It may be late in the year, but tatting is the second thing I’ve decided to try to learn from scratch this year.
Tatting, for the uninitiated, is the craft of making lace using a single thread and either a blunt needle or small leaf-shaped bobbins called shuttles. As far as anyone can tell, it sprung into existence in the early 1800s, and might have been at least partially based in the decorative knotwork done by sailors. Thinking of the women’s fashions of the time – Which took inspiration and gold lace and frogging from military uniforms – it wouldn’t surprise me if women who were already skilled in other forms of lacemaking would take up the motifs from the fancy knotwork they’d recieved as gifts, and work them into their own creations, using similar techniques. It was still common for women of all social classes to make their own clothes (And, apparently, at least for Royal Naval sailors to not only sew their own uniforms but also to embroider and embellish them as well) and one of the ways of staying near the forefront of fashion was to take magazines and descriptions from London, then to sew your own interpretations. As far as I’ve found, tatted lace seems to be mostly something that people made for themselves and for their loved ones, rather than being something that people bought or that was professionally manufactured.
Which is a fairly long tangent, but it’s basically the preamble to my point; Tatting is a tricky craft, it takes a lot of patience, my attempts so far have all ended after a few inches in a snarl of threads and guilty looking knots, but it’s something that takes no particular skill other than being co-ordinated and patient and willing to put up with a million frustrating mistakes. It’s also cheap – I’ve got started with a £1.50 set of tatting shuttles, and similar of coloured thread – and projects can range from a tiny ten-minute motif, all the way up to shawls or skirt drapes, via any amount of trimming, which can be as fancy or as austere as I can design.
So far, I’ve had a shot at needle tatting, which seems to be easier and faster going, but more limited in the designs it can produce in theory, and one at shuttle tatting, which has been more of a painful slog – Where a tiny mistake in needle-tatting can be fixed by just unravelling the stitches, a similar mistake in shuttle-tatting might go unnoticed until the end of the ring, then require every individual stitch to be carefully unpicked with the hook of the shuttle, and if they’re pulled too tight, they can just end up stuck.
Basically, I’ve produced a tableful of thread scraps, a few solitary rings, some tangled chains less than an inch long, and a single pink cherry-blossom. I love it. So far, it’s frustrating, but on the other hand it’s also like magic. Anything that makes something beautiful from very few ingredients or very few pieces of equipment is magic to me. Sewing isn’t magic; It’s obvious how a load of different fabrics and linings and thread and shears and steam and a huge mechanical device can make clothing, but something like french onion soup, made with just water, onions, oil and heat is magic, since the basic stuff is completely transmuted. And lacemaking has always fitted into that category for me – Just thread and something to manipulate it with, and the maker can make anything. Look at the three unique lacemaking traditions of Croatia – The naturalistic figures of plants and animals in Lepoglava made by interlacing rows of bobbins, the traditional needlepoint Pag where motifs are passed down from generation to generation with little deviation, and Hvar lace, impossibly delicate, made only by the nuns of one abbey, from thread processed from the aloe plants in the gardens. All developed as beautiful pastimes for ordinary people, and over time imbued with cultural and religious signifigance.
I could go on at length about the meditative power of repetition – Mandalas, rosaries, mala – and about the sense of cheerful self-possession of wearing or using something that you’ve made, not just because you’ve made it, but because it’s genuinely more comfortable or practical or just more to your own taste than the shop-bought equivalent. If you’ve never experienced it, it’s worth seeking out for its own sake, above and beyond the other joys of learning to make clothes, or brew beer, or build furniture, or whatever random skill you decide to pick up.
So that’s kind of part of my resolution – Keep trying to learn new things, so that I’ve got more opportuninties to be proud of stuff, further down the line. When I started sewing, I was making stuff that barely fit and that needed internal pins and tacking to hang straight, and even then looked amateurish. By now, I’m a long way from perfect (and I look at the stuff that my occasional-teacher makes, and I am humbled), but I can look at the things I’ve made and compare them favourably to stuff that I’ve bought. I like making that kind of progress.
So, here’s to making little fripperies that’re neither use nor ornament, in the hopes that within the year they’ll be both.