Tatting is a form of lace-making with a small shuttle. The shuttle is used to tie tiny knots around a central thread. An earlier form of handwork was called 'knotting', and was popular in the seventeenth century, even among high-born ladies, who used threads made of precious materials and knotted gems into their work. Knotting was similar to macrame, with knots being tied around a thread in close succession; worked with bright or glossy material, it could resemble strung beads. At some point, knotting began to be worked in loops, and eventually became called tatting.
Tatting is characterized by loops connected to loops, and picots, tiny single-strand loops that project from the main loops. Because it is made with knots on thread, it is heavier than other lace made with similar thickness of thread. It is similar to crocheting in its weight, but is typically worked in more open patterns. Tatting is used as edgings, as an insertion, or overlay on fabric. The antimacassars so evocative of Victorian decor, those lace coverings placed on chair and sofa backs to protect furniture from men's oily hair products, were usually tatted or crocheted. The word comes from a brand of men's hair oil, 'macassar oil'; thus, anti-macassar.
Tatting is a very portable craft; a small ball of thread and a shuttle no longer than two inches (five centimeters) is all a lady needed to keep her hands busy, and fit quite easily into the handbag. Older women tatting on buses were once a familiar sight, and an experienced tatter could attend closely to a conversation while her fingers were a blur of motion. Tatting and other crafts declined in popularity after World War II, but enjoyed a resurgence in the seventies.
Since ladies of all classes tatted, tatting shuttles could be as simple as a carved bit of wood, or as elaborate as carved ivory, or gem-studded precious metal. Today antique tatting shuttles are highly collectible, as are old patterns and bits of lace.