The Challenges of Stiffening Tatting – Part 2

Over the past couple of weeks I have spent some time trialing the various stiffening methods described and linked in the previous post. I decided to try the wax method first. I selected likely candidates that were of white cotton thread, colored cotton thread (Lizbeth and DMC perle cotton) and metallic blended thread. These would give a range of tatted motifs to try.

Next I raided my paintbrush stash to find new, unused paintbrushes for the application of the wax. I chose a package of food-grade Gulf wax that hadn’t been opened before, sliced off a chunk and melted it in a clean tuna can immersed in hot water that was kept hot in an electric potpourri crock.

At first I simply attempted to apply the wax broadly to the tatting:

Applying wax using a 3/8″ wide flat tip brush

In spite of quickly wiping out excess wax, this type of brush left so much wax on it that it over-saturated the thread. The wax has such a low melting point that it hardens quickly. This made for a quick re-evaluation of the technique. Perhaps a smaller, rounded-tip brush would be an improvement. Going back to the unused brushes, I chose a number 6 round tipped watercolor brush and began again.

This time, I chose a piece created with the slightly larger DMC perle cotton, size 8. I first determined which was the back side of the tatting and carefully applied the wax using only the tip of the brush and being careful not to over-fill the picots with the wax. This yielded a much improved result.

One observation was clear in this image : if the wax is applied too heavily, it can change the color of the threads. The yellowed areas above indicate this. This presents another reason to use the back-side only for stiffening using the wax method. The blended cotton-metallic thread was another example of this situation as shown here:

This shows the back-side of the piece. Note the white, waxy surface and the places that are darker because the wax has soaked deeply into the fibers of the cotton thread. The front looks better and the synthetic metallic filament is minimally affected, but my observation is to be sparing in the amount of wax used to stiffen cotton pieces.

Careful examination of the photo above shows wax residue on many of the “blossoms” and the thread that makes the leaves and vines is considerably darker than it was before the wax application. Overall, the wax method worked well, once I got the hang of it. Another observation was that the brushes were rendered essentially useless for any other application once they were used to apply the wax. They can be cleaned by immersing them into very hot water and wiping them with a clean cloth repeatedly until no traces of wax remain. But they can also be labeled as WAX ONLY brushes and reserved for that purpose.

Next I decided to try the corn starch method. Cornstarch is my “go to” gravy thickener so it’s always around. I followed the directions and dissolved a cup of pure corn starch in a cup of cold water then began to warm in over a medium-low flame on my stove.

Once it began to show signs of thickening, I added 3 1/2 cups of very hot water and continued to stir until the solution became translucent around the edges of the pot. It’s important to keep the heat consistent and to avoid any attempt to stop stirring. This will lead to lumps in the solution. Granted these can be strained out or re-dissolved later, but that is inconvenient at best and messy as well. The image doesn’t show well that the edge of the solution is as clear as it was, but the solution never became very clear.

The tatted motif or larger piece should be clean before it is dipped into the warm solution. That the solution be warm is an important factor essential to this process. Once saturated, gently press out the excess solution before placing it onto wax paper and gently picking the decorative picots and other features so that they are open and stand out. The drying time depends greatly on the size of the thread itself and the size of the piece. something created with size 80 cotton thread will dry much faster than a larger piece created with size 5 perle cotton. Metalic threads don’t always need stiffening, but if you choose to stiffen them, they don’t hold as much starch because they are made from non-pourous, synthetic fibers. Even the blended cotton / synthetics only absorb a portion of what traditional cotton threads do.

This is the image from the above photo. After only 1 application, it is stiff enough to be used as a Christmas tree ornament individually or inserted into a clear orb as an ornament. There is no apparent sheen or glossiness to it and there is no powdery substance to flake off. The next image shows 2 mixed metallic thread motifs. The metallic sheen is not dulled by the starch after a single application. I didn’t apply any additional coats because they seemed stiff enough for what I was using them for. The scissors are only to show scale.

The last thing to test was how did the corn starch work when additional embellishments were part of the motif. Using a tatted motif surrounding a plastic button, there seemed to be no residue of the corn starch clinging to the button when the piece was dry.

This was a relatively small piece as witnessed by the AAA battery used for scale in this image. Pure Corn Starch seems to do just fine on a wide variety of pieces and threads. It’s still up to the creator to decide what would work best for his or her design or pattern. Corn Starch is quite failsafe when put into practice. Wax takes a bit more practice and care to keep the thread from becoming overly saturated. Of course, nothing can work fine as well. This is especially true of the smaller size threads working on smaller motifs. But in the event that additional stiffening is needed, the choice may depend on the intended purpose of the tatting. Glue is still going to be necessary if the piece is going to be afixed to a card, for example, but using pure corn starch for more stand-alone pieces or as a part of clothing (such as collars and cuffs) works well with a minimum of fuss. Waxing may be better used if the piece is intended for shaped doilys that really need to “stand” (I’m thinking of the ones with ruffled edges).

The Challenges of Stiffening Tatting

Tatting evolves through several stages between the conception of the project and its completion. Selecting shuttles or needle, choosing thread and other materials such as beads, findings and so on are all part of the process. Once completed, the loose ends have to be dealt with and if it is to be used as part of clothing, sewn to the garment. But that brings up thoughts about stiffening for doilies, jewelry, ornaments and in some cases cuffs for blouses or shirts.

Creating the stars for this year’s Deck the Trees proved to hold an additional challenge because some of the ornaments that came our way had been made of older more pliant threads than modern Lisbeth or even Flora threads. So for these, we turned to putting them onto felt that had been trimmed into a round shape or star shape. Most of them were glued to the fabric, but stitching them down was also an option.

That started a search to review the various sorts of methods for stiffening tatted objects. The Experts were summoned! Jane Eboral looks at stiffening tatting this way:

And while this was written in 2013, it is still an appropriate look at stiffening tatted ornaments. With the Lizbeth threads, especially in sizes of 20, 40 or smaller, stiffening may not be needed at all because the work is created with thread that is firm and of a consistent nature. Considering that not everyone uses these threads or sizes of threads I decided to look on. That being said, I found several other ways to accomplish the same outcome:

In this presentation, Lou Woo, presenting for the Craft Corner is using a specific product SuperstÓ“rke that appears to be a European product (you can see the name on the container at about 42 seconds into the video with a price given in Pounds not Euros). Here, Lou gives a thorough explanation of the technique she proposes although it is applied to bobbin lace rather than tatting. The outcome should be the same, however and some special considerations about the brush she uses are important.

Looking on, Sharon Briggs gives an excellent rundown on Blocking, Stiffening and Storing Tatting in an article of the same name. The first section of the article is about blocking and is quite thorough. About halfway down the page is the information about stiffening and while she begins with the old sugar method, that method is not one that goes highly recommended. Sugar will dissolve out when it becomes wet and can attract unwanted vermin into stored threads.

There are other videos and blog posts out there as well, but the ones cited here were the most specific to lacers and tatters. And then I went to the director of our local museum who had this to say: “Glues and commercial products will yellow your tatting and other fine laces. Archivists don’t use these sorts of products, but rather prefer pure wheat, rice or cornstarch” such as what is described in Sharon Briggs’s article.

The Archivist gave these directions for use of cornstarch: 1) Mix 1 cup cornstarch with 1 cup of cold water. 2) Heat slowly, stirring constantly until evenly dissolved. 3) Add a quart of water and heat until it becomes lightly translucent. 4) Immerse the lace, allow it to soak in the starch until saturated, squeeze out the excell then pin it out to dry. Repeat until the desired stiffness is achieved.

Another archival method is the Wax Method. The Archivist recommends pure paraffin white wax or bees wax. (Bees wax can be a bit yellow, so white paraffin is better). Avoid candle wax or even white manufactured candles as they contain chemicals that can dull the piece. And especially avoid candles that have been scented.

The steps are as follows: 1) Lay the piece out on waxed paper. 2) Grate pure white paraffin wax on top of the piece. If the piece has beads, be sure to dust the grated wax off the beads. 3) Place a second piece of waxed paper over the piece. 4) Using an iron set to low, pass the appliance over the piece until the wax has melted.

There has been only 1 website that addressed this method of stiffening tatting and that is this one. The first thing that I noticed was that the author advocated using candle wax which is discouraged in the guidelines for archival handling of laces as described above. It seemed there was nothing to do but try this out using the archival technique. More in another article that will follow!

Super Finds!

It’s not often that I get to spend an afternoon in an antique mall, but today for the first time in several years, it happened. The Mall is a customer of ours and was in need of some computer technical support. The day was busy (good for the mall) and that meant that the computer tech (me) was going to have to wait until the computer wasn’t needed for transactions. Like any good antiquarian, I began wandering around to kill the time until it was my turn at the keyboard.

Remembering that a number of tatting friends and colleagues had found rare shuttles and examples of tatted laces in just such spaces, the time passed quickly as I opened drawers on everything and searched through tins and bins, display cases, knick-knack baskets and anything else I could find of a fabric arts nature. Nope, nothing. Not a single tatting shuttle. But what I did find was this:

2 Irish linen handkerchiefs with tatted edgings

These two Irish linen hem-stitched handkerchiefs show the same tatted edge. Both appear to have been tatted from size 70 or 80 thread. The vendor did not identify the year that these may have been made, but I suspect sometime during the 1930’s or 1940’s. Single shuttle designs, the edges appear to be sewn on discretely.

The other find from the same vendor in the Mall was this:

These designs were different from the others, but were on the same Irish linen handkerchiefs. The blue and yellow designs again are single shuttle works in size 70 or 80 thread while the green design is a ball-and-shuttle edging made with slightly larger thread – perhaps size 30 or 40. Lovely pieces and available for only $10 each!

If you happen to be in the Swannanoa area, check out Buckeye Antiques on the Buckeye Access Road. Their vendors do have some lovely pieces no matter what you are looking for – unless it’s tatting shuttles, that is. . .

Merry Christmas

Hello December!

Early December is the expected time of the year that Black Mountain hosts their Annual Deck the Trees Event for the benefit of the Swannanoa Valley Christian Ministries Fuel Relief fund. This year the requests for heating assistance is expected to be greater than in years past and because of the Corona Virus Pandemic, the approach has been modified so that trees at the Monte Vista will have sufficient room between them to allow for social distancing. This is especially true since the Covid-19 numbers in Buncombe County are climbing now that the weather has gotten colder.

The Laurel of Asheville has the introductory article to the event that can be found here. And Thread Bears members have been busy adding to the ever growing number of tatted Christmas ornaments for the tree. This year with the theme “. . . And a Star Appeared” tatters worked diligently during our times of isolation to create more than 30 5-pointed snowflakes or stars to adorn the tree. Without a storefront location to fall back on to place the tree, the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber of Commerce was kind enough to agree to host the Tatted Tree this year along with their own.

Some of the ornaments were created of threads that left the final star difficult to stiffen with even glue or starch. In some cases, because the star was created using threads that had a metallic filament, stiffening would have dulled the sheen on the ornament. So some of them were mounted onto felt which not only made for a more rigid end product, but gave each one that was prepared this way the sort of “outline” that made it stand out from the tree itself.

Sometimes the felt served to keep the associated star from fading into the green of the tree. Over all it worked well in almost every case.

As a group, several tatting shuttles that were not usable were given to me to add to the tree. Each of them was in some way unattractive and not what we might have hung on the tree as decoration. So they were glued to a Masonite star to be used as the tree topper. There is a paste that makes almost any medium appear like rusted metal. So that paste was used like paint over the Masonite and shuttles and a bit of antique tatting that had appeared in a bag of old lace was glued onto the edges of the star as well as around 3 of the shuttles themselves. In the end, the tree was topped this way:

The Tatted Tree has been one of the more sought after trees during the previous 9 Deck the Trees events and we’re hoping others will look into it’s location again this year. If you are out and about in Black Mountain between now and January 4th consider stopping into the Black Mountain-Swannanoa Chamber to see the Tatted Tree and the Chamber’s Tree as well.

The Deck the Trees Facebook Page will be sharing images during the event as well. Here’s to a Blessed Holiday Season!

Pearls for Justice Ginsburg

It may have been on Facebook, I’m not sure, but a challenge to wear a pearl on Election Day, 2020 in honor of the late Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg was sent out to our citizens. This is what I’ll be wearing in her honor November 3, 2020:

I don’t remember where I got the pattern or who wrote it. It doesn’t really matter. The center of it is a pearl. As a group, the Thread Bears created a collar for the late Justice and on it were pearls. This lady was honored to become a Supreme Court Justice. Out of respect for her and for the office she held, I will wear these pearls.