By Amy King
There’s no denying that lace is lovely for warmer weather. And while many of us are familiar with the airy openwork created with knit and crochet stitches, there’s another way to make lace that’s worth a look: tatting. Detailed and delicate, tatting is a beautiful, durable form of lacemaking that dates back to the early 1800s. It has the benefit of being perfectly portable, though it does require a bit of time to come up with a largish piece—a decent-sized doily, for example, can take several hours to complete. For that reason, tatting largely found favor among aristocratic ladies with time to spare.
Like its knit and crochet counterparts, tatting is made with a series of knots, but it makes a very different sort of lace. Tatting is formed—by way of needle or shuttle—into various configurations of a basic knot to create complicated-looking designs. Series of these knots are used to make picots, chains, split chains, node stitches, split rings, and so on. Since thin threads are usually used to create the designs, they often look much more intricate than they actually are. But while threads are the traditional choice for tatting you can use thicker yarn if you prefer. Scraps of sock yarns, for instance, are fabulous for making larger designs.
There are three main types of basic tatting: needle, shuttle, and cro-tatting. The first two use the same basic double-knot but they are formed slightly differently. The end results can be almost identical depending on the yarns that are being used and the experience of the tatter. For knitters, needle tatting is probably the most familiar. It’s very similar to knit one, purl one since each “stitch” is made with two separate movements to make one knot. They’re all done and placed on a needle that’s pre-threaded with the same yarn that’s being used to form the knots. Then you simply pull the needle through the knots you’ve made. Much like getting gauge in knitting, needle tatting depends on the size of the needle being used to reach a fine or chunky finished knot size. Since needle tatting usually uses mock rings to create a design it’s not as stable as shuttle tatting. That’s why at the end of every mock ring in needle tatting there will be a note to tie a knot. This will prevent unraveling and help stabilize the piece. You can make true rings with needle tatting, it just happens to be harder and isn’t specified in most patterns.
In shuttle tatting, knots are formed with your hand and the thread wrapped around it rather than on a needle. It takes a little more coordination than needle tatting and many find it a little more difficult to learn. But it also provides a little more latitude, as the thickness of the yarn, not the needle size, determines the size of the project. It’s also more stable than needle tatting since the knots are formed directly on the thread being used, resulting in a tighter, crisper overall project. On the other hand, shuttle tatting requires a bit more tugging and pulling, which can put wear on the yarn. Needle tatting causes less abrasion and is a little easier on yarns that may be more delicate, like those commonly used in handknitting projects.
A tatting shuttle.
Cro-tatting is an interesting hybrid between crochet and tatting and uses a needle with a tiny crochet hook to form the knots. Cro-tatting is very similar to needle tatting but there are often crochet elements added in as well. For instance, some patterns have a tatted motif with a crochet borders, all using the same thread to make a very interesting piece.
This brings us to the subject of appropriate threads or yarns for tatting. No doubt, you’ll read advice that advises that tatting be done only using a thread that’s strong and smooth. This is somewhat true. You will be pulling on the thread so it does need to be strong. The core thread (working base) needs to be smooth so the knots can slip around it as they’re formed. That said you can use something like a bouclé as the working thread forming the top knots if you use a smooth yarn for the core. There are many patterns out there that call for using two shuttles with different threads or using two joined threads in needle tatting.
We all know that there are many knitting patterns out there that are flexible enough that you can simply change the weight of yarn that you are using to create an item that is larger or smaller than the pattern designer intended. The same is true of tatting. A pattern for a delicate pair of earrings will probably call for a fine yarn or thread, but the same earring pattern could be worked in a bulky yarn to make a striking ornament that won’t get lost in the tree. Here, I made bracelets using the same pattern and different yarns.
Changing yarn weights creates different-sized motifs from the same pattern.
Shuttle tatting is so small and easy that I keep a loaded shuttle in my wallet at all times. Should I find myself without knitting or spinning and I’m in a line, I can pull out the shuttle and make a little motif. I figure at some point all these little flower motifs that I make will eventually be joined in a larger project or possibly make something that I haven’t even thought of yet. They’d be sweet little additions to a gift tag—or ornaments added to socks, mittens, or hats. The possibilities are endless.
Here's another bracelet option: a simple stockinette knit cuff with a tatted motif attached.
For knitters and crocheters alike, tatting can be a great accent to any number of projects. Trim the hems or collars of sweaters, shawls, gloves and more, or embellish a buttonband on an otherwise simple top. Anywhere you might add store-bought lace trim, you can substitute your own, custom-made tatted trim. What can you think of to use a tatting motif on?
Amy King is the dyer at www.spunkyeclectic.com and chief goat herder of her family's little hobby farm. The goats, however, think they're in charge of themselves. There's never a dull moment.