In 1861, Cornelia Mee and Mary Austin published a book titled Novelties in Crochet. It includes three illustrated instructions for “crochet à frivolité” that emulate tatting, using an ordinary crochet hook and standard crochet stitches. One is for the “wide festoon edging” shown here (with the written instructions at the end of this post).They published a similar book dedicated entirely to shuttle tatting in the following year, titled Tatting, or Frivolité. Mee’s preface to it indicates that she was thoroughly familiar with that craft.
“I never remember learning the work, or when I did not know how to do it. I believe it was taught me by my grandmother, who, if she had been living, would have been in her hundredth year. I mention this, as I have heard that a claim has been made by some one lately, to have invented the work, which certainly has been known as Knotting or Tatting for more than a century.”
(This post is my own preface to an impending major revision of a research report on knotting and tatting during that period, currently titled Early Tatting Instructions.)
Shuttle tatting was first illustrated in the Victorian fancywork literature by Jane Gaugain in the 1842 edition of The lady’s assistant for executing useful and fancy designs in knitting, netting, and crochet work.
A large loop of the shuttle thread is first wrapped around the fingers of the opposite hand and a sequence of smaller loops is then worked around it. When the desired number is reached, the large loop is closed by pulling the core thread, and the pattern is repeated. This is seen in “star tatting” from the same publication.
The method Mee and Austin describe for crochet à frivolité replaces the running thread with a crocheted chain. The loops that would be wrapped around the core are instead single and double crochets (UK) stitched around that chain. This produces bulkier fabric but its patterns are those of tatting, not crochet.
This provides a good illustration of the tools and techniques of one craft being used to produce fabric intended to resemble that normally associated with another craft, which has its own implements and methods. The structural overlap will range from nothing more than superficial similarity, recognizable by an untrained eye, to full congruence.
The Mee and Austin 1862 Tatting book makes no reference to crochet à frivolité beyond including the Novelties book in a listing of their other works currently in print. It therefore seems safe to assume that they really didn’t regard it as more than a novelty. Nonetheless, a method for tatting on a crochet hook that more closely resembles shuttle tatting, is described as “crochet tatting” (gehäkelte Frivoliteten) in the 1 February 1868 issue of the German biweekly women’s magazine Der Bazar.
The same richly illustrated page appeared in English translation a few weeks later in the 22 February 1868 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. (I have yet to determine if the short interval between the publication dates signifies editorial collaboration or nimble plagiarism.) Translating directly from the German text:
“Previously the only tatting known was made with a shuttle. In today’s issue, through descriptions and illustrations, we teach how it can be made with a crochet needle… Appropriate needles are of the same diameter along their entire length and fastened either to a wooden or bone handle or screwed into a holder. The hook must be perfectly smooth, with a blunt tip that is 2—3 cm in length, since the entire row of stitches is held on the needle.”
The same method is described again in the 1869 volume of Godey’s Lady’s Book and Magazine and remains in practice, often called ‘cro-tatting.’ The illustrated tool is commonly marketed as a ‘bouillon crochet hook.’
Instead of being worked around a core thread, the loops are wrapped around a crochet hook. When a sequence of them is ready to be closed into a ring, the hook pulls a long loop of thread through the entire row, forming the core that is retained in the fabric. It consists of two parallel strands of thread rather than the single strand of shuttle tatting. The double strand is concealed inside the ring but the use of a hook is revealed by the chained connections between the pattern repetitions. This is seen in a “crochet tatting edging” from the article in Der Bazar and can be compared with the single thread in Gaugain’s star tatting.
The connecting thread can also be embedded in tatting stitches, likewise called a chain. This requires the fabric to be placed between the shuttle and the thread supply, dividing the working thread into two separately manipulable segments. In fact, Mee and Austin claim this to be a technique of their own devising in the 1862 book. (The spool is now commonly replaced with a second shuttle, permitting different color threads on each.)
The difference between a tatted chain and a crocheted chain might not be obvious in a mid-19th-century engraving but is readily apparent in actual fabric.
The loops on the crochet hook illustrated above face each other in pairs termed ‘double stitches.’ There are also ‘single’ (or half) stitches, all wrapped around the core in the same direction. There is no effective difference between a sequence of either type positioned on a long cylindrical crochet hook, and a cast-on row of knittable loops on a hook-tipped knitting needle.
This cascades into an interesting parallel between crochet tatting and yet another technique using a long cylindrical hook, also first described in Der Bazar in 1858. This is the Tunisian crochet that Mee and Austin dedicated five books to, calling it “crochet à tricoter,” spanning the period in which they introduced their crochet á frivolité. By 1868, Tunisian crochet had become extremely popular and it is reasonable to wonder if it influenced the application of the long hook to tatting.
The difference between the starting rows of crochet tatting and Tunisian crochet is that the loops intended for tatting are wrapped directly around the hook rather than first being drawn through a foundation chain. From there, the difference between the return pass in Tunisian crochet and closing a row of tatting stitches is that the former anchors a chain to every second vertical loop and the latter pulls a single chain through all of them.
The pivotal structural distinction is that the row of chains in Tunisian crochet leaves the initial loops suitably positioned for a new row of loops to be knitted into them. The single chain pulled through all of the loops in crochet tatting holds them snugly against each other in a ring, thereby precluding their use as anchors for a new row of knittable loops.
In the context of textile systematics, the tightly-drawn double stitch (aka ‘lark’s head knot’) may have become one of the basic characteristics of tatting by the mid-19th-century, but tatted fabric also includes open loops. Since the thread in a loop-based stitch takes the same path regardless of whether the stitch is tightened to the point that it alternately can be seen as a knot, tatting is categorized as a looped structure.
Irene Emery places it under the heading “knotted loops” in her structural hierarchy. Annemarie Seiler-Baldinger’s classification by techniques categorizes tatting as a form of “meshwork lace” alongside needlepoint lace. Both are a “combination of looping and knotting” and the distinctions between the techniques in that “special class” are “generally denoted by the implements used in their manufacture.”
The list of structures made with eyed needles includes some that are fundamental to nalbinding and it may also be interesting to note that tatting using an eyed needle was described as an easier alternative to working with a shuttle before the publication of the Victorian texts cited here. Seiler-Baldinger makes the additional observation that “tatting is often produced in combination with crochet.”
As Emery explains it:
“Probably the most familiar and prevalent embodiment of the principle of knotted looping is to be found in the fabrics known as knotted netting…although the structure is also found in…mixed (open and closed) textures such as those produced by tatting.”
This brings us dangerously close to the laden term knotless netting that Emery abhors and Seiler-Baldinger avoids altogether. If we accept it for the moment as a synonym for nalbinding, a recently described Swedish novelty in crochet — virkad nålbindning — becomes an intriguing construct. It shares basic procedural elements that Tunisian crochet and crochet tatting also have in common, and might therefore qualify for classification under the oxymoronic heading knotted knotless netting.
The Swedish term virkad nåbindning literally means ‘crocheted nalbinding’ but that label is a pure neologism. It does not have the documented history that crochet tatting does and we have no idea how widespread it may have been or how its putative earlier practitioners conceptualized and labeled it. Nor does the associated fabric come anywhere near as close structurally to what it nominally emulates as crochet tatting does. I’ll be taking a closer look at it in a separate post (and the awkward systematics in yet another).
In the meanwhile, here are the full Mee and Austin instructions for the wide festoon edging in crochet à frivolité. As was customary in their day, the worker is expected to glean quite a bit of information from the illustration and resolve any inconsistencies between it and the written instructions. The main stitching is done in “Boar’s Head Cotton, No. 10” and the decoration and auxiliary joining with “Glacé thread, No. 16.” The stitch names follow UK usage; a single crochet is a slip stitch.
* Make a chain of 12 stitches and unite it, work into the circle 20 stitches of double crochet, make a chain of 23 stitches and unite it to the 4th, work into the circle 32 stitches of double crochet, make 3 chain and repeat from * till 3 large and 4 small loops are made; work a stitch of single crochet into the 6th loop of small circle, *, make 5 chain, miss 2 loops, work a stitch of single crochet into the 3rd, repeat from last * twice more; work a stitch of single crochet into the 6th loop of large circle, make 5 chain, miss 2 loops, work a stitch of single crochet into the 3rd, repeat this 6 times; work into the remaining circles in the same way as before, work 2 stitches of double crochet into the 1st 5 chain of small circle, 2 stitches of double crochet into the next 5 chain, make 3 chain, work 2 more stitches of double crochet into the same place, work 2 stitches of double into the next 5 chain, work 2 stitches of double crochet into the 1st 5 chain of large circle, *, 2 stitches of double crochet into the next, make 3 chain, work 2 more stitches of double crochet into the same place, repeat from * twice more; work into the remaining circles in the same way, work in the centre a stitch of double crochet into each of the 3 chain between the circles; with glacé thread, work the lace stitch in the large circles, as shown in the engraving, and unite the festoons as also shown.