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What Is Needle Tatting?

By Britt Archer
Updated: Feb 22, 2024

Prior to the industrialization of clothing manufacture, people had to rely on ingenuity and hard work to embellish their clothing. Needlework in its various forms developed as a way to create both functional and decorative clothing items. Today, needlework is considered a hobby, craft or pastime that is engaged in for leisure or enjoyment. Needle tatting is a purely decorative form of needlework used to create intricate bits of lace trim and appliqués by hand.

Tatting involves making designs out of thread and uses one of two tools: a needle or a shuttle. Both needle tatting and shuttle tatting techniques utilize the same knots and joining methods; only the tool differs. A tatting needle resembles a regular sewing needle but is longer. Some tatting needles have a hook on the end in order to grab thread or join pieces of individual tatting together.

Tatting is used to form decorative edgings on pillowcases, garments and apparel, handkerchiefs and other housewares. Needle tatting can also be used to form standalone decorative objects such as holiday ornaments, bookmarks or doilies. Some tatters engage in the craft simply for the enjoyment of making something with their hands while others are more focused on the finished object and derive enjoyment from the product rather than the process.

Tatting can be performed with any thread, yarn or cord although most tatters prefer tatting thread. Traditional tatting threads were available in shades of white or off-white but modern needle tatters can work in all the colors of the rainbow. Cotton thread is the most popular choice available, although polyester, nylon and blended threads are also available to needleworkers. A needle and thread are the only necessary tatting supplies, although a variety of extras are available to those involved in the hobby. Pattern books, thread organizers, needle sizers and tools to make the craft easier and more enjoyable are available from many tatting supply companies and needlework stores.

The designs produced in needle tatting range from basic to incredibly intricate. Regardless of the intricacy, tatting utilizes only one knot: the lark's head knot. All of the stitches used in this form of needlework are derived from that knot. This knot is referred to as a double stitch in the tatting lexicon. A single stitch is half of a double stitch. Chain stitching links pieces of tatting together and picot stitching forms a decorative edge on the tatting work.

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Discussion Comments
By anon1002353 — On Nov 04, 2019

This is not needle tatting. What you are showing on there is needle lace, which are totally different from needle tatting. Your doilies are crocheted and should never be mixed up with needle tatting.

Needle tatting done well looks just like shuttle tatting. The only exception is that the instrument that they use is a 6 inch long blunt tip needle called a tatting needle.

Tatting is knot making called the double stitch. Crochet is loops, and bobbin lace making is weaving.

I also belong to three lace guilds, and teach needle tatting so I know what I am talking about.

You can distinguish tatting because of the knot which looks like a half hitch in crochet on the outside of circles which are called rings, or the outside of scalloped curves called chains.

Also what distinguishes tatting is those cute little delicate looking loops off on the sides called picots, which are totally different in the looks of picots that crochet picots, which look more bulkier than tatted ones.

By Calvin77 — On Aug 28, 2011

@amsden2000 - Tatting goes back around 200 years, or so my mom told me. She had learn needle tatting from grandma, who had learned it from her mom. It has had a long history in our family.

I do both shuttle and needle tatting and yes -- it can take hours. Mom is way faster than me and grandma tats at light speed. I've made dollies and lace edges for blankets, myself.

Mom was worried that tatting would die out with me since I'm not very creative, but I'm really glad I learned it. I think family traditions are important.

We have several doilies from great grandma and they are beloved keepsakes. Each woman in our family makes a doily to add to our keepsake box. We have them all in a little wooden chest in the attic. I get to add one when I get good enough.

By Jacques6 — On Aug 27, 2011

@SarahSon - I'm not sure if tatting is that popular anymore. Most people seem to just knit or crochet. Then again, there are videos online showing how to do tatting -- so maybe I'm wrong.

I've tried needle tatting and it takes a lot of patience. You have to know how to hold your fingers and how to knot everything right. I've tried tatting with a shuttle too and I liked it way better, but it still takes knowledge of how to hold it and knot properly.

If you use the right material, a tatted item can probably last forever. Which make them great keepsakes for sentimental people like me.

By amsden2000 — On Aug 27, 2011

@w00dchuck41 - I know what you mean about the vintage patterns -- if I started one of those when I was a old lady, I'd probably pass away before it got done.

I've tried needle tatting before. The most I ever made was a tiny coin purse. It took me forever and a day, but it was so beautiful when it was done. I couldn't believe that I actually made it! it was from a older pattern, but not a vintage one.

I found an interesting picture of a handkerchief online made with needle tatting. It's framed like a picture and has notes written on the back for each woman who carried it at their wedding. There were four names -- from 1881 to 1955! It was over 74 years old!

I wish they had the date for when it was started and when it was finished -- I would love to know how long it took women in those days to make something like that. I'm sure they were fast at it.

By w00dchuck41 — On Aug 26, 2011

I do a lot of crochet -- my mom taught me -- but I've never done needle tatting before. I looked it up and it's amazing what people make with just a long string.

Some of the patterns that women used back then are so intricate, it must have taken them weeks maybe even months to do one pattern!

I've been crocheting for years and I think I'm pretty good, but I shudder to try a vintage crochet pattern.

Vintage needle tatting patterns are just as complex. I've seen table Dollie designs for needle tatting -- it must have taken them *years* to finish it!

By SarahSon — On Aug 26, 2011

I remember my grandmother doing needle tatting to make doilies. I still have some of these intricate and ornate doilies she made. Many of these were made with different colors of thread and not only are they beautiful, but also have a lot of sentimental value to me.

I don't think I would have the patience for this type of detailed work, but it was one of her favorite ways to relax after a long day.

I don't hear much about needle tatting anymore, but I am sure there are many people who still enjoy this type of craft.

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