I have long been fascinated by the history of fiber arts. Old Greek manuscripts, like The Odyssey, tell stories of women spinning and weaving. Ancient pottery shards depict images of women manipulating spindles and weaving at large looms. These crafts were passed down through history, changing and evolving with technology. Some artforms were abandoned when new ones were popularized. Tatting, a form of lacemaking, was popular during the Victorian period and into the early 20th century.
My great-grandmother was a tatter, probably due to her frugality. She survived the Great Depression and two world wars, and maintained her thriftiness for the rest of her life. Tatting allowed her the opportunity to create beautiful lace accessories, like collars and cuffs, as well as table-topping doilies and even a tablecloth, but to do so inexpensively. The craft requires only a sturdy non-pilling cotton thread and a metal, plastic, or wooden shuttle – a boat-shaped bobbin – and either a pattern or a little imagination. The expense was in the labor and expertise involved in manipulating the shuttle and thread, and the diligence required when creating a large or intricate project.
I learned to tat about a decade ago, and find it a very satisfying endeavor. Something about the rhythm of tying hundreds, or even thousands, of tiny lark’s head knots to create an intricate interconnected network of loops and scallops intrigues me. Maybe it is the beautiful lace that I create with my own hands and some simple materials, or maybe its the act of tying myself to all the women of the past, of incorporating myself in the historic network of women who have used their hands to create clever or practical or beautiful things.
For the past several months I have been working on a rather large (for me, anyway) project that I plan to submit to the Illinois State Fair competition. Composed of thousands of tiny knots, this dinner-plate sized doily is made from #80 thread – thinner than standard quilting or sewing thread. Tatting’s challenge is much like that of an old typewriter: mistakes are at the least very difficult and in the worst case impossible to correct. Once a knot is made, it may be undone if it was done recently. Like crochet, all intervening stitches must be undone in order to correct an early mistake. If this involves a recently executed stitch in one of the straight or scalloping chains of knots, then it is feasible to correct an error. But if the error lies within one of the closed loops of knots or beyond one of the aforementioned loops, then one must be a very skilled, patient, detail oriented, and have very keen sight. Did I mention patient?
So, here I sit, rhythmically tying tiny cotton knots, checking and double checking my work for accuracy, and hoping that it looks as good when it’s finished as it does in my imagination.