. In 1707, a poem, The Royal Knotter, written by Sir Charles Sedley about England’s Queen Mary’s love for knotting, was published, and there were a number of paintings done in the eighteenth century picturing women knotting and holding knotting shuttles. Knotting shuttles were somewhat larger than a tatting shuttle, being about six inches long and one to two inches wide, with open ends, which formed a channel in which to wind the thread. A wider opening allowed for the thicker knotting thread.
The origin of the word “tatting” has been debated. Some attribute it to the Scandinavian word “tatters,” meaning small pieces; the Indian word, “tattie,” meaning a “mat;” an Icelandic word taeta, meaning “knot;” the old English word, “tat” meaning to “entangle or weave;” or that when women got together to tat they “tattled” with gossip, but none of the suppositions are conclusive.
Even though the word “tatting” did not appear in print until 1843, there is some documentation that tatting was done in the mid- to late-eighteenth century. According to Mary Konior, in a 1739 edition of a German book there is mention of shuttle lace, which would differentiate it from knotted or bobbin lace. There are some chair covers from 1780 that appear to have tatted trim on them and in 1781 there was a mention of the purchase of small ivory shuttles.
Each language developed its own name for tatting and, according to Elviga Nicholls, the word “tatting” first appeared in 1843 in The Ladies’ Handbook of MiIlinery, Dressmaking and Tatting. Prior to this date, she found no mention of tatting in any needlcwork book. (I have a comprehensive needlework book published in 1842 and tatting was not included.) The author wrote,
"This kind of ornament [tatting] for children’s and other dresses was once in high repute, and again appears likely to become a favorite. It certainly is pretty, and can be laid on the bottom edges of various articles of attire, in an almost infinite variety of forms. It is made by the hand; and the material employed is a [silk or linen] thread or cotton. The instrument used in making it is called a tatting needle [a shuttle was shown in the engraving] and can be procured at any of the fancy needlework establishments. The annexed engraving shows how the fingers are placed, while the loop is forming: and this, together with the following directions, will, we hope, enable our readers to execute, after a few trials, this very difficult kind of work."
An Englishwoman, Mlle. Eleonore Riego de la Branchardiere (more commonly known as Mlle. Riego) was appointed as the Artiste in Needlework to Her Royal Highness, the Princess of Wales. Between 1846 and 1887, she was the author of over one hundred books on crochet, lacework, and tatting. In 1850, she wrote the first of eleven tatting books and completed her last tatting book in 1886. Riego could possibly be called the "mother of modern tatting” since she was such a prolific tatting author and was responsible for various innovations, including the modern chain. She described earlier tatting in her first book as being:
"... of very ancient origin, and one of the many stitches used in Point Lace ... it is worked with a shuttle and pin, forming coarse trimmings, &c., consisting of small pieces worked separately, afterwards tacked on a paper pattern and sewn together with a very fine needle and thread, a process extremely tedious and trying to the eyesight."
Until the advent of some of her innovations, tatting consisted of only a series of knots, worked with a single thread with no picots (a small loop enclosed between knots at certain intervals), which were used to create the intricate patterns. After the picot (also known as a loop or pearl) was introduced, they were used to connect the rings (also known as oeillets, ovals, or dots) by sewing the picots together by hand, using a sewing needle and thread. Riego developed the technique of circular motifs that used a center ring, which contained a number of picots, and another round of rings was joined on this center ring at the picots. This innovative motif replaced the previous line of rings that had to be sewn into a circle. Her designs and methods were well received, and in 1866 she wrote:
"The favour with which Tatting in its modern form has been received, has induced me to make still further additions to the Art, and I am pleased to find that instead of its being considered a trifling and rather useless amusement, it has now become a standard branch of needlework."
Interest in tatting in the United States seems to have revived by the mid-nineteenth century, and the January, 1856 issue of Peterson's stated that, "For a considerable period the art of tatting, long disused in this country, has been revived in the fashionable world; and like many other things that have disappeared for a time, has acquired greater lustre and beauty than it ever before possessed."
The exercise of the art of tatting, as known to our grandmothers, was merely an elegant apology for exhibiting a pretty hand and brilliant rings; the actual production was never more elaborate than a neat, but rather substantial edging for a child’s dress or a lady’s frill... At the later French Exposition of Industry, however, some very beautiful and elaborate specimens having been exhibited, this kind of work again became the rage, both in France and England; doubtless the elegant pieces of tatting which may be seen in our own exhibition, will tend yet further to keep the work popular.
Although tatting techniques, tools and patterns continued to change and improve throughout the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, there is not space here to include more than a brief mention of developments made in the years after 1865. A few of the later tatting authors were Isabella Beeton (1870), S. E A. Caulfield (1882), Therese de Dillmont (1886), Her Majesty the Queen of Roumania [sic] and Lady Katherine Hoare (1910). Some of these women just included tatting instructions and patterns in their books and others were true pioneers, who introduced new techniques or patterns. There are a number of later period books and magazines listed in the bibliography which contain additional information and later patterns.
Tatting Needles and Shuttles:
Historic vs. Modern
Historic vs. Modern
Within the term "tatting" there are different skills, tools, and products that result. Some are period activities and/or tools and, hence, are appropriate for living history presentations. Others are modern tools and techniques that produce products which are similar in appearance but should not be done in the context of a Civil War living history event. What has introduced an element of confusion is the mention of "tatting needles" in period sources.
In recent years, needle tatting has become a popular method of tatting, but, unfortunately, the modern version of needle tatting is not a period method of tatting. "Tatting needles" were mentioned as early as 1843 in The Ladies’ Handbook of Millinery Dressmaking, and Tatting, in 1850 in The Ladies’ Work-Table, and in Riego’sTatting, but on further investigation, pictures of the “tatting needle” show either a tatting shuttle or a double-forked netting needle. Furthermore, the descriptions of tatting needles were nothing like the tatting needle of today.
Modern tatting needles are fairly long and come in a number of different sizes that use different sizes of thread; they also have a long closed eye at one end, whereas a period tatting/netting needle has an open fork at both ends to enable the winding of the thread from end to end. In most publications after 1850, instructions did not specify only using a tatting/netting needle and, if there was a reference to using a tatting needle, the author usually stated that a shuttle was preferable.
According to Barbara Foster,of Handy Hands Tatting, the first reference to modern needle tatting was in Modern Priscilla Magazine in April, 1917, but apparently the technique was not widespread until it was reintroduced in late 1970s by Edward and Selma Morin of Portland, Oregon. They popularized this method, which was thought to be a quicker technique to learn than shuttle tatting, with the end product looking the same. Even though both techniques produce look-alike products, they are structurally different. In shuttle tatting and in the earlier tatting instructions using a tatting/netting needle, the knots are made separately on the foundation thread, and are independent of each other, i.e. when you cut one knot, only that single knot will unravel. Whereas, in modern needle tatting, since the stitches are formed on the needle and not a foundation thread, when one thread is cut, the entire ring or chain will unravel.
In Mlle. Riego’s first book, The Tatting Book, written in 1850, she mentioned and illustrated the use of a needle in tatting, but, when one reads further, one learns that her "tatting" needle was actually a netting needle, six to seven inches in length and had an open eye or fork on both ends and the thread (four to five yards) was wound lengthwise around the needle between the arms of the fork, just as it is now done on a shuttle. In explaining using the netting needle, she wrote,
"To obviate the difficulties above mentioned [knotting each join with a sewing thread] I have substituted a netting needle for the shuttle which has enabled me to attach and shape the pattern while working, and where the loops [picots] are too small to admit of the netting needle passing through, I have given directions for using a sewing needle instead.” A netting needle was pictured in the book, but it was difficult to see the thread wound around the needle in the illustrations of tatting positions, and there was no picture of just the needle. In addition to the netting needle, she sometimes called for a sewing needle to be used in conjunction with netting needle. In her later books, there was no further mention of using tatting/netting needles; and there were only instructions for using a shuttle and sewing needles.
In the January, 1856 issue of Peterson's, there was a section called “Elementary Instructions in Tatting or Frivolite", that gave the reader excellent instructions for tatting and listed the equipment and type of thread needed. The article stated,
"The only necessary instruments are the shuttle or short netting-needle, and a gilt pin and ring, united by a chain." In Godey's, June, 1857 and in Peterson's, June, 1858 there were identical sections on tatting (both were part of a series titled, "Dictionary of Needlework"), in which both mention the alternate use of a netting needle instead of a shuttle, but there was only an illustration of a shuttle. Also, included later in the "Dictionary of Needlework" series, tatting implements listed were tortoise shell or ivory shuttles or netting needles made of ivory, wood or steel. After Riego’s first book, I could only find specific pictures of netting needles in the netting sections of needlework books, and never in the tatting sections. In Beeton's Book of Needlework, Isabella Beeton described filling the netting needle as one would a tatting shuttle.
Mrs. Pullen, in her 1859 book, The Lady's Manual of Fancy-Work addressed the use of a netting needle in tatting.
"... I may observe, that a netting-needle is sometimes used as a substitute for a shuttle. It is very pleasant to work with, but not suitable for carrying in the pocket: and as the convenience of being able to carry it about is one of the chief recommendations of this sort of work, an ivory shuttle ought always to be possessed, although a netting-needle, also, may sometimes be employed."
In the same book, Mrs. Pullen, described a netting-needle as "...a bar of steel or ivory, open at both ends, and with a small round hole in which to fasten the end of the thread..." Unfortunately, there were no pictures of netting needles, tatting shuttles, or patterns in the section on tatting.
In “The Whole Art of Tatting” (pre-1864) it was suggested that for very fine tatting, it might be more convenient to use a netting-needle, but stressed that a shuttle was usually used. Some other period needlework books also mention using a netting needle, but either they are an almost word for word copy of an earlier publication or suggest using either a shuttle or needle.
A last reference to a tatting needle that will be mentioned.
Gone With the Wind. Even though the book is not a sterling example for solid documentation of historical facts, it does contain references to tatting. There is a mention of Melanie using a tatting needle; "She [Melanie] held a line of tatting in her hands and she was driving the shining needle back and forth as furiously as though handling a rapier in a duel." This seems to indicate that she used a netting needle as opposed to a shuttle. Also, from Gone With the Wind [Scarlett was minding the booth at the hospital fair in Atlanta, while in mourning.] "...two old gentlemen bore down on the booth, declaring in loud voices that they wanted ten miles of tatting. Well, after all, old gentlemen are better than no gentlemen at all, thought Scarlett, measuring out the tatting... She had tatted yards of lace.” There was no mention, however, of the tool she used for tatting.
According to Pam Palmer in the book Tatting the latest primary reference to a netting needle being used for tatting was in 1867 in instructions for a “Maltese Insertion in Tatting” that appeared in The Ladies’ Book of the Month. The article mentioned using a “fine netting needle” instead of using a shuttle. After that, there seems to be no further mention of netting needles being used in tatting instructions.
One advantage of using a shuttle over a tatting/netting needle is the length of the tatted piece possible with one piece of thread: depending on the size of the thread used, a shuttle can hold approximately fifteen yards of thread and a netting needle can only hold about four to five yards. Therefore, by using a shuttle, it is not necessary to connect the tatted pieces as often with weaver’s knots. Since the thread is wound around a netting needle lengthwise, only a limited quantity of thread can be placed on the needle, so connections are more frequent, taking more time and also reducing the strength of the finished piece.
After examining the period references, then, it becomes evident that the technique used in modern needle tatting was unknown during the nineteenth century. In doing Civil War period living history interpretation, if your only goal is to use a tatted edging for trimming garments and not to do tatting as a demonstration in a period setting, modern needle tatting, although constructed differently, is acceptable in appearance. If you plan on actually showing others how tatting was done, only a period style shuttle or a netting needle would be historically accurate.
Tatting Techniques, Design Elements and Patterns: Period and Modern
In producing a period-looking tatted piece, the technique is as important as the tools. Certain features are characteristic of earlier or later styles. To be historically accurate, the tatter should be aware of the sometimes subtle differences so that the pattern can reflect your time period. Some of the differences are admittedly relatively minor and if you are not a “tatter,” nearly incomprehensible. But if you learn tatting, it is no more difficult to use historically correct techniques and patterns than it is to use modern ones. By knowing the differences, tatters will be assisted in choosing correct patterns.
Mlle. Riego’s method for tatting was very similar to our modern tatting, but at first she reversed her “stitches” or knots. Instead of making her double stitch as we do, she made our second stitch, (called the “French stitch”) first and our first stitch (called the English stitch) second, so that her knots, on the front, looked like our knots do on the back. Picots (sometimes called loops or pearl loops) were made between the first and second stitches of a double stitch, instead of between two double stitches, as we do today. Most other period tatting instructions have the reader make the English stitch first and the French stitch second, just as we do today.
In 1851, an anonymous woman wrote a book called, Tatting Made Easy, in which the author described the joining of picots, using neither a sewing or netting needle but, instead, a small crochet hook. The hook was used to draw the thread through the loop, thus joining the picot to the next ring. (This is the same method we use today for joining picots if our shuttle is like a period shuttle and does not have a convenient tip or hook on the end.)
Her method described the process of joining the picots as such, “Lay the loop under the pearl [picot] to which it is to be joined.” The loop was pulled through picot using a small crochet hook or tatting pin, and the shuttle was then passed through the larger loop. She made her picots in the middle of double stitches, instead of between two double stitches. Mlle. Riego, not crediting "The Lady," claimed this technique as her own, adopting the method of joining picots, and made no further mention of using a needle to join them. In 1861 Reigo stated in her book, Tatting:Edgings and Insertions, "This fashionable Art has been little used for the purpose to which it is now applied, as by the previous method, it wanted firmness and strength, but by a careful study of the work, and a new method of joining this difficulty is obviated, and these patterns will be found as durable and wash as well as those in crochet or knitting."
In a set of instructions that appeared in the January, 1856, issue of Peterson's, the author described period tatting forms. "Common tatting is merely a length of tatted loops [rings], with or without picots."
Trefoil tatting [also called the shamrock stitch] is done by drawing up tightly three loops [rings], made quite close together, and then leaving a short space before making more. The Trefoil is sewed into shape afterward with a common sewing needle.
Other early tatting patterns were similar to the above common tatting edge, but the rings were only partially drawn up, which made them look like a scallop. The thread between the scallops could be left plain or a buttonhole stitch could be worked on the thread between the two ends. Another pattern was a large scallop with smaller scallops around the larger one, and a final pattern was a large circle of double stitches completely surrounded by small scallops decorated with picots and the center was filled in with Pointlace stitches. These patterns were used to form edgings, insertions, or the larger ones could be used a decorative medallions.
Modern tatting makes use of both rings and chains. Chains differ from rings in that rings are made with only one thread and shuttle, and usually begin and end at the same point; chains, using two threads and two shuttles or a shuttle and ball of thread, begin and end at different points. The chain is used to join rings in order to form a particular pattern. In early tatting edging patterns, some rings looked like scallops in that they were not closed (one can usually see the connecting thread between the two ends) and resembled chains, but on further reading one discovers that they were formed using one shuttle and one thread, leaving the ring only partially drawn together. Other design components that resemble modern chains were really buttonhole stitches worked on the thread (now known as a "false chain") between the rings. Oftentimes picots were included on the “false chain” while using a buttonhole stitch. The chain that we know today was not developed until Mlle. Riego introduced it in her book, The Royal Tatting Book, in 1864. Mrs. Pullen, in The Lady's Manual of Fancy-Work, called this “false chain” a "bar" and her instructions were very similar to those of Mlle. Riego. In her first books, Reigo used the "false chain" but in 1864, she briefly described the method for making a true chain using two separate threads; thus the true chain was created. She instructed the reader to use two shuttles, one red and one white.
"...Turn this oeillet [ring made with the white shuttle] down under the left thumb; the stitches between the oeillets are now worked, using the other thread instead of commencing a loop, thus - place the thread from the red shuttle between the second and third fingers of the left hand, holding it about two inches from the work, and work six double stitches on this thread, so that the white shuttle will form the foundation or drawing thread, and the other the six stitches; drop the white shuttle, take the red in the right hand and work with it.
She again described the chain in her 1865 book, The Complete Tatting Book; she still did not call it a "chain" but called it "a straight thread." (The word “chain” was not used until well into the twentieth century.) This technique of using rings and/or rings and chains was later called "single" (rings only) or "double" (rings and chains) tatting. The use of two threads for chains, strengthened the work and made possible a number of variations in patterns. Tatted designs developed before 1864 did not have true chains, and it was several years before the true chain was common in patterns because the new technique was not immediately adopted. The first references I found (other than Riego’s) using a straight thread or true chain were in Peterson's in the February, 1866, issue and in Godey's in September, 1867.
The Josephine stitch, knot or picot (small rings made of single stitches, using only the English or French stitch), was named after Napoleon Bonaparte’s empress and was used in early French tatting. Even though the Josephine knot was mentioned in some period patterns, it did not seem to have developed widespread acceptance until Therese de Dillmont wrote the book Encyclopedia of Needlework in 1886. She built some of her concepts on Mlle Riego’s, but went on to develop additional improvements.
In an 1868 issue of Harper’s Baazar there were instructions for using a crochet hook for tatting. The illustrations show a crochet hook being used much like modern tatting needles, with the stitches being formed on the hook/needle and the thread being pulled through the formed stitches. Other than this reference, I have not seen mention of this method, but it seemed similar to Japanese hook tatting which was introduced in the 1970s.
Tatting Tools: Period and Modern
Some modern tatting shuttles look much the same as they did in the mid-nineteenth century. In period publications tatting shuttles are described as being made of silver, mother of pearl, wood, hard rubber, ivory, steel, colored bone in black, red or white, horn, or tortoise shell and some fancier ones were inlaid with pearls or preciousgems. Shuttles were described thus:
"The tatting shuttle is made of two oval blades pointed at both ends and joined together in the middle. The shape is important, for a good shuttle contributes materially to the quick and perfect execution of the work... The shuttle ought not to be more than 2 3/4 inches long and 3/4 inches wide... The centre piece that joins the two oval blades together should have a hole large enough in it for the thread, that is to be wound upon the shuttle to be fastened into it.
Shuttles came in three standard sizes, the finest, No. 1; the most commonly used medium size, No. 2; and the largest, No. 3, and did not have the sharp point or hook on one end as some modern ones do. (Shuttles did not start having points on one end until the early twentieth century.) There are many period style tatting shuttles in various sizes available in shops or catalogues that specialize in lace-making supplies. They are made in bone, ivory, horn, silver, various woods, mother of pearl, and plastic that resembles tortoise shell or bone.
Tatting pins, sometimes called purling pins, were usually mentioned in period publications and were apparently the invention of Mlle. Reigo. They were used to either form the picots or join the picots to one another and were made in four sizes, with No. 4 being the largest. The pin assembly included a ring of bone or brass, which was attached to a chain about three inches long, worn on the thumb of the left hand, with a small crochet-like hook or long, blunt tipped needle attached to the end of the chain. Some sources, including Mlle. Reigo, also suggested as an alternative, using a large blunt rug needle attached to a silk braid or coarse thread with a loop on the end for the thumb. In her book, Tatting, Pam Palmer quotes from Treasures in Needlework(1855), where the use of a tatting pin is described:
"The pin is used for making an ornamental edge....thus, slip the ring on the left hand thumb, that the pin attached may be ready for use. After making the required double stitches, twist the pin in the circle of cotton, and hold it between the forefinger and thumb whilst making more double stitches: repeat. The little loops thus formed are called picots.
Since many modern shuttles have a sharp point or a crochet-like hook on one end, and we do not usually need the pin for joining picots, and with experience, a pin is not needed for forming the picots. A pin would be needed, however, in using a period tatting shuttle with a correct design in an interpretive situation.
Silk, linen, or cotton thread was most commonly used for tatting because a strong, smooth thread was needed to produce a neat appearance. At first, silk thread was preferred because cotton was not strong enough. But in 1835 John Mercer developed the mercerization process for cotton. That process made a stronger thread and gave it a smooth finish; it then had the two qualities that made it well suited for tatting. Even in later years, however, silk thread was used for collars and the fancier pieces. Mlle. Riego also suggested that wool could be used.
A number of sizes of cotton thread were used for period tatting and ranged from size 20 to 120, with the latter being the finest. Modern tatting thread is No. 80 which is very fine and tends to break easily if too much pressure is used closing the rings. For most projects, I use thicker No. 20 cotton thread; it makes a sturdier finished product, but is not coarse or chunky looking as with some even larger threads (thread is now available up to size 5). Most of the tatting patterns suggested which kind and what size of thread to use, and in particular Mrs. Beeton's Book of Needlework included a rule of thumb chart which indicated what size of thread to use for a particular type of project. She also indicated that on average two yards of thread were needed per square inch of tatting using a single shuttle and three yards of thread using two shuttles. In Peterson's, January, 1856, the author stated:
"The thread used for frivolite should be both strong and soft; something like knitting-cotton, indeed, but of a rather different kind to that fabric. The only article really suitable for this work is manufactured by Messrs. Walter Evans & Co, of Derby, who recognizing the unfitness of all other cottons for this purpose, have spun a thread expressly for tatting. This article is at once so soft that it never twists, and so strong that it will bear the jerk with which the knot is formed. It is made in three sizes, termed Evans’ tatting cottons, Nos. 1, 2, and 3."
Mrs. Pullen also suggested using the thread of Walter Evans & Co. since it was strong enough to "bear the peculiar jerk" of tatting.
Most of the period tatted pieces we find today were made from either white or ecru thread, Riego sometimes recommended using a strong color thread, including gold tatting cord, black, deep green, garnet red, tones of violet or indigo blue. Variegated or ombre shaded thread was also used, but the variegation was not multi-colored; it was dyed with different shades of the same color. Today the colored threads are not always easy to find in sizes larger than No. 80, but several European companies make in it the No. 20 size. Silk thread is also available from some suppliers.
The shuttle, tatting pin and work were often kept in tatting bags or cases. In 1866, Mlle. Riego advertised (no picture of the case was shown) a leather tatting case that was designed to hold "Book of Instructions, cottons and every requisite for the work. It is made in Russian leather, and forms an elegant little work-box for presents, &c." There were also small tatting cases of covered cardboard or wood made to hold one’s supplies for tatting. Mrs. Beeton gave directions for a small drawstring bag of linen that was three and three-quarters inches high and three inches wide, and was trimmed with simple tatted lace. Annie Frost pictured a circular French kid tatting case, lined with silk. In the June, 1870, issue of Godey's there was a scarlet merino covered cardboard cylindrical tatting case which was then embroidered with decorative stitches.
Period Uses of Tatting
Early tatting was used for the edging and trimming of collars and cuffs, complete collars both plain or mourning decorations on garments, and insertion for various items. There were a few wider trims, but most were fairly narrow and a few of the items were large pieces, made up of a number of individual motifs. Sometimes the tatting was appliquéd onto a net base cut in the shape of the collar or cuffs, or the tatting was formed into a solid mass by joining the rings with point-lace stitches. As tatting techniques improved and the use of the true chain became more widespread, tatting became more intricate, being used for trimming petticoats, drawers, nightdresses, collars, cravats, handkerchiefs, caps, and pincushions. There were pattern for d'oyles (doilies), antimacassars, tidies, parasol covers, cushion covers, and collars that were entirely tatted. Larger medallions were used singly for decoration on garments or joined together to make larger pieces. It is interesting to trace the development and improvements in tatting by studying the different patterns and techniques as the years progressed.
Tatting has been described as one of the most difficult crafts to learn, but once learned, it is thought to be the easiest to do. For most people wanting to learn tatting, I would strongly recommend enrolling in a tatting class rather than relying on a just a book or video. A regular instructor usually has the experience to teach as well as be able to recognize errors in technique, whereas a book or video cannot provide any feedback if a problem does develop. A friend who tats also may be able to provide instruction and recognize and correct errors.
Ten Tips for Using Period Tatting In An Impression
If you are considering doing tatting at an event or creating a period-pattern tatting piece to use for trim, keep in mind several points.
- If you only want to do modern needle tatting and have some tatting on a collar or edging, the appearance of the finished work is the same. However, modern needle tatting is not a correct activity for the Civil War period. If you wish to do tatting in public at an event, you should learn to use a shuffle.
- Try to use a shuttle that looks like a period one. (Don’t rely on merchants to know the difference, unless they have considerable knowledge in period needlework tools. Use the illustrations and descriptions in this article to guide you.) You don’t have to spend a great deal of money on these shuttles, and a large variety is available in a number of materials. Don’t use a shuttle with a hook or sharp point on one end; granted it is easier to use one with a point, but, if you want to be correct, use one that has blunted ends. If you do locate an antique shuttle, use it with caution. Sometimes it is not practical to use an antique shuttle because the points may be spread too far apart from previous use.
- If you want to try using a netting needle for tatting instead of a shuttle, make sure you use the correct size netting needle for the size thread that you are using. So far, I have only been able to locate sources for one size of netting needles, and not the numerous sized netting needles mentioned in period publications.
- Don’t be discouraged when using period patterns. Sometimes they require several attempts and re-reading the directions as well as re-examining any illustrations. I have found that some of the engraved period illustrations just showed how the piece “should” look and most of the time were not an exact reproduction of the directions given or sometimes a mistake occurred in printing the directions. It is frustrating, but when working a period pattern, keep trying to find the happy medium between the picture and the instructions. And always work out a pattern successfully before demonstrating it at an event.
- When tatting at an event, unless you are an experienced tatter, keep the pattern simple, so if you are interacting with the public or just visiting with other interpreters, you don’t have to concentrate as much on your work. A great many of the early period patterns were very simple and one should not have difficulty in finding several uncomplicated but satisfying patterns.
- If your interpretation is geared for before 1864, take care that your edging does not contain modern chains or other later innovations; use period patterns applicable to time you are portraying. Old patterns do exist but you will have to look in original or reprints of period publications to find them, as they are seldom reprinted in modern tatting books.
- If you have to carry tatting instructions with you, try to make them look period. Since reprinted books don’t have the correct appearance and old needlework books look too old, it is difficult to use a book in your impression. As an alternative to using a book, if I need a pattern for reference, I write out the pattern in period script on white blue-lined paper note paper, so that it looks as if I copied the pattern from a book.
- In the January, 1856, issue of Peterson's, and Annie Frost stated in her book, “To do tatting well requires a cool, dry hand.” I have a problem tatting at events in hot weather; my hand will perspire and when the ring is pulled together, the thread tends to break, sometimes even in the No. 20 size. Also, perspiration from your hands may soil your work. Try to do your tatting during cooler weather or at indoor events.
- Use a small box to store your tatting or make a tatting case or bag for your shuttle and work; since this will help keep your tools together and your tatting clean and untangled. A small wooden box or covered papier-mache box would be good or one may use one of the instructions for tatting cases in later period publications. You could also construct a simple cotton or linen bag instead of a tatting case.
- Happy tatting and have fun. I hope to see more tatters at events.
There are many tatting tools and numerous colors and sizes of threads available from various vendors that specialize in lace-making supplies, of which a number are listed on the Internet. Using any of the search engines, look under tatting, lace-making or needlework to find available sources.
NOTE: I did not include basic tatting instructions, either period or modern, in this article, due to its considerable length and the ready availability of modern tatting instructions. In the bibliography, I listed a number of primary sources for correct patterns for the time period. Some of those publications have been reprinted, as noted in the bibliography, and others such as Godey's and Peterson's are available through antique book dealers, special collections in some libraries, and on microfilm. There are a number of needlework books that were originally published in England and may be available for viewing in libraries or museums in England.
I would like to thank Elizabeth Bowling, Barbara Foster, Linda Gray, and Janice Jones for sharing their primary references. I would not have been able to so as comprehensive a history of nineteenth-century tatting without their generosity. I also wish to thank Elizabeth Bowling for her illustrations of the various tatting tools.
Virginia's book Flitting Fingers is a greatly expanded version of the article (the book can be found in the Books, modern section of her webpage).