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Definition of the Craft of Tatting
'A kind of knotted work, used for trimming' and 'A kind of lace' are dictionary definitions. What then is lace and the properties which distinguish it from other fabrics produced from a spun thread?
'The chief characteristic of lace in all the stages of its development is its contrast to the uniform surface of woven fabrics. Lace is a combination of open spaces and compact texture, of transparent and opaque patterns, of light and heavy parts. In its most delicate form it has become a light, flimsy texture, the most subtle expression of textile art.... Its first appearance was in the sixteenth century.'
So writes an authority on lace structure; and tatting does in effect conform to this definition, in its essentials. It could in fact be termed 'poor man's lace', for at one time it was used as a representation of the fine laces worn at Court by aspirants to fashion. In 1851 at the Great International Exhibition, a certain Mlle Riego de la Branchardière received four awards including the Prize Medal for 'the skill displayed in the imitation of old Spanish and other costly laces'.
While real lace required a pillow, pins, a number of bobbins, needle and thread, a net foundation, etc., according to its kind, all that was needed for tatting was the hand, for the stitch is formed over the fingers: the shuttle merely carries the thread in a convenient manner, more convenient than a ball of some size. The stitch could also be formed by a needle on a long stretch of thread, or indeed without the aid of either. Tatting is in fact so simple that it is frequently confused by the uninitiated with crochet, which often appears to resemble it. The only feature it has in common with crochet (and knitting) is the fact that it is worked from one thread direct from the ball (or shuttle). Fabrics so made are distinct from those woven on a loom, in which one thread weaves in and out of warp threads previously set up on a frame.
In knitting, the stitches are supported on needles; in crochet the new stitch is hooked into the previous one; but in tatting each stitch is an independent progression, 'out of the air', relying neither on mechanical support nor upon previous stitches. Crochet is formed of intersecting loops, which stretch according to the nature of the thread used: the shape of the article is inclined to collapse when it is suspended. Tatting is a row of knots carried on a core of an internal thread: it is therefore firmer and stronger.
One of the features of lace is that it can show something of contemporary life and custom pictorially, by depicting through its design royal, heraldic or historical motifs, figures, etc. incorporated in its structure. In a more limited manner, the same can be said of tatting. In the free-style technique, stylised representations of flowers portraying the national emblems have been made, and older pieces for ecclesiastical use show biblical subjects. Carved stone tracery and lace are very closely allied; tatting also, as it is able to indicate architectural styles — gothic, rococo, flamboyant — in some degree. But apart from design, the uses to which tatting is put are a strong indication of the customs of the time. Lace was too delicate, too slow to make, to be used for common articles. Tatting could be in everybody's hands, as it could be made of very thick thread if required. It follows the fashion in dress and furnishings, and what are now called accessories. Trimmings on drawing-room aprons, cravats, antimacassars, covering for a parasol, were common in Victorian times: earlier there were lanyards to carry fans attached to the Regency waist belt. These were made of thick silk cord and required very large shuttles. Head-shawls, jabots and fichus were produced in the Netherlands: the most delicate and imaginative insertions and edgings came from the shuttles of France, where underclothes were so lavishly trimmed in the 'nineties, using the finest thread. Adornment for church vestments and altar cloths, in gold thread carrying precious stones, came from eastern Europe at a later period. Many of these articles, now no longer in common use, tell something of the history of the time. So do our contemporary patterns, reflecting the taste, skill, and requirements of today.
As a craft, tatting both gains and loses in working conditions over the years, rising and waning in popularity. The very fine earlier pieces must have been constructed by the light of a candle (perhaps refracted through a glass bowl of water, an old lace-maker's method of focusing the rays of light on to a single point). Now at least there is adequate artificial light. On the other hand there are a greater number of distractions, in the form of alternative and attractive types of hand-work, and the competition of television, with which it now has to contend.
Like many crafts, after a dormant period, tatting depended on someone sufficiently gifted to bring it again to popular notice, and to carry its evolution a step farther. During the last hundred years, four names are outstanding. But before this, and during the eighteenth century, very little seems to have been written, or at least preserved, on the subject at that time. It must have been a peak period, since constant reference is made to it in later works, by almost all the nineteenth-century writers, and the distinctive shuttles of that period remain as evidence. It was certainly a royal accomplishment in both England and France early in the eighteenth century and before. In England, William of Orange and Mary were on the throne from 1689 to 1702. In 1707 Sir Charles Sedley published a short poem called 'The Royal Knotter' referring to what is described by Lady Hoare as 'the Queen's homely habits'.
'Oh happy people! We must thrive
Whilst thus the Royal Pair doest 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 vain 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.'
This appears to be the first recorded reference to tatting in this country. (Mary was the daughter of James II by his first wife. As she married into the Dutch royal house, she presumably spent some time in Holland. Did she introduce it from that country, or was it already known in England?)
It has been said that the employment of the shuttle shows off the worker's hands to greater advantage than any other instrument of needlework. In 1759 Sir Joshua Reynolds painted the Countess of Albermarle with a shuttle in her hand. The portrait is in the National Gallery. In the following year Anne Chambers, Countess Temple, was painted by Allan Ramsay. The sitter, who is wearing a tight, long-waisted dress profusely trimmed with lace, holds a rather large jewelled shuttle; her piece of work, to which the shuttle thread is attached, is concealed in the lace-trimmed 'pocket', suspended by a ribbon from the left wrist.
So far as I have been able to discover, the earliest book on tatting that has survived is a little volume entitled The Ladies' Handbook of Millinery, Dressmaking and Tatting, published in 1843, one of a series of many handbooks on needlework and embroidery. This particular volume was described as the '2nd thousand' (impression) so presumably the first thousand was circulated either earlier in the same year, or before. In this second impression, reference is made to The Ladies' Worktable Book, whose first edition must therefore have been out before this. (The only edition available of the Worktable is the third, which was published in 1850.) In these separate books, the short section on tatting is the same — no progress is recorded in the interval. In the preface to the section, the writer states:
'This kind of ornament for children's and other dresses was once in high repute, and again appears likely to become a favourite. It certainly is very pretty, and can be laid on the bottom or edges of various articles of attire, in an almost infinite variety of forms. It is made by the hand: and the material employed is thread or cotton. The instrument used in making it is called a tatting needle [the engraving shows a shuttle] 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.'
Not much of an encouragement to the beginner. Nothing could be simpler, and indeed less inspiring, than the three illustrated motifs — one can scarcely call them patterns — which give not so much as a glimpse of the nature of the 'infinite variety of forms' as promised.
'Tatting open stitch' shows two adjacent partially drawn-up rings, which are called scallops, with quite long loops (picots). 'Star Tatting' shows three rings (each of six long picots) arranged to form a triangle, but with no joins indicated. 'Common Tatting Edging' shows a row of small partially drawn rings, each of twenty stitches. The directions are extremely scanty.
The early 'forties must have been a period when the craft was suffering a severe depression. Its contemplated revival could not have received much stimulation from the collection now offered.
But a real awakening was not far away. The advent of the next decade saw what almost amounted to a rebirth of the craft in the hands of a practical and skilful pioneer, who amalgamated British and French talent.
Mlle Eleonore Riego de la Branchardière
Born in England, the daughter of an Irish mother and a French nobleman escaped from the Revolution, this remarkable woman (Riego for short) devoted her life to the invention and practice of many types of needlework and embroidery, on which she wrote over a hundred books between 1846 and 1887. The needle and shuttle carried her to fame and distinction. She was by appointment 'Artiste in needlework' to the Princess of Wales, working for and teaching the royal families of England and Germany. She claims to have introduced tatting from France, but this we have seen is a misapprehension.
She wrote eleven books on tatting, from her London residences. Her developments through the years show the principal evolutionary steps which carried it by 1868 — (the date of her last publication) almost to the point it is today — construction has altered little since.
Construction comes before design: only when methods have been evolved can designers apply and develop them. She gave the designer the means and the inspiration. There was no aspect of the work which she did not seek to improve — working tools, materials, methods. As far back as 1850, in her first publication, she produced a little pattern which embodies the whole state of tatting in that year, largely achieved by herself. This little motif, a bunch of grapes providing ornament for a man's waistcoat, and also for 'a mourning collar', had almost everything. It had indeed so much that constant reference has had to be made to it throughout this history, forerunner as it is of so many features. Incidentally it is the first recorded piece of free-style tatting, and looks entirely modern.
All but one of Riego's books has been studied for this history, and one is tempted to describe each in detail, but this would lead down too many by-paths away from the main theme. But each new feature as it occurred has been noted, with its date where possible, so that the first allusions to new construction, the introduction of crochet, gold thread, etc. are on record. The history of design, therefore, after 1850 no longer depends only on the study of existing museum pieces but on actual patterns, some of which have been worked for the illustrations in this book. Several of her methods are now obsolete, but they are all described, however briefly. Some, one is inclined to think, are worth revival.
That Riego was satisfied with her efforts is apparent in a statement published in 1866, in which she remarks: '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.'
Not everyone, however, became a convert. The art of crochet had been fairly recently introduced, the invention of an Englishwoman, and on account of its comparative simplicity and speed was becoming a formidable rival, as it still is. Riego herself, and her successors, wrote many books on crochet, and therefore must have diverted some potential workers. The fact that crochet had captured the public interest was apparent to George Eliot, who was familiar with it and also tatting. In Scenes from Clerical Life, published in 1858, she wrote a sarcastic diatribe on 'a taste for fancy work', 'that delightful and feminine occupation', which she suggests, guarantees domestic comfort, to be sought for in a prospective bride.
'What a resource it is under fatigue and irritation to have your drawing-room well supplied with small mats, which would always be ready if you ever wanted to set anything on them. What styptic for a bleeding heart can equal copious squares of crochet, which are useful for slipping down the moment you touch them? How our fathers managed without crochet is the wonder: but I believe some poor and feeble substitute existed in their time under the name of tatting.'
A suitor of earlier days had to be satisfied if his bride-to-be could only produce a piece of tatting, on which domestic bliss rested more precariously. One hopes that this author's large public were not unduly influenced by this point of view. In those days there was little else in the way of creative work permitted to women of leisure: the fact that their energy was misdirected was scarcely their fault.
After Riego, books by English writers followed in the next decade. Mrs. Beeton, who was proficient in so many household arts besides cookery, which made her world famous, laid down the original plans for Beeton's Book of Needlework, which, it is stated in the preface, 'other hands have brought to a conclusion'. The first edition appeared in 1870, with over eighty pages on tatting, well illustrated with engravings.
Mrs. Beeton does not rank as one of the star pioneers, but she shows a great variety of designs and arrangements, offering many suggestions for making pieces of practical use. She was familiar with Riego's books, which she mentions, and elaborates many of her terms and methods.
Dictionary of Needlework, by S. F. A. Caulfeild and B. C. Saward, undated, but probably published a little later, contains a most comprehensive section on tatting, with as complete a survey of the craft as has been published before or since. Some of Mrs. Beeton's patterns are reproduced, and doubtless other current and earlier works have contributed. In the co-editors' opinion the word Tatting is derived from Tattie, the name for Indian doormats 'of stout matting, kept wet'. There are, however, other opinions concerning the derivation of the word, which would seem to be more plausible.
A knowledge of tatting was, in fact, growing and developing in England, but how much was actually practised at this period we do not know. A temporary decline certainly followed, in spite of the high standard of the publications which were then available — standards which fell considerably in the later interpretations of the craft. No doubt simplification became necessary to encourage new workers, but much was lost during the process, in both design and technique.
If in England tatting was going into a decline towards the end of the century, this was not the case in France, from whence arose its second great exponent, a woman equally skilled in many branches of needlework and lace.
Excerpted from Tatting by Elgiva Nicholls. Copyright © 1962 Elgiva Nicholls. Excerpted by permission of Dover Publications, Inc..
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