History

March 1, 2011

A Story About Tatting

© 2011 Laura Evans

The Short Version Tatting has large gaps in its history. Patterns were passed on to each new generation by word of mouth. Sometimes new tatters would examine an older piece of tatting and figure out how to make it. But very few pieces of tatting survived the constant washing over the years. So we have only a few original examples of tatting. Also, in the world of needlework, there are relatively few books on tatting. With so little evidence available, much of the origin of tatting remains a mystery.

The Long Version—Tatting: A tight mystery which has yet to be unraveled

To me, the most interesting book on the history of tatting was written by Elgiva Nicholls. Her book, Tatting Technique & History was originally published in 1962. In this book Nicholls works with a huge amount of information. She does a superb job of detailing the progression of tatting.*

Nicholls sees tatting taking on a linear development. She thinks tatting developed from macramé and macramé developed from knotting. Knotting is different from tatting in that it is worked with one thread wound on a shuttle. This shuttle thread is used to make a succession of various types of knots. Originally, tatting used only one knot—the Lark’s head knot. It is made upon a running thread which forms a core inside the knot.

Yet, Nicholls is willing to entertain a couple of other theories regarding the origin of tatting. First, she imagines an Italian seaman on a long journey, perhaps bored, he sees a rope wound in a circle and bound by tatting knots. Since he comes from Italy, he may have had a lace-maker in his family or, at least, he knew a lace-maker. Looking at the tatted rope, he discovers its decorative application. He has long days to play with the ship’s lanyards. Thus, tatting is born.

Next Nicholls speculates that the invention of tatting may have been simultaneous. Perhaps, several seamen, in different ports of the world, saw a tatted rope and realized its possibilities.

I think there is one more possibility besides a linear or simultaneous development of tatting. Graphically, it would look like a “Y” configuration. After a long historical run, it is plausible that knotting came to a fork in the road. Some crafters veered to the left and took knotting toward macramé. And some crafters veered to the right and took knotting toward tatting. This “Y” configuration indicates it is possible that tatting developed from the ancestry of only knotting.

I do agree with Nicholls that both macramé and tatting developed from knotting. But, it may be that macramé was not a required precursor to tatting.

Then I read the Dictionary of Needlework. This book was published in 1882. Its authors state that true tatting wasn’t around until approximately 1780s.

This differs from Nicholls’ assertion that rings were around “several hundred years” before chains. Since Jones’s The Complete Book of Tatting states, chains were invented in 1864, this puts rings in the 13th century. But if the Dictionary Of Needlework is correct, this couldn’t be true. So what were people talking about?

At this point the origins of tatting get really murky. One thing that obscures our view is the language itself. It is plausible that the terms “knotting” and “tatting” were used interchangeably. The English language was not standardized. In 1755, Samuel Johnson tried to rectify this by producing a dictionary.

To further complicate the matter, it is easy to imagine the Lark’s head knot being called “tatting” in one region and “knotting” in a different region of the country. This is similar to “people” being referred to as “ya’ll” in the southern U.S. and as “you guys” in the Midwest.

The English language, though full of rough approximations, remains our primary tool for research. So let’s look at our first literary reference to knotting.

In 1387 Chaucer wrote The Canterbury Tales. In this book, he mentions an “unnamed Chinese method” of knotting. Did knotting come from China?

Lady Hoare wrote in her book, The Art of Tatting, that knotted fringes were found on tomb coverings in Egypt.

I find it interesting that both Egypt and China were cradles of civilization. But we have another contender to claim the origin of knotting. In the Pitts-River Museum at Dorset, England, a four-inch, bone shuttle is displayed. It is labeled “Remains of the Goths, Visigoths & Franks,” dated AD 200-800. It is unknown whether this shuttle was used for making nets or tatting, but some kind of knot making was going on.

Jumping to 1707, we find our next literary reference to knotting. Sir Charles Sedley wrote a poem, The Royal Knotter. This is about Queen Mary, daughter of England’s James II, and her habit of taking her knotting everywhere she went.

“Oh happy people! We must thrive
Whilst thus the Royal Pair dost strive
Both to advance your glory. While he (by valour) conquers France,
She manufactures does advance
And makes thread fringes for ye!

Blessed we! Who from such Queens are freed,
Who by van superstition led,
Are always telling beads,
For here’s a Queen now thanks to God!
Who when she rides in coach abroad,
Is always knotting threads.”

1700

Jones in The Complete Book of Tatting, gives Mrs. Delaney (1700-1788) only a few lines to refer to her chair covers. Mrs. Delaney embroidered a set of winter and summer chair covers for her drawing rooms. For summer, she used bright blue linen, decorated with husks and leaves made from white linen. These were sewn down with five types of knotting. One hundred years later, the chair covers were in perfect condition despite repeated washings.

Mrs. Delaney was such a remarkable woman she is worthy of further comment.

Mrs. Delaney is best known for her nearly 1,000 botanical collages made from paper. She had an intelligent mind and a Christian heart. She was the favorite of John Wesley who founded the Methodist Church. But she rejected his advances. She felt his ideas for preaching were too radical.

She thought deeply. At 52 years old, she wrote: “the horror that most people have of dying, so that instead of preparing themselves for an event that must come, they drive the thought away as far as they can, ….” She took a different view of death. She said “Amongst the numberless mercies of God, surely none is greater than the gradual weaning us from the world, which everybody that lives rationally must be sensible of. A strong desire of living and enjoying the world is implanted in us; without it we could not support the thousand shocks we meet within our progress; but as years increase upon us, that desire lessens …” Further she writes, “we feel that our perfect happiness cannot be made out in this life, and that perfect joys are reserved for another!”

This doesn’t mean Mrs. Delaney was a dour Christian. Actually, she enjoyed life—using the creativity the Creator gave her. She did needlework, cut flowers, knotted or tatted. She had an influential circle. She knew Handel since she was a child. In 1734 she gave a party for some friends and asked Handel to provide the music. He did, along with a famous singer of the day, Anna Strada del Po. Mrs. Delaney attended court and was friends with Queen Charlotte and King George III. And she corresponded with Jonathan Swift.

I wish there were more Mrs. Delaneys in today’s age of overrated celebrity.

Now, back to the history of tatting.

1800

By this time, tatting has taken on international proportions. How did tatting spread? There are several theories. One way could have been through marriages like Queen Mary. She married into a Dutch royal house and moved to Holland. It is not known if Holland practiced tatting before Queen Mary’s arrival.

Many royal women tatted to show off their hands and prove their industriousness: Anna, the Countess of Albemarle, Her Majesty Queen of Roumania, Madame Louise (daughter of King Louis XV), Kunigunde, daughter of the King of Poland tatted; and when Queen Victoria took up tatting, it spurred the British and American women to dust off their shuttles.

When ladies of any social standing would go visiting, they would carry their expensive gold or mother-of-pearl shuttles in pretty bags for show. And several ladies were proud to have their picture painted with their shuttle.

Another theory is tatting was spread by nuns who taught missionaries. The missionaries were sent to the East and elsewhere in the world. They used tatting to decorate the vestments in their churches. Also, it is plausible the missionaries taught tatting to members of their congregation.

And one more theory is tatting spread via trading ships. If, indeed, a seaman invented tatting, then this knowledge could have been easily transported around the world.

Marseilles, France has been a busy seaport city since 600 BC. They indulged in trading quilts and lace among other goods. In the 1600s, there was a prosperous trade in lace. Lace makers guarded their secrets to maintain their livelihood. A seaman made his living at sea, not in a lace maker’s atelier. He had no reason to guard the secret of tatting. This information supports the theory that a seaman shared the art of tatting with the world.

During the 1600s trade was restricted between France and the colonies. Everything had to go through Britain. One of the largest British shipping companies was the East India Trading Company. This Company traded in cotton, silk, and tea, among other things. Cotton is the most frequently used thread in tatting. These facts indicate it is quite possible that tatting was spread by ship in more ways than one.

At least, we know tatting did make its way into the world. Many nations have their own name for tatting.

The Icelandic word, “taeta,” means “little pieces of wool combings, to knot, to pick up.” This is because the early form of tatting was made of individual pieces, then each ring was painstakingly sewn to another ring to make a complete article of tatting.

Italians saw a little eye when they looked at tatted rings. So tatting is called “occhi” which means “little eye.”

In Finnish, tatting is called “sukkulapitsi.” “Sukkula” means “shuttle” and “pitsi” means “lace” or shuttle lace. Tatting is lace made with a shuttle.

The German word for tatting is “schiffchenarbeit” which means “work of the little boat.” This refers to the canoe shape of the shuttle blades.

The French call it “frivolité” for which there is no exact translation. However, it is associated with “frivolous.” Rather than thinking that tatting is a waste of time, I prefer to think of it in emotional terms—a joyful frivolity. Tatting is a happy pastime.

Tatting: Advancement and Enhancement

At this point in history, tatting had distinguished itself from knotting. There are four women who played major roles in the advancement of tatting: Mlle. Eleonore Riego de la Brachardiére, Thérèse de Dillmont, Her Majesty Queen Marie of Roumania, and Lady Hoare.

Mlle. Eleonore Riego de la Brachardiére (Born 1834)

She was called Riego. She was appointed by the Prince of Wales as the “Artiste in Needlework” to the royal families of England and Germany. She taught needlework to the children of these royal families.

In London between 1846-1887, she wrote more than 100 needlework books. Eleven of these books were on tatting. She chronicled the development of tatting. She sought to improve the tools, materials, and methods. Her last tatting book, published in 1868, uses techniques and methods which only slightly vary from tatting today.

Thérèse de Dillmont (1846-1890)

Thérèse de Dillmont of Alsace, France founded an ‘embroidery workroom’ at Dornach. In 1884 she created a publishing house to work in tandem with the embroidery workroom. She published a chapter on tatting in her Encyclopeaedia of Needlework. She based her tatting on Riego’s work. She added color work and standardized the use of two shuttles. She invented the half-ring. And the creation of the Josephine Knot is attributed to her.

At the Chicago Exhibition of 1893, Dillmont’s Encyclopeadia was chosen among forty French publications as the one to be considered the “most useful in women’s education.”

Her Majesty Queen Marie of Roumania (1875-1938)

Queen Marie applied her creative and unique ideas to the craft of tatting. Her pieces are original and inventive. The Queen’s tatting reflects her intelligence.  She worked with Lady Hoare to produce a book called The Art of Tatting. Photos of her work reveal a tour de force in tatting.

Lady Hoare (1882–1962)

Lady Hoare wrote the bulk of The Art of Tatting published in 1910. This book records the old method of sewing rings together. Lady Hoare developed creative uses for the chain. She took tatting out of the realm of a single medallion to inventive, artistic shapes with rings and chains.

These four outstanding women lived outside the expectations of a 19th century woman. Riego and Dillmont managed their own businesses. Queen Marie and Lady Hoare did not take their elevated station in life for granted. They worked at needlework. They participated in social activity, but didn’t lose the ability to sit still. They lived full and creative lives.

Conclusions

Through their books and connections, these women enabled 19th century British and American housewives to trim their “drawing room aprons, cravats, [and] antimacassars,” with tatting. In the Netherlands women produced tatted head shawls, jabots, and fichus. In France women made delicate insertions. In Eastern Europe women made church vestments and altar cloths.

Today, our world is a more beautiful place because of gentle tatters. Tatting has modern applications. It has been used in convalescent homes. One nurse believes tatting helps Alzheimer patients because it stimulates both sides of the brain. Tatting has been used as a stress reliever for overwhelmed workers. Some people make tatted cards to show how much they care about their loved ones. And some people pursue the art of tatting whenever they want to let their creative spirit out to play.

Whether you live in a world of chronic illness, are stressed by your job, want to support your loved ones, or need some playtime, tatting makes a better world. And that is no mystery.

© 2011 Laura Evans. All rights reserved.

*Update

Upon further reading, I stumbled across Dan Rusch-Fischer’s article about the origin of tatting. He believes tatting did not develop from knotting. He suggests that knotting and tatting are two distinct forms. They have different functions, appearance, and each are produced by different techniques.

Dan Rusch-Fischer makes a strong argument for the disassociation between knotting and tatting. Through his photo documentation, he has shaken my belief that knotting is the origin of tatting. (See References.)

On the other hand, few ideas spring fully formed “out of the head of Zeus” without any precursor. Rusch-Fischer believes there are “no intermediate forms” between knotting and the development of tatting. Perhaps, this blank space in history of tatting may hold, as yet, an undiscovered secret. Are there “lost threads” waiting to be discovered like the “lost scrolls” of the Bible? Perhaps, tatting was a happy accident. Someone, in effort to make traditional knotting, made a mistake with the knots. In effort to practice, this person made a row of “mistakes”/unique knots and accidentally created tatting. Or perhaps, by some kind of miracle, a person woke up and said “Today, I think I’ll invent tatting.”

At this point, the origin of tatting takes on the status once held by the riddle of the Sphinx. As I make new discoveries in my research, I will update my information.

© 2011 Laura Evans. All rights reserved.

References

Berenson, Kathryn. Quilts of Provence: The Art and Craft of French Quiltmaking. New York: Henry Holt and Company, 1996.

Caulfeild, S.F.A. and Saward, Blanche C. The Dictionary of Needlework, An Encyclopedia of Artistic, Plain, and Fancy Needlework. Detroit: Singing Tree Press, 1971 (originally: London: L. Upcott Gill, 1882).

Hayden, Ruth. Mrs. Delany: Her Life and Her Flowers. London: British Museum Press, 2000.

Hoare, Katharin L. The Art of Tatting. Berkeley: Lacis Publications, 1982 (originally: London: Longmans, Green and Company, 1910).

Jones, Rebecca. The Complete Book of Tatting. London: Dryad Press Limited, 1985.

Mescher, Virginia. Flitting Fingers: Tatting in the Nineteenth Century. Morgantown, PA: Sullivan Press, 2002.

Nicholls, Elgiva. Tatting: Technique & History. New York: Dover Publications, 1984.

Seitz, Georgia. Tatting With Friends: Book 5 of the Ribbonwinners Series. Anchorage: CHC, 1998.

Wilson, Atheen. Beginning Tatting: A Lesson Book. Minneapolis: O Pine Books, 2010.

Website:

Rusch-Fischer, Tatting Myths Dispelled.

Go to: http://www.tribbler.com/tatman/
Click on “Misc.” at the bottom of the page
At left hand side of page,  click on “Myths.”

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