Tatting Supplies
               and History

Yarns Index
Books & Supplies
Order Info
Free Pattern

Individual tatting instruction Monday and Thursday afternoons.

Tatting - Origins and History by Rebecca Jones

   Although many sources give many derivations for the origin of the
word 'tatting' no one really knows for sure. Some say because
tatting is made up (or was originally) of small pieces joined
together it thus resembles rags and tatters. 'Tatters' is
Scandinavian in origin - from the Old Norse taturr and
toturr, both meaning rags. It has also been suggested that whilst
working at their lace women tattled and gossiped, but
derivation is not very

   In Europe it is a popular craft. The German word for tatting is
Schiffchenarbeit meaning 'the work of the little boat' (i.e. the
boat-shaped shuttle); the Italians call it occhi meaning 'eyes',
referring to the rings which make up the lace; the Turkish say
makouk which is their word for shuttle; the French call it frivolite
and the Swedish word is similar - frivolitet - which again
thecharacter of the work. (South American ladies also call
tatting frivolite, probably from the Soanish and Portuguese
connections.) The one which I find has the nicest sound to it is
Finnish - sukkulapitsi - which combines two words which describes
the whole thing - sukkula meaning shuttle and pitsi meaning lace -
shuttlelace. There has even been a move in some circles to change
the name of tatting to shuttle-lace, which, while it may be a good
idea for up-dating the craft, would be very hard to put into common use.

   Tatting is believed to have evolved from knotting, which in various
forms is a very ancient type of decoration for clothing. The
Egyptians used knotting as decoration on ceremonial dress and a
mummy was found with a skirt overlay of knotted rings which look
very much like tatting.
The early Chinese also used knotting and couched their knotted
designs into their embroideries. These eventually found their way to
Europe and knotting was popular for the decoration of furnishings
and embroideries in Medieval times - Chaucer even mentions it in his
Canterbury Tales (1387).

   Knotting was worked by wnding the thread onto a shuttle and then
making a series of knots on the thread at close intervals so that
the work looked like a string of beads. However, it did not become
really popular until the seventeenth century when it is thought that
the Dutch, due to their trading in the East, brought new forms of
knotting from China and made it commonplace in Europe.
It is not quite clear where the transition from knotting to tatting
took place, but it is generally thought to have occurred in Italy.
Someone sitting knotting one day decided to join her knots into a
ring instead of making a string of them and thus tatting was born.
Meanwhile in England, in the court of William and Mary, knotting was
in full swing. Queen Mary was herself and ardent knotter and took it
everywhere with her. Indeed, there was even a poem written about her
by Sir Charles Sedley in which he compares her to the former
Catholic queens who were always '....telling beads,
But here's a Queen now, thanks to God, Who, when she rides in coach abroad
Is always knotting threads.'

   Being a favourite pastime of the ladies at Court, naturally the
shuttles were very elaborate and expensive, being made as much to be
seen as to be used. Knotting shuttles were much larger than the
present tatting shuttles, being between 13cm and 15cm long and 2.5cm
and 5cm wide, with the blades open at the end so that quite thick
threads might be wound on. Some very precious threads were used for
knotting including gold thread.
Ivory and tortoiseshell decorated and inlaid with gold and silver
and mother-of-pearl were popular for shuttles, which were often
given as gifts. In 1745, the Infanta Maria Theresa was given five
caskets of enamelled gold each containing a gold shuttle as a
wedding present. Madame de Pompadour also had elaborate gold
shuttles, each decorated with jewels.

   The French knotting shuttles were even larger than the English ones,
and again, the ladies at Court used their shuttles almost as a
fashion accessory. In fashionable society a lady never sat
empty-handed and idle. She used either her fan or her knotting
shuttle to show off her hands and to make her look composed and
graceful as well as industrious.
Shuttles were carried in little knotting bags which were also richly
adorned and bejewelled and these little bags were taken everywhere
from society parties to the theatre. A fashionable lady would not be
seen without one. Indeed, many ladies had their portrait painted
complete with knotting bag and shuttle.

   As mentioned previously, tatting, as such, is thought to have
originated in Italy in the sixteenth century. It was probably made
by nuns, as many forms of lace and needlework owe their existence to
convents. The early forms of tatting were quite different from
today. There were no chains and the work consisted of only rings
which were made in rows or groups using only a single shuttle and
then tied or sewn together afterwards. Sometimes the rings were made
with a needle instead of a shuttle.
During the early eighteenth century tatting was gradually taking
over from knotting in England, although the word tatting did not
actually appear in print until 1843. It is thought that early
examples of tatting were still referred to as knotting.

   A Mrs Mary Delaney in 1750 made a pair of chair covers having a
border of oak leaves in white linen which were outlined in knotted
threads, some of which are tatted rather than knotted. Later, in
1781, Parson Woodforde mentions buying a pair of small ivory
shuttles for his niece for one shilling. It is presumed that these
shuttles were for tatting since knotting tat shuttles were of a much larger size.
At the start of the nineteenth century tatting was a popular English
occupation and in 1843 the Ladies Handbook of Millinery, Dressmaking
and Tatting was published. This was to be the start of many books on
the subject. Up to this time tatting patterns were passed down from
tatter to tatter by word of mouth or simply copying other pieces of work.
Shortly after this, in 1850, the woman regarded as the 'mother' of
modern tatting appeared on the scene. She was Mademoiselle Eleonore
Riego de la Branchardiere, a half-Irish, half-French woman who had a
'fancy warehouse' in London and supplied lace-making and embroidery materials.
Between 1850 and 1868 Mlle Riego (as she liked to be known)
published eleven little pattern books showing mainly borders and
insertions in tatting. Mlle Riego used picots to join the rings
together but she used a needle to do it at first and not a shuttle,
as it wasn't until 1851 that an unknown writer published
instructions on how to join with a shuttle and so improved the
method of tatting.

   Mlle Riego also developed the use of a central ring with picots as
the central motif and many old patterns use this as the basis of
their design. If you are lucky enough to have any old piece of
tatting (really old!) you will notice that it consists of 'wheels'
that is, a central small ring with about twelve picots, then a
second row of small rings joined to these picots and an outer row of
rings joined to the second row by a single thread. These wheels are
then joined together side by side to go round a doily or whatever,
or are joined together round a central 'wheel' to form a complete
tatted doily.

   The name doily, by the way, comes from a Mr D'Oyley who kept a small
shop in The Strand in London in the eighteenth century, selling
cloth and small pieces of material which were fringed or decorated
and used to put under finger bowls and the like to stop them marking
tables. Because chains were not invented until 1864 Mlle Riego used
to crochet over the single threads left between rings to make a firmer lace.
At about the same time that Mlle Riego was enlightening the English
ladies, a Mrs Pullan published a book in America with a section on
tatting. This was in 1853 and in 1857 the same lady had an edging
featured in a popular ladies magazine of the day.
An attempt was made in 1847 to introduce tatting as a cottage
industry in Ireland at a place called Ardee, but it was not very
successful. Irish tatting, while usually worked in very fine thread,
did not show a great deal of originality in design, being made up
mostly of repeated motifs worked into collars and cuffs.
Mrs Beeton (of cooking fame) also wrote a Book of Needlework in 1870
and this included a section on tatting.

   Probably the main authority on tatting after Mlle Riego was Mlle
Therese de Dillmont, a French woman who wrote what is considered by
many to be the needlework bible - her Encyclopedia of Needlework
published in 1886 and still available and selling well today. In the
chapter on tatting Mlle de Dillmont covers many types of edgings and
braids as well as projects such as bedspreads combining tatting and
crochet. She also describes how to use two shuttles and the use of
two colours in the threads. Mlle de Dillmont is credited with
inventing the Josephine knot, which we will discuss later.

   Back in England ten years later a schoolteacher, Mrs Louisa Walker,
wrote a little book called Varied Occupations in String Work which
consisted of fairly simple exercises for young children to make by
knotting string in macrame-style patterns. However, in one section
she deals with single and double tatted bars which are worked with
one string upon a foundation string. Naturally, the knot is worked
by hand and not with a shuttle. Mrs Walker also explains how to make
loop fringes (picots) and single and double loop rosettes (rings).
One very interesting exercise is joining the double looped fringes
(which are very similar to Riego's Pearl Tatting) together by
interlocking the loops in much the same way that hairpin crochet
strips are joined together .

   The next major advance in tatting was in 1910 when Lady Katherine
Hoare wrote The Art Of Tatting and used her own work and that of
Queen Marie of Romania as examples. Queen Marie made many creative
articles, often for the church, using gold threads and jewels worked
into the pieces. Lady Hoare popularised the use of the chain and
wrote: 'with two shuttles and an imaginative brain there is no end
to the designs that may be invented'

   Tatting was reasonably popular during the 1920s and 1930s but then
it went into a decline. In America it has remained fairly common all
along, with many magazines and various thread companies printing
patterns quite often. One of the leading American designers is
Myrtle Hamilton who turns out an amazing number of designs of all
kinds on a regular basis. In Australia, during the 1930s and 1940s
tatting enjoyed quite a revival, with many original Australian
patterns available to keen tatters. One of the leading designers was
Norma Benporath who for many years kept everyone's shuttle busy with
her lovely patterns in Australian Home Beautiful. The most amazing
thing about Miss Benporath's prolific output was that every article
used in the illustrations to her patterns was made by Norma herself
and the embroidery was done by her mother.
The old Australian Woman's Mirror often featured very attractive
little patterns by Rachel Abraham during the 1940s.
In my search for information on old patterns I have several times
come across pages torn from these magazines and carefully saved in
scrapbooks of patterns. Some could hardly be read, they are so worn
and fragile, but all were eagerly shown to me as treasures (which
they are), usually by older ladies who now, sadly, no longer tat.

   After the war interest in tatting waned, as with many crafts. During
the 1960s and 1970s the most notable books on tatting were the
rather basic but easy-to-follow book by Bessic Attenborough which
reprinted many of the J. & P. Coats designs (from their various
pattern books), three books by Elgiva Nicholls which treat tatting
in a very contemporary, free-style manner totally unlike any of the
traditional methods seen previously, and another similar book by an
American writer Rhoda Auld, which, while having some very modern
ideas about tatting, also gives a good history of the art plus many
illustrations. The other book worth reading is by Irene Waller,
again with many illustrations describing the various forms tatting
can take.

   With the trend towards being 'crafty' these days, tatting is one of
the 'new' old crafts being rediscovered, and with this book I hope
that many younger people will realise that tatting does not just
have to be doilies and hankies - there is a whole world of
imagination waiting to be explored.

Top of Page

Home | Yarns | Tatting | Classes | Order Info | Pattern | Specials | Books & Supplies