This month I was out in Tacoma, Washington for one of the grooviest fiber gatherings you'll ever encounter–the Madrona Fiber Arts Winter Retreat. I was enjoying a rare morning off when I found a bunch of tatting shuttles for sale at the Carolina Homespun booth in the marketplace.
Tatting shuttles are used for making tatted lace. Tatted lace is very pretty. I did not know how to make tatted lace. All I knew about making tatted lace is that many, many of my friends have tried to make it, and have failed spectacularly.
So I bought two shuttles (silver, brass). I also bought cotton thread to go with the shuttles (white, ecru). I very nearly bought a third shuttle (bone); but buying three would have been silly.
That morning was my only free time for the whole of the festival, so it wasn't until I headed home that I got a chance to unwrap the shuttles and fiddle with them. My first flight out of Seattle was canceled, so I spent five hours in the Alaska Airlines Board Room drinking fruit juice and watching "Tatting for Beginners" videos on YouTube.
This is where I began.
This is where I ended, five hours later.
To give you an idea of how small that loop is, if I inhale deeply it will disappear right up my nose.
Perhaps you are entirely unfamiliar with tatting and would like to know how it works. Here is a brief overview.
Tatted lace is really just a series of simple knots tied one after the other into a piece of string. You begin by winding the string onto shuttle, as shown above.
Then you pull a little string off the shuttle and wrap a loop of it around your left hand. Then it's sort of like your left hand is doing cat's cradle, and your right hand is tying sailor knots, and meanwhile you are having a sneezing fit.
Tatting is something that gets mentioned all the time in those 19th century books I read. Usually it's the daily occupation of a frustrated maiden aunt with dim eyesight. She sits in her room all day, embalmed in black bombazine, morosely tossing the shuttle from hand to hand. You think knitting has a reputation for being stuffy? Honey, compared to tatting, knitting is a drug-happy orgy being thrown by a Playboy bunny in the zero-gravity Jacuzzi of a rocket ship headed for Jupiter. Tatting is for people who are afraid to try lace knitting because they think it will make them look slutty.
Needless to say, I find the appeal irresistible.
Back at home, as a break from the deadlines that are the reason this is the only post for February, kept at it. At great length, I made a ring almost (but not quite) the size of half a dime.
Then for about a week I just kept making rings, which are formed by a series of double stitches. Part of the fun of tatting is that the very first thing you learn, the thing you must learn before you can do anything else, is the double stitch. But the double stitch is, so far as I can tell, the hardest thing to do in all of tatting. So once you scale that wall, you're in good shape. But it's a very tall wall, crumbly, without a lot of good footholds; and there are gargoyles at the top who keep pooping on you.
Anyway, to practice my double stitches I just kept making them, and turning them into rings.
They're not difficult, really; but you have to do them all perfectly or your chain will freeze and won't close into a ring. If you mess up even one, the only thing you can do is get a pin and a magnifying glass and unpick all the way back to that stitch, one knot at a time, and do it over.
I will never complain about ripping back my knitting ever again.
Once I had something of a grip on rings I moved on to picots, which look like little mouse ears.
Here's my current chef d'oeuvre: two rings of the same size with picots that are pretty much the same size if you step well back and squint.
I don't need to learn tatting, you know. It's not like my life lacks for diversion. But I spend a great deal of each day knitting, and sometimes I find it fascinating to see what else string can do for you.
P.S. Before you mention it, I already know that there is such a thing as needle tatting and needle tatting has a reputation for being faster to learn. However, needle tatting does not give you an excuse to buy pretty shuttles. Nor am I much interested in going faster. Slow and painstaking suits me fine, thanks.
On the Horizon
On the calendar, may I please draw your attention to a few noteworthy additions you may find interesting?
March 29-30, I'll be at a shop I've been hoping to visit for years–the inimitable A Verb for Keeping Warm in Oakland, California. There will be both classes and the lecture I think I may need to re-title "The One with the Victorian Bathing Drawers."
April 25ish-26ish, I'll be at dear, old Yarn Over in Minneapolis, and also doing some classes (to be announced) at StevenBe. At the Yarn Over dinner, I'll be debuting my new talk for this year, "Five Women, Five Shawls." There will be history, as ever–but this time most of the history will be personal.
And May 3-6, one of the things I'm looking forward to most this year: the North Light Fibers Retreat on Block Island. A quiet, beautiful island off the coast of Rhode Island, in May, headquartered in a couple of handsome Victorian hotels? Plus knitting? And run by a small luxury fiber company? Do you see why I said yes? Four seconds after they asked?
My life is rough. Come share it.