The hand as a loom

Posted on June 25th, 2012



When in hands of a brush and paint I start to hesitate, which colour, where to start, what shape? But if you show me a collection of yarns and I start to dream, my hands begin to live a life of their own. Within seconds I visualise the yarn being knitted, knotted, crocheted, woven, liberated, and forced into unfamiliar places. My canvas does not exist, but my brush is the needle and my yarn is the paint. The technique is my freedom, my way to communicate.

My fascination for the technique called tatting, (also known as frivolité, and is used for knotting lace) arose out of curiosity towards the tool that is worked with. This shuttle as they call it, I found in a showcase of a dear friend of mine. Every time I visited her we picked something out of her collection of textile tools and she explained me the technique that came with it. I instantly fell in love with this tool. It has the shape of an eye and fits exactly in the palm of your hand. The smooth, symmetric, shell like construction and the lightness of this tool made it on itself a beautiful object to keep. So I decided to add this piece to my own collection of tools kept in a small case that travels with me everywhere I go. Every tool that finds his way into my case symbolises a piece of freedom that I gained.

I don’t really learn techniques out of a book; instead I observe each technique in its movement and rhythm. Creating patterns, better said, figures in motion, which I file in my mind. Tatting seemed complex, and every person I spoke to who once had tried to tat agreed. They either sighed or showed an anxious or irritated face while just mentioning tatting. It really gave me an overwhelming feeling of excitement where I longed to explore the reason why they wave aside this technique.

Actually, there were no teachers this time, not a single person I could find who could demonstrate except the hands of the anonymous maker on Youtube. While following every step out of a textbook or copying a moving image my hands felt like they needed oiling. At first I needed to memorise every independent movement to understand what is expected of each and one of my fingers. This usually happens while learning a technique. When you finally feel the rhythm of the technique, the movement of the hands go automatically without even thinking. You come to a point where you might subconsciously change certain positions of the fingers or customize some movements to your own comfort. This is how each practitioner of a technique creates its own signature.

The following months, literarily everywhere I went, sat, or stayed, I tried to accomplish the stitch. As a result hundreds of little tryouts scattered around showing exactly all the places were I had been. During lessons at the Academy I tatted, while watching TV, I tatted, while meeting friends, I tatted, in the bus, I tatted. Even when I was empty handed, I still tatted.

I understand why it is experienced as a complex technique. Both hands need to complete two different tasks where every finger is assigned to a different task as well. Combined with working with the thinnest yarn (not much thicker then sewing thread) it takes a lot of practise and patience. But that might not be the only reason for its fading existence. Lace used to take its place as a doily (a small ornamental mat/napkin) placed to safeguard tables from scratches of china, or serve its purpose as a collar to protect clothing from dandruff or dirt. Even chairs where covered in these lacy fabrics (antimacassar’s) to protect it from macasser (a type of oil for the hair commonly used in the early 19th century.) And whether it’s the intensity of labour to produce these tatted pieces of fabric, or whether lacy collars are simply out of style, it seems to me this graceful technique has lost its place in existence. Besides the fact that we find little or no use to the tatted lace anymore, this technique is often underestimated due to the fact that the tatting (as we know it in Dutch being called frivolité) carries its name as a heavy burden. The definition of the word frivolous explains it has no serious purpose or value, I experience this to give the technique a rather negative connotation. Making the practise of the technique look like a useless effort.

While researching the technique I came across dozens of technical books that explain the basics or history of tatting. I would like to add a new manual guide to this collection that will repeat this instructional illustration of the position of the hand in tatting and unravel its complexity. I am not aiming to create another instructional book on the technique, in contradiction; I want to show you a third dimension of tatting that I see it beholds. I’m going to make an attempt to find it a new setting, a new function, a new context. Taking it back to its roots. I would like to show you the strength and gracefulness of these stitches. I know for sure it can outgrow its frivolous status.

As a maker, I would like to show you my hands. Giving you an insight into years of practise in this particular technique. Where the mind and the hands need to communicate, a new connection is created. A path every maker needs to follow while encountering several obstacles and blockages of the hands. Our hands are the most flexible limbs of our body, and are able to make the biggest variations of movements. Immanuel Kant once cited the hand to be ‘A Philosophical inquiry in human being’ which explains the diversity of ways we can grab, the abilities of movement, and our sense of touch that all influences our way of thinking. Richard Sennet treated this subject as well in his book The Craftsman (chapter 5 The Hand) showing the relation of the hand and mind within three disciplines: the musician, the chef and the glassblower. Sennet talks about the Suzuki method, teaching children to play the guitar by labelling the neck with plastic strips in order to simplify the learning process and create a pure note in an easy and quick way. This method should create confidence in the gestures the hand needs to position itself in.

Where Sennet discusses the abilities of the hands and the process to improve its mobility, I argue a different evolution of the hand in its adaptability. In every learning stage of practising a technique there is a turning point where a higher level of understanding arises. This happens when we come to a point where exactly the right balance between the mind and the hand is created. This only occurs when you let go of your hands and mind at exactly the same time. For example: when learning how to ride a bicycle. When you suppress your fear (the mind) of falling down, and trust your feet to keep on peddling (the movement) you come to this turning point where full understanding is created in the communication between the mind and the movement. This higher level of understanding is neither thinking or doing; its exactly in between, it’s the point where the movement becomes a part of you. I experience the turning point when finally beholding the practise of a technique, the same way as a bird that takes of flight for the first time. It’s not something I want to learn, its something I need to learn in order to gain the freedom I need to create.

Zooming in on my empty hands while making the movements that tatting require, I observed a second dimension in this technique. These repetitive movements reminded me of a sign language type of motions where every part of the hand conducts a different gesture. The hands turn into multitasking machines where the complexity of tasks is divided into multiple disciplines. I name them as following: The hand as a loom, The Supplier, The Core and The Vice.


While wondering how the shuttle came to be named like this I thought of a shuttle that shares the name; a space shuttle. Remarkable it was to discover that both the tatting shuttle and space shuttle share lots of similar qualities. The shuttles both share this aerodynamic structure and own a converging ending to endure certain resistance. Lightness of the material used to create these objects is of high importance. While they may not share the same mission they will need to carry the full load of material that will be used during their performance. Even schemes that are found in both these worlds cooperate. While researching I found a scheme that calculates the air resistance and gravity of a space shuttle. Here we come to a point that the tatting shuttle has a bigger advantage then the space shuttle; the tatting shuttle can actually turn this scheme into a pattern for making lace. While most people tend to experience lace as a feminine object, I don’t experience any technique to be defined as male or female. While men don’t wear lace anymore, they are actually the true founders of tatting. The shuttles used for tatting where originally bigger. About 2000 years ago, fishermen used these large shuttles to weave heavy cord into fishing nets. About 1000 years ago sailors knew many different kinds of knots to use on the sailing ships. All these cords were handed down to weavers who used a finer thread to make lace. The shuttle was smaller to accommodate this finer thread and the lace they made was sewn onto satin and velvet.  Because the royalty wore beautiful garments with lace, lace making was a thriving business in Europe.

The hitch knot, also referred to as larks head or cow hitch, are made to hold the knot fast to another object or to itself. This knot on itself has been indispensable to all men who worked at sea. But it’s the same knot as is used in tatting and brings forth these refined lacy structures.

Working with marine ropes requires a whole different approach of working then the fine yarns for tatting. The material itself acquires strength and perseverance to handle and carry out a serious and thorough attitude. While the knot made by fishermen and tatters is exactly the same, the hitch knot used at sea gets more credit than in tatting. The knot is used to fixate and secure, to carry and hold, and be trusted upon in dangerous circumstances.

I have decided to experience the enlargement of tatting by using big ropes like the fisherman do. I hope to create a different attitude towards tatted lace by working with the original ropes where these knots used to be made of. I collected a large amount of ropes from the harbour at Rotterdam, these ropes come of a ship and have probably been around the world already. While tatting with these ropes I captured a whole new perspective on this technique. I hope to show you that while the technique and the stitches remain the same, the definition of the word frivolous does not identify its content.

When replacing the fine yarn used in tatting into heavy marine ropes my whole system of working collapsed. It is impossible to work with a shuttle anymore and where my hands used to enclose to full process of tatting, my whole body now has to cooperate to complete a single knot. Tatting has completely changed from a technique that would almost vanish between my hands because of the finest movements it required, to a grand spectacle where I feel like a hard working sailor aboard a ship. I’ve gone from working with the finest smoothest yarns that emphasize the graceful gestures of my hands, to ripping the skin of my hands while sweating and working with al my arms and legs in order to accomplish one single knot. Where a half stitch was created by one single smooth motion of both hands, I now struggle to keep all these heavy ropes in place because I lost my helpers that used to be my fingers playing the role of the vice or having a solid supplier (a shuttle) The enlargement of the technique on a scale like this means getting dirty and days of muscle aces. But I mean serious business, I will wrestle myself with the ropes to make visible to my audience what I see this technique beholds. I want to help this technique to get out of its comfort zone. Drag it away from being doomed to continuously produce its doily’s, jewellery and postcard decorations. I’ll take it back to its roots; the life it leads at sea.

Sailors used to knot al different kind of things in their spare time at sea. One of these things are fenders; large knotted objects in different shapes and sizes that are used to protect the ships from other boats or docks. I can see these tatted knots taking over these fenders and standing ground as they yet again serve an important task and meanwhile showing the strength and beauty of lacy structures. I need these ropes to help me while still joining together as lace, to see if it can find its new context. In a vision I saw gigantic marine rope fishnets thrown overboard, tatted in lacy structures, servicing the fisherman. And these big tatted fenders proudly hanging aboard the ship showing off their complex patterns. Tatting fenders will be my first mission, who knows what will happen next…