52,000 Knots

One Man’s Journey Into the Craft of Tatted Lace


At six miles up

It’s fitting that the only time — and this is over three or four years now — that my hobby is ever recognized is on an airplane. Sometimes it will be a flight attendant (always female and of an accomplished age) who will stop in her tracks and ask me about it, or sometimes by a fellow passenger (ditto) sitting beside me or standing over me waiting for the bathroom. You’d think that this would make me a feel part of an exclusive club, and it sort of does. But that club is so exclusive, and its members so rare, that the atmosphere up there is downright hypoxic.

It’s also fitting that I was introduced to the hobby at a county fair — probably eight years ago now — by two grandmothers who were demonstrating the craft, by themselves and under a white, sun-pounded tent, seemingly resigned to the fact that absolutely no one was ever going to come by or take any interest whatsoever in what they were offering. They registered some delight that I not only wanted to watch them work, but that I wanted to know lots about it. I remember being pretty mesmerized — the objects that they were creating were just so darn pretty — and I walked away with a sample of work and a business card in my hand. It was a few years later (now about three and a half years ago) that I found these souvenirs deep in my desk drawer, and recalled that hot summer day. I don’t know why I hadn’t pursued it back then, but I now pledged to investigate it, and armed with a business card, I could at least know what I was looking for: It’s called tatting. And it’s the craft of handmaking lace.

Here I am, on the plane. (All work shown was created by me, unless otherwise stated.)
This pattern is called Spring Doily. Throughout the text, I will be showing the progress of this piece. Here is Round 3 (the dark blue and light green parts). I’m about half-way around the circle here. Pattern design: Renulek [Link]. (4,246 knots.)

From surgical instruments to YouTube

Thinking back on it now, I was predisposed to like this hobby. In the late 80s and early 90s, I worked for a fantastic design consultancy called Tanaka Kapec Design Group in Connecticut (I commuted two hours each way from Brooklyn, but the work was exhilarating). One of the firm’s specialties was known as “medical design” — inventing medical devices, diagnostic equipment, surgical instruments and the like. It was this last category that fascinated and excited me most.

Tatted snowflakes. These patterns, designed by by Joëlle Paulson, are available for sale at a very minimal cost. [Link]

I’ve often theorized that there are two kinds of designers: those who like to design things smaller than themselves (appliances, sneakers, phones, book covers), and designers who like to design things bigger than themselves (architecture, interiors, city plans, cars). I’m the former, and at TKDG I was privileged to work on (and be named on a few patents of) several surgical instruments. And one of those projects was called a “surgical knot pusher/tier” — a device used to close a puncture wound that was created in the femoral artery (for inserting an angiogram catheter) — where a surgeon ties a knot in the suturing thread and then “pushes it down” to the puncture wound in order to close and tie it off.

Tatting motifs (that’s what the overall design is typically called) are described in tatting patterns, which are easy to follow once you get over the fractal infinities of how they first appear.

Like with most surgical techniques, there’s a very practical reason why the knot needs to be tied “outside” the body and then pushed down into it: The femoral artery is deep inside the leg, so even retracted, the surrounding muscle and tissue squeezes tightly around the surgical site — indeed too tightly to adequately “finish” a suture knot down inside the leg. (Think of the kind of lateral motion you use when you finish tying a shoelace — pulling the ends tight simultaneously to the left and to the right. You wouldn’t be able to do that if you had 10 pounds of flank steak wrapped around your two hands, pushing them together. You get the idea.) So there are these devices — aptly named “surgical knot pushers” that exist in the world and on the market, and the design brief necessitated a combination of education and prototyping. The research was fascinating, but daunting. There were countless versions in the patent system (you have to be careful not to infringe upon someone else’s invention), and there was a ton of territory to both cover and avoid (some of it intensely ingenious). Here’s an example from 1990:

Patent #US 4961741 A: Suture Knotting Instrument. Inventor: John O. Hayhurst. Date issued: 1990. [Link]

Attempting to come up with a clever approach, I thought of rope tricks — where a knot is tied in one place and then shifted to another. That would work, right? (Spoiler alert: It’s not an actual knot.) I built dozens of physical prototypes with stainless steel wire, bulldog- and paper clips, surgical pliers, tape, shrink-tubing, and lots of suturing material, nylon sewing thread, string, and other items lying around, and ultimately came up with a solution that was novel and actually did the trick. Heartbreakingly, the company that sponsored the work went out of business and the project never saw the light of day. (People should know that 95% of what designers create never sees the light of day.)

All of this is to say that even though the project died, I had developed an enormous fondness for thread, for knots, and for, well, making tiny, fussy, things. (Think fly “fishing” tying, but with almost zero purpose. More on that in a bit.) And once I knew what tatting was called (the word was printed on the grandmother’s business card), I went where I always go to learn new skills — YouTube and Instructables.

Given my fondness for medical device design, you’d think I would have chosen needle tatting, but I became mesmerized by the motion of shuttle tatting in the video tutorials.

Breaking down the elements

It turns out that there are an adequate number of video tutorials on tatting — especially once you filter out the tat-tooing videos, many of which will drop your stomach. (I guess we can call lace making “the other kind of tatting.”) Compared to the purly oceans of knitting and crocheting videos — I’ve consulted those too over the years, and it’s arguable that my enjoyment of those hobbies hostessed me to tatting — they were frustratingly uneven, and it took me a while to find a selection that I felt I could depend upon. That said, there were certainly enough videos to get the gist, and it turned out that for something that appears so complex, the main ingredients of tatting are surprisingly simple.

Spring Doily, Round 4. (15,460 knots)

Tatting is essentially a sequence of knots (called stitches) — either in a line (called a chain) or in a circle (called a ring). Tatting motifs (that’s what the overall design is typically called) are described in tatting patterns, which are easy to follow once you get over the fractal infinities of how they first appear. By following the number and sequence of stitches, rings, and chains in the pattern, the tatted piece slowly takes shape. (For you knot enthusiasts, the stitches are made of simple half-hitches; and two half-hitches, side-by-side, form the common Lark’s Head knot or Cow Hitch. In tatting, this knot is called the “double stitch.”)

In this heart motif you can see the series of chains, rings, and picots throughout. Pattern design: Susan Fuller. [Link]
And here’s the pattern for the heart.

It’s useful to think of tatting as the interaction between two threads. There’s the “working thread” (the thread that moves a lot), and there’s the “core thread” (which remains pretty still). One thread essentially becomes the “strand” over which the half-hitches are tied in sequential order, and so in the end you get a series of stitched knots that becomes the building block of all tatted patterns.

Here’s me tatting (close enough to actual speed).

When you look at a piece of tatting, you can see these stitches all in a row — sometimes three or four of them, and sometimes more than 10 — but you’ll also notice that they’re often interrupted by tiny, decorative loops of thread. These are called “picots” (from the French piquer, ‘to prick’), and they result from simply adding a bit of slack between the first and the second half hitch, then sliding them together to pop out this lovely embellishment. Picots are used decoratively, sure, but they’re also used to attach neighboring parts of the pattern together. The whole thing is fairly straightforward, actually; beyond stitches, rings, and chains, there are “advanced techniques” (you can learn how to add beads along the thread of tatted jewelry, for example, or celtic patterns with overlapping chains), but the vast majority of tatting patterns are made up of these basic elements.

This is from a good starter booklet called Easy Tatting. by Rozella F. Linden. The pattern is called — over-humbly — Eight-Inch Doily. I’ve tatted this pattern a lot. Here, you can see the same pattern with the same two colors, only swapping the ring colors for the chain colors. The positive/negative differences in how they read can be significant.

Tatting is typically done with “tatting thread,” of which there are different brands and materials, colors, and thicknesses. The “weight” of the thread describes this thickness, and it’s logically easier to learn with thicker thread — really at that point it’s “string” (say size 3) — and then work your way down to thinner thread (say size 80). The thinnest I ever use is 20, but if your skill and your eyesight permit, you can get quite a bit thinner. (The same pattern with thinner thread will result in an appreciably smaller end result.) Most tatting thread is made of 100% cotton, which doesn’t stretch (and shouldn’t), but as a result, is not very forgiving. (Unlike in knitting or crocheting, where some stretch can help in the crafting of the piece, and of course in its wear or use.) There are metallic threads used for fancy jewelry (I’ve tried that once; it was surprisingly straightforward.) And a not-quite infinite number of colors, but plenty. (Marilee Rockley hand-dyes some pretty exquisite shades if you want to go off the beaten path. Also, she has a new Craftsy online class here.)

These bookmarks use variegated thread, which changes colors along its length. (Many people have very strong feelings about variegated thread. And by very strong feelings, I mean very violent feelings.) Pattern design: (Left: practice ring; Right: Found on Pinterest here; please contact me if you know the origin. Dying to credit.
Piecing together a patchwork of other video tutorials, I was able to begin my pursuit with what I considered a purer execution of the form. It’s pretty aesthetic.

Tatting is simple to describe now, but at the start of this hobby it seemed like there was a lot to learn, and so I watched a ton of YouTube tutorials to get there. (Remember, I had no teacher, and unlike knitting classes in knitting stores, never considered that I could find one even in a metropolis like New York City. Indeed, if you ask employees in yarn stores if they have any tatting supplies, half will not know what you are talking about and say no, and the other half will know what you are talking about but still say no. It’s a pretty arcane thing.)

[If you’re in Oakland California, however, you have a garden of eden at Lacis — an incredible place to visit and shop. I was there for 2.5 hours the last time I visited.]

Watching these videos, it seemed that there were two principle ways to tat. There is “needle tatting,” where the tatting thread is repeatedly knotted over the shank of a long needle, then pulled off of it at the end of a sequence. And then there is “shuttle tatting,” where a small shuttle (made of wood or bone or plastic or metal), pre-wound with the tatting thread and held in one hand, is passed over-and-under in a kind of cat’s cradle of thread in the other hand to accomplish the desired results. Given my fondness for medical device design, you’d think I would have chosen needle tatting, but I became mesmerized by the motion of shuttle tatting in the video tutorials: There were lots of moving parts, the shuttles were often quite beautiful in and of themselves, and, well, there was Karen Cabrera.

My first tatted earrings. Tough to glue the tatting to the post with the rhinestone on top. But all-in-all a remarkably quick project. Pattern design: unknown — (bookmarked page has been taken down).

Method over madness

It was my wife Victoria who called her my “girlfriend.” Because I started this hobby by basically laptop screen-testing dozens of tutors, I watched hours of tutorials and decided I would start with shuttle tatting because of my fascination with a particular YouTuber, Karen Cabrera, Cuban-born and living in Florida. None of Karen’s videos show her face, and none of the videos are in English, my native tongue. They aren’t even narrated by Karen, but they’re subtitled in Spanish and English, and show her tatting up an absolute storm, covering every technique — over 140 individual tatting videos in her channel! — starting with the bare basics of how to wind thread around a shuttle, to the most advanced, impossibly complicated joins and techniques. But each video featured the same hypnotic elements: Long, always enamel-manicured nails, clicking and clacking over and over as the interstitials described the moves, shuttle-tatting her way through seemingly miles of thread. (Here’s a recent video with those nails decked out in holiday cheer.)

Karen Cabrera’s Lession #138: 2-color rings.

“Are you watching your girlfriend again?” Victoria would slyly ask and smile, as she walked past me, on the couch, transfixed by the sounds and the action on my iPad. “It’s pretty amazing,” is all I could mutter. And it was. And I knew I had met my match when it came to craft challenges (more on that in a bit too), but I was definitely going to give this a try.


And then Karen and I broke up. Watching more tatting videos, it turned out that there were at least two shuttle tatting methodologies. And upon searching this further, I found that there is also the — ahem — “Philippine Missionary” method, along with the “Modern Priscilla” and goodness knows how many others. Read here for a robust discussion!

The method that Karen was clearly proficient at is the one where one hand moves the working thread’s shuttle overtop, around, under, out, up, down, around…well, it’s hard to put into a sentence but she’s awfully good at it. The other method sees the shuttle gliding back-and-forth, under-and-over, back-and-forth, over-and-under, effortlessly across the second thread…kinda like a miniature weaving loom shuttle. (This seems to be called the “slip-and-slide” method, or — and with some prejudice — the “standard” method; I think with almost 150 videos and counting, Karen can legitimately be referred to as practicing the “gold standard” method.) In any event, I found this kind of tatting to be beautiful, graceful, and highly economical from a design and choreographic perspective, even poetic. I never found an online teaching master in this method on par with Karen, but piecing together a patchwork of other video tutorials, I was able to begin my pursuit with what I considered a purer execution of the form. It’s pretty aesthetic.


A bit of history

Tatting is often referred to as “shuttle lace” or “hand lace making.” There are other forms of manual lace making (needle lace is beyond pain-staking; bobbin lace is beyond credulity — see below) and of course there’s the machine-made, manufactured lacemaking. Tatting seems to be the simplest kind of lace making — it’s even been called the “poor man’s lace” — and its history, dating back at least 200 years, is alternately credited to sailors and their practical yet sometimes decorated net making, or to “knotting” — a fitting provenance in its simplicity of name — popularized in Europe at the start and then brought to America. (In Europe the craft and its artifacts are most often referred to as frivolité. Define that as you see fit!) Still others trace tatting back to China, with France, Germany, and England as major and minor stops along the way.

Me standing in front of Renoir’s “Girl Tatting” 1906–08, at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Stumbled upon completely by accident, and coincidentally I had a piece of work in my pocket with which to pose!

[An aside: For me, I’m tempted to guess that the technique emerged well earlier than two centuries ago. It’s a bit like buying that in the entire history of art, perspective drawing was “invented” in the 15th-century by the Italian Filippo Brunelleschi — this is what’s typically taught in school. (Didn’t anyone draw two converging lines before — with a stick or a stone — and notice that they appeared as a humble pathway into the distance? Here’s Wikipedia’s version, anyway.) In this same way, the Larks Head knot seems so basic, that anyone with any kind of strand of anything at-all-supple seems not unlikely to have stumbled upon it, and so it’s perhaps not such a stretch to imagine that same someone tying two in a row over another strand and squishing them together.]

Watch it from the start, then don’t forget to view the results at the 1- minute mark.

Alas, history is written by the survivors, and, in typical European thinking, this delicate lacemaking took off in the nineteenth century with a fine (and predictable) place in lady’s pursuits, the artifacts of which seem for a century to be limited to garment- and napkin edging, collars (often religious), and the ubiquitous doily. There are a couple well-known male tatters on the Internet (my favorite is Tatting John, though you might want to check out the unapologetic web1.0 site of Tatman), but as you can imagine, this is not the kind of hobby you’ll often find practiced over at the fire station. That said, the sailor/shipman provenance can be of some comfort to those male tatters who are self-conscious about its gendered stereotype. And sailor, after all, is just one profession removed from pirate. So yeah — pretty darn masculine this is. Aarrhh!

It was a relief to move off of round motifs and try something more rectilinear. In order to figure out this pattern, I took a screenshot off the designer’s site, printed it out large, and counted up the stitches. Pattern design: TattingJohn [Link]
Here’s another, also from Easy Tatting by Rozella F. Linden. [Link]
You can’t think about anything else while tatting — daydreaming almost guarantees that you’ll make a mistake — and that’s why I committed to doing it.

They are real knots

When you look at a piece of tatting, you’d think that with such beautiful results tatting would be more popular. And indeed the hobby seems to be going through a teeny, tiny renaissance — you’ll recognize it quickly in goth necklaces, bracelets and earrings. But I believe there’s a reason more people don’t do it; that they don’t just “pick it up” like knitting and crochet, both of which have for years now enjoyed a ferocious return: Tatting is hard to start. It’s super-easy after a while, but that first week is an absolute killer.

Spring Doily, Round 6. (22,332 knots)

Recall that in principle, tatting couldn’t be simpler: You are tying two half-hitches, one after the other, in a ring or in a chain. You follow a pattern that tells you the sequence and order of the knots, and that’s pretty much it. And I’ve picked up a lot of hobbies over my lifetime, but for something so simple, tatting, at the start, is a hobby that I found to require enormous perseverance to learn. I mean several nights of near-tears frustration, trying to do anything resembling even a half-dozen stitches in a row, to any degree at all. I believe there are three principal reasons for this:

Reason more people don’t take up tatting #1:

That cat’s cradle I mentioned earlier? Well, think of your non-dominant hand becoming a kind of human loom. This is the hand that needs to contort itself to fashion the core thread around, and the other hand, containing the working thread, has to execute the back-and-forth motion over and under the core thread in a consistent, repeating manner. And the over-and-unders are, initially anyway, counter-intuitive and tricky. And here’s why:

Reason more people don’t take up tatting #2:

The fundamental knot-tying of the craft is completely counter-intuitive: It turns out that when you make your stitches, you are not actually tying one thread “around” another. Rather, you are contriving the two threads such that one thread turns over and forms a knot around itself. Sound confusing? Well, it is. People on YouTube have dubbed this bizarre little thread movement “the flip.” It turns out that the thread you are moving, or “working” with, is not the one that is making the knots; it’s the other thread. And this is accomplished by loosening one hand while pulling with the other, such that the resulting knot “flips” before it tightens. Like the pas-de-deux of gas pedal & clutch, the pulling of the one thread with the loosening of the other has to happen exactly so — but with all ten of your fingers performing the choreography correctly, and then over and over. This is so hard to explain that if you click on any link here, click on this excellent demo of “the flip” to understand, or just watch it below. (And then if you want to see more about the aforementioned cat’s cradle contortion, watch this. Heather provides some of the clearest tatting demos, and her site, Tatted Treasures, is a great early stop — if you take this up I’d recommend starting with her very manageable Absolute Beginner Tatting Series. Another great resource is J. Paulson’s Le Blog de Frivole.)

If you watch one video here, make it this one.

Reason more people don’t take up tatting #3:

In tatting — unlike crochet or knitting — you are tying real knots. Lots of them. You know how if you make a mistake in crochet or knitting you can just “pull the yarn” to undo it, and then re-start to make the repair? Well, you can’t do that in tatting. There are no slip-knots in tatting. Every half-hitch you make is closed, and in order to fix mistakes, you have to literally “undo” each knot. So in the early stages of learning to tat, not only are you dealing with Reason Number 1 and Reason Number 2, you are of course constantly, mercilessly making mistakes that you cannot easily fix — you have to painstakingly undo every offending knot, or basically cut the thing off with a scissors and start all over again. Hence the tears. (Historical note: Needle lace instructors, I’ve learned, used to take scissors and destroy — like, cutting it up so that it was garbage—to the lace of women workers when they made mistakes. Humans can be cruel to the core.)

A “bad” mistake — one where I curse out loud —will typically take me 40 minutes to recover from.

Even three years later, I make a ton of mistakes, and mistakes are “expensive” because undoing mistaken knots takes like ten times as long as it takes to actually make the knot in the first place, and it’s very tedious work. (Plus you usually have to do triage, assessing the damage and calculating whether “you can live with the mistake” — mostly only you will see it — undo the least that you can, then cut the threads, dovetail in new ones, hide and clip all the ends, and finally get back to where you were when you discovered the error.) A “bad” mistake — one where I curse out loud — will typically take me 40 minutes to recover from, so you really have to concentrate. I mean really concentrate. You can’t think about anything else while tatting — daydreaming almost guarantees that you’ll make a mistake — and that’s why I committed to doing it.

Spring Doily, Round 8. (33,712 knots)

Stress, anxiety, mindfulness

Like many people, my life requires many hats. And perhaps also like so many people, I spend the majority of my work life looking at a computer screen. As someone who always worked with his hands I find this sad, and, well, fairly unacceptable.

My “thing” — since I was little — has been learning how to do things with my hands: I’ve tried a catalogue-full of musical instruments — from guitar, piano, flute and violin to Minimoogs, dulcimers, and even kettle drums, and I’ve tried the palette of visual arts — from painting, figure drawing, and silk screening to cell animation and throwing clay on the wheel and even “off the hump.” I’ve taken sign language classes, cooking classes (I still pride myself on my knife skills), and prestidigitation classes in Quebec City. (That’s magic tricks. And the teacher made us perform the patter in French.) I’ve tried to be whimsical through cartooning classes and tried to be consistent filling out calligraphy workbooks. I’ve been able to solve the Rubik’s Cube reliably in under three minutes — sometimes one; I have finally given up learning how to whistle with two fingers in my mouth, but I have folded 364 one-inch paper origami cranes in three weeks and briefly tried my hand at blowing glass. I’ve enjoyed designing lots of products — from the aforementioned surgical instruments to HIV home testing kits for Johnson & Johnson, toothbrushes for Oral-B, workplace systems for Herman Miller (okay, that’s larger than a hand), hand-held computer devices for FedEx (that’s more like it!), and even a pooper scooper for an enterprising MD. (There’s a long story in that one.) I cannot juggle — but I’ve spent time trying — and am frankly terrible at pool. But I can hold my own at pinball and can hit a golf- or a tennis ball if I need to. I take pleasure in macramé-ing a bracelet, soldering up a circuit, pencil drafting a mechanical drawing with sections, and I LOVE working a milling machine along with other shop tools and equipment. Able to type pretty young at 60 wpm on a manual typewriter, as a teenager I learned how to work a 16-track studio-recording mixer with both hands before Macs were invented. And then how to sequence music on one once they were. I know that you want to touch raw meat as little as possible when you’re making hamburgers, and that you want to touch Fimo dough quite a lot — to soften it — when you are making miniature pretzels (with my daughter Bronwyn). IKEA furniture instructions are speedy (I think that’s true for everyone), and, granted, I’m slightly better at taking things apart than at putting them back together, but yeah, hands are my thing. And because I had a deep suspicion that it would be good for me, and that because I’d have to concentrate so hard on this handicraft to get anywhere, I figured that tatting would insure that I wouldn’t be able to think or stress about anything else while I did it, and that there would be consistent therapeutic rewards. And indeed, those are the biggest rewards. Because:

Apart from tatted jewelry, the “products of tatting” are, well, completely useless.

There are only so many horizontal surfaces in any one home — and frankly, one or two doilies in any house is probably quite enough doily—so there’s not much I can do with them.

There’s no way around it: I make doilies

Apart from inquiring about the name of what I’m doing (“It’s tatting. No, tatting. T-A-T-T-I-N-G. Tatting.” Always.), there is one guaranteed question people ask when they see me tatting or see any of my work:

“What is it going to be?”

Piles.

This one’s a heartbreaker, because apart from the jewelry, there is absolutely zero utility for a piece of tatting. Though typically round, even as a coaster it is completely useless — since it’s full of holes and wouldn’t protect a table surface in the least. (Well, maybe just a little least.) So I never have a good answer. In fact, quite the opposite. I’m really boxed into saying, “Well, it’s not going to be anything. It’s, well, a doily.” I’m not ever snide about it, but nobody has ever been impressed with that answer. (“Ooh, a doily! Let’s talk about this some more!”) I’m sad that it’s always a bit deflating to them, (perhaps when we lived in a time when lacework was revered…), but it’s the only authentic answer. Indeed, I have stacks of finished pieces, like, in piles, at home…in literal stacks. And since there are only so many horizontal surfaces in any one home — and frankly, one or two doilies in any house is probably quite enough doily — there’s not much I can do with them. They do make terrific gifts, but they are so labor-intensive that you have to really want to give one away to be able to let it go. (At least for me it is. There are lots of people selling tatted objects on Etsy, but I can’t really see myself being one of them.)

A few small motifs. Left: See above; Middle: Practice ring; Right: Button Flower by Lisa C. Trumble [Link]

Apart from the utility question, there are two typical follow-up questions that actually aggravate me a little bit: The first one is “How do you have the patience for that?!” What I find remarkable about this question is how off-base it is. I can’t really blame the inquirer for asking it, but the fact is that tatting requires no patience at all. There is little joy in the destination, and more than any hobby I’ve ever had, finishing a piece of tatting is a pretty conflicted moment. Like coming to the end of a really good book, completing a tatting project is a kind of disappointment. You are proud of the work, sure, but you’re also sad that it’s over. And honestly, immediately after you finish one piece, you’re on to finding the next pattern to make; rarely is it “time for a rest.” This “how do you have the patience” question is quickly and invariably followed up by the second — which is really a statement — “I’d never have the patience for that.” Yikes, there is really no way to respond to such a question (other then the reflexive “well, um, nobody challenged you to consider it, actually” but apart from just letting it evaporate, on certain occasions I’ve heard myself reply “Oh, I’d be happy to teach you sometime.” Only once has anyone ever said yes, and then sat down with me to actually carry it through. (I’ll be forever grateful Nathalie!)

Spring Doily, nearing the finish of Round 8. As the piece gets larger, it’s a very long way around the circumference! (41,960 knots)

But then there’s this.

So all of that kinda sounds like a downer, but there’s this incredible upside that I didn’t realize would happen when I tatted, and is so reliably consistent that it’s a kind of magic. It’s a big word, and I’m not claiming that it’s a consequence of my own, personal tatting (I’m certain that it’s universal to all tatting and to all tatters), but here’s the thing: Every time someone sees me doing it, or sees one of the pieces on my desk, their reaction is, well, pretty off the chart; they’re kind of — and there’s really no better word for this and I’m a little uncomfortable actually putting this “in print”—but they’re kind of astonished. I don’t think the ability to astonish people on an ongoing basis is something that anyone can reasonably expect to be able to do (though I imagine people with model-looks experience it daily, along with violin prodigies and sword swallowers, natch), but it’s actually pretty fascinating. Over and over. People seem to be consistently and reliably bowled-over when they see a piece of tatting, and they find it almost incomprehensible that someone (you, actually!) “made that.”

And then it’s over. In under five seconds, they’re over it. Probably because it’s just a doily, after all, and this is getting pretty granular here, but sometimes I wonder if they’re actually a tiny bit embarrassed for liking an object as uncool as a doily in the first place, even for those few seconds. Anyway, sure as sugar, soon another person will stumble upon the thing, express their delight and, yes, it feels pretty good. This was a completely unforeseen byproduct of the hobby, but it’s admittedly a sweet one.

This is likely true for most of us, but ALL I DO is read during the entire workday…tatting at least gives me a break from all that daily reading. It occupies my hands, it clears my head.

Opportunity cost

There is one side to tatting that does keep me up a bit: I do wonder what else I could be doing with all. that. time. Victoria and Bronwyn are voracious readers, and the obvious thing that I’m not doing when I’m tatting is reading books. Of course — and again this is likely true for many of us — ALL I DO is read during the entire workday. Hundreds of emails, responses, documents, spreadsheets, Flipboards, GoogleDocs, Wunderlists, chats, tweets…I’ve never tried to add it all up, but I’d be pretty keen to learn the number of words that the average “knowledge worker” reads during the course of an average day. Reading for pleasure is different, of course, but tatting at least gives me a break from all that daily reading. It occupies my hands, it clears my head, and for all its apparently uselessness, well, I clearly love it.

Tatted necklaces. Pattern design: Left: Rose Necklace, from Japanese Craft Book Tatting Lace Accessory Recipes #3576, by by Peikko [Link]; Right: Various sources.
From The Tatted Artistry of Teiko Fujito. [Link] One of my favorite patterns, and, as mentioned, makes a very lousy coaster but does look good under a drink.

By the numbers

I figured that the only way to conclude this reflection would be to do something I’ve never done — to actually do the math. The large, multi-colored piece that I’ve been showing throughout this article is the largest tatting project I’ve ever undertaken. It’s a pattern that seems to have been very popular this year, called “Spring Doily” and designed by the polish Renata Niemczyk, who goes by the name Renulek. People around the world have been tatting this same exact pattern, but have put their own twist on it, like I have, by varying the color scheme of the threads. For me, this pattern was basically a summer project, taking over three months to complete. I figured that it might be interesting to add up the number of stitches in the pattern. So I painstakingly counted them all up, using the pattern diagrams, and then I did it again, and then a third time, and I’m pretty confident that the number of knots prescribed in the Spring Doily totals 50,600. Now, recall that I make a healthy number of mistakes, so I’m going to add a conservative overhead of 2.5%, and that brings us to a grand total of 51,947.

And yeah, it took a really long time. Sometimes three hours at a stretch, and other-times simply a 20-minute repose half-way through the day, but those 12 or so weeks were some pretty pleasurable weeks. I’ve done a few motifs since finishing, but I’m thinking of repeating the Spring Doily once again with a different color pattern, maybe getting all the way to Round 13. (And hey, if I start now, I can literally be done in the spring!)

Spring Doily, Round 9, the finished piece. (The pattern actually goes a few more rounds beyond 9, but the work was starting to outgrow any reasonable table I could place it in the middle of. So I chose to stop at 9! The finished diameter is 16 inches. (50,680 knots).
And here it is actual size (on a monitor, anyway).

So I’ll take this opportunity to ask you to join me. If I’ve scared you away from taking up this hobby, don’t let me. Again, it was hard at the start, but a cinch shortly after, and if you stick with it I can promise you a lot of joy and not too much frustration. (Two other side benefits: A piece-in-progress can be easily stuffed, along with the two shuttles, into a shirt pocket or bag for an on-the-go hobby; this beats compulsively checking one’s phone. Also, a spool of tatting thread is incredibly inexpensive (about three-and-a-half bucks), and lasts, basically, forever. Anyone who’s purchased the quantity of wool required to knit a sweater will marvel at its thrift.

Finally, I sporadically post some of my work up on Instagram and Twitter in case you’re interested (both @chochinov), and, inspired by this article, I’m planning on archiving my pieces here on Tumblr. That said, I’m pretty active pinning other people’s tatting and patterns, and that you can find right here on Pinterest. And if you’ve made it to the end here, and have just read through all of this text, I think we can both agree that it might be time to stop reading, and to do something with your hands.


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