The Creative Corner · Vintage Needlework

Making Lace with Shuttle and Thread

An assor
tment of tatting shuttles and balls of thread arranged on small tatted lace projects.
Tatting shuttles, thread, and tools from my private collection. These are both vintage and modern. On one side of the blue Clover shuttle is the elusive tortoise-shell plastic Clover. On the other side is a reproduction of the shuttle that Modern Priscilla gave out as a subscription premium in the 1920s. The pink and green thread is my current project, and underneath it is a metal Boye shuttle. The threads range from size 20 to 50.

Today I’m going to talk about tatting, which is simply making lace with a shuttle and thread. Lacemaking is a great vintage craft. For one thing, it is extremely portable. Most days I carry a shuttle and thread in my pocket, attached to some unfinshed tatting. That way if I have a moment, I can progress with my latest project.

Second, to learn tatting you only need to learn one knot. Of course, you make that knot ten thousand times in different positions, but it is only one knot. With shuttle and thread, all those knots make lace.

Third, lacemaking can be a very inexpensive hobby. All you absolutely need is thread. And the thread can be any size, but it’s nice if it’s thick enough that you can actually see it. Especially when you’re learning. Sewing thread does not make good tatting thread (although it can be great for other kinds of handmade lace.) For tatting, sewing thread is really small, and really tight. It’s hard to undo stray knots in sewing thread.

Use thick thread when you start

So to begin with, at least, start with something bigger: size 10 thread is easy to find and it makes a good starter thread. If you want to stick with size 10 for awhile, do so. Some advanced projects and edgings are tatted with size 80 thread, which is thicker than sewing thread by enough that you can at least see it. I make almost everything I do in a size 20 thread. It’s about half the size of 10, yet it’s big enough to see and big enough to loosen if a stray knot appears where it’s not supposed to.

I said that the only thing you absolutely need for tatting is thread. Do you need a shuttle? Not at first. Not if you don’t want to. Here’s a tutorial on how to make a tatting shuttle from a plastic lid you may have lying around the house. And here’s a link from the incomparable Georgia Seitz that gives you a pattern for making your own shuttles from cardboard or plastic. Georgia taught and designed tatting for many years.

What is a shuttle and where do I find one?

If you want a tatting shuttle to learn with, by all means get one. Most vintage shuttles were made from metal or bone, but today’s shuttles are formed in plastic. Two very popular styles lead the rest: the “Aerlit” style and the “Clover style.

blue tatting shuttle
This is an Aerlit shuttle. It has a hook and a separate bobbin. (Image: Handy Hands, Inc.)
yellow tatting shuttle and green tatting shuttle
These are Clover shuttles. They have picks on one end and a post in the middle You wind the thread around the post.
(Image: Clover Inc.)

The Aerlit shuttle actually began its life in England as the Aero tatting shuttle, and then moved to Germany. It came in one color. Gray. With one or two colors of bobbins. Black and perhaps gray. Then these shuttles went out of production, and Handy Hands, a tatting thread and shuttle manufacturer in the U.S., began making them. (If I recall correctly, Handy Hands bought the original molds from the manufacturer and retooled them.) Now they come in a rainbow of colors, and they are very popular with tatters. The hook helps to catch the thread and pull it through loops.

The Clover shuttle first came in a hard plastic, two-toned tortoise-shell. Then Clover began making these shuttles in many different solid colors. Now they are available in two colors per package, which is really nice when you either have two projects going at once or you are using two shuttles at the same time. The various colors help you to keep things straight. The pick functions similar to the hook. It grabs thread so you can bring it through a loop as you tat.

The Clover shuttle is also very popular. If you want a metal shuttle like tatters used in the 1920s through the 1960s, Lacis (another lace supplier) has reproduced the old metal Boye shuttle. It looks like this, and this style is what I used when I learned to tat.

silver metal tatting shuttle
This is a reporduction of the 1920s through 60s Boye metal shuttle. It also has a removable bobbin and a hook. Lacis makes it. (Image: Lacis.)

So… where can you get these things? You can purchase both tatting shuttles and threads from Lisa at The Tatting Corner. It’s a great shop, I buy from her regularly, and I believe she ships anywhere. All of these shuttles cost about $4 to $6 apiece. The Clover shuttles are more expensive because you get two.

Wind that shuttle and go!

Once you have whatever you plan to use as a shuttle, wind it with thread. Shuttles need a smooth, even, not-too-tight wind so that the thread comes off easily when you need it. A little practice will even out those threads. As a youngster I was not a very good bobbin winder, and my thread continually slipped under other strands and got stuck. If that happens to you the first few times then know that you are not alone. Your shuttle and thread will still make lace, but you may find the thread a bit difficult if your thread is too tight.

Learn with a video or two

The easiest way to learn how to tat is to watch someone do it. This is the value of YouTube videos. You can stop and review the same step over, and over, and over as many times as you need. The video will not lose patience. It shows you the same segments as many times as you need to see them.

I’ll link beginning tatting instruction from two different teachers. Look at each one to see which one matches your way of learning best. You do not want to learn tatting from a video I produce. I learned to tat from Victorian manuals, so I literally tat like someone’s great-great aunt. In fact, more than one person has said that to me over the years. “You tat like my Great Aunt Bessie! I’ve never seen anyone else do that!” Well, I wager that Great Aunt Bessie learned to tat from the same 1853 and 1878 manuals that I did. And when you begin tatting like Great Aunt Bessie, it’s tough to change!

The best video to use is the one you understand well. Frivole’s Shutting Tatting for Beginners – Transferring the Knot starts off a short series of videos. The presenter uses a thick cord to show the process, which may make it easy to understand.

The second presenter, Kaye Judt, uses a larger normal-sized thread but her instructions are very clear. She talks you through making rings and chains in two videos. The first one is Introduction to Tatting by Kaye Judt. Kaye is a needlework and tatting designer who teaches at the various tatting conventions held around the U.S. each year.

Regardless which online video instructor you choose, I hope you find yourself making lace with a shuttle and thread in very short order. Next I’ll introduce some easy and popular vintage patterns for you to do. One of them has been used so often over the past 100 years that most tatters know it by name.