Tatting tales: not just for grannies any more

The unlikely resurgence of the craft is far removed from its Victorian lacemaking roots
Joanne Latimer
You call this a doily?
Pamela Quevedo

Don’t tell a tatter she practises a lost art. And don’t mention doilies. The next-generation tatters want to distance themselves from prim, lacy coasters—“the optics aren’t good,” one explains. They would rather make slave bracelets or Celtic-style chokers while attending a roller derby. Despite its near invisibility in craft stores, tatting—a form of lacemaking—is experiencing an unlikely revival. It’s unlikely because tatting is fiddly, a craft more suited to generations raised to have patience. Yet young crafters like the meditative aspect and the portability. (Try carrying around a big bag of knitting and you’ll appreciate the difference.)

The tatting resurgence isn’t splashy and celebrity-driven—notwithstanding Lady Gaga’s interest in tatted ankle corsets—but it’s undeniable. “Never thought I’d see the day,” crows Debbie Coté, owner of Aunt Debbie’s Knit and Stitch in Chilliwack, B.C., which will offer tatting classes starting this fall. “YouTube gets the credit,” Coté adds. But long before YouTube, in 1998, Sharon Briggs of Brampton, Ont., posted some of the first how-to tatting videos. Her blog, Sharon’s Tatted Lace, is one of many Canadian blogs, along with Carllie B. Fox’s Tat-ology, at the top of the tatting blogosphere. “There are thousands of people in email groups. We may tat in isolation,” notes Briggs, “but we aren’t isolated anymore.”

“Like many tatters I know, it skipped a generation in my family and my friends think I’m completely nuts for taking it up,” says Toronto designer Jamie McCurdy, who contemplated tatting her wedding dress this summer. “We’re a stealth movement,” notes Victoria Clarke, a Manotick, Ont.-based chiropractor who is teaching a workshop on how to tat a 3D high-heeled shoe ornament at the annual Fringe Element Tatters conference this September in Cambridge, Ont. “We’re slowly coming out of the closet. The Internet allowed us to find each other, and supplies.” Supplies can be a problem. It took 26-year-old Crysta Westoby in the Okanagan Valley over a month to find a tatting shuttle—the tapered, hand-held tool used in tatting. “I finally found a beautiful French ivory shuttle in a vintage consignment store,” says Westoby, a master’s student, “but I heard you can get a plastic shuttle at Zellers and Wal-Mart now for a couple of dollars.”

Romni Wools in Toronto noticed the surge in tatting interest last spring. “There’s enough demand to carry shuttles and thread, which wasn’t the case before,” notes owner Jonathon Leonard, whose staff recently reported seeing an intriguing young customer with an elaborate tattoo of a tatting shuttle. Some people tat with a needle, claiming it’s easier. Purists stick to the shuttle, using superfine, 120-gauge embroidery thread. But the old rivalry between needle and shuttle tatters is dying out.

The guiding light of the new tatters is a purple-haired steampunk in California who goes by TotusMel, meaning “all honey” in Latin. Her real name is Pamela Quevedo, and her videos online have attracted 230,000 total channel views since she posted them in 2009. She sells about 30 original pieces a month on the online store Etsy. Prices range from $5 to $425. “I never thought I’d be a professional tatter,” says Quevedo, 35, who changed tatting’s image with the Goth-lite jewellery, haunting masks and ankle corsets she makes. Lady Gaga’s stylist selected, then rejected, the latter for the singer’s Judas video.

Just as knitting broke through the gender barrier (thanks, Russell Crowe!), so has tatting. “I tat while watching hockey or football,” says Jeff Hamilton, the Saskatoon-based blogger behind Bridge City Tatting. A self-described homebody, he taught himself 15 years ago. “It’s not quite ‘woman’s work’ anymore, but it isn’t something I do outside the home. I’m so envious of all those women who can tat at Tim Hortons.”

Murray Schellenberg has no qualms about tatting in public. “I do it in movie theatres, on airplanes, in waiting rooms. People are curious,” says Schellenberg, a Ph.D. student in linguistics at the University of British Columbia, who learned his techniques in 1991 from an old Time-Life book at home in Alberta. “I was hopeless at knitting. I’m a binge tatter and, you won’t believe it, but I’m a doily guy!”