The English name of tatting is said to have derived from tatters, which would give the impression that the process would lead to a product that was both fragile and of limited use. However, this plucky lace alternative is in fact both strong and flexible and is therefore much more robust than standard lace alternatives.
The strength of tatting lies in the construction of the stitch, which unlike knit for example, is not dependent on the following and proceeding stitch for its strength. Each stitch within tatting is relatively independent and so the risk of a weak stitch unravelling the whole piece is negligible.
Tatting, although often seen as a poor relative of lace, was in fact useful in many ways particularly on a practical level. It was used often as a hard wearing though decorated edging to both woven and stitched fabrics, though it could also be used as a product in its own right as some of the examples in this article clearly show. Tatting could also be twinned with both crochet and lace, often giving a secure border to the more delicate and insecure aspects of crochet and particularly lace.
It is thought that the tatting craft may well have derived from netting skills used by fishermen, although it is just as likely that it derived through the extensive textile skills base of women as a form of cheap and quickly produced lace imitation. It is not thought to be a particularly early craft and examples and documents do not place it any earlier than Europe in the very early nineteenth century.
Although tatting may well have been used as an acceptably robust, cheap and quickly produced alternative to lace, it could also, depending on the fineness of yarns used, be a relatively delicate and fine gauged craft in its own right. It was used extensively throughout the nineteenth century by women across the social spectrum. However, as with hand lace production, industrial lace eventually phased out the need for any form of large-scale hand made lace, crochet or indeed imitation lace such as tatting.
Tatting was quick and easy to learn and took little concentration compared with some of the other textile based craft skills such as lace and embroidery. It could be worked using the minimum of tools, usually a small shuttle, but a needle was also sufficient.
There is still a following for tatting today and there are numerous video and text lessons giving the basics for anyone with an interest.
Originally Published in The Textile Blog by John Hopper