Even when she’s sitting in an airport, people are prone to looking over her shoulder as she manipulates her loom – also known as her hand. Splaying her fingers wound with thread so fine, she uses the other hand to pop the 3-inch piece of plastic back and forth so dexterously it might be a violin bow.
Actually, it’s a shuttle, and Elaine O’Donal is a tatter. The particular lace she makes may wind up as a Christmas ornament, an earring, a doily, a collar or bit of trim on a vest, or the beginning of a tablecloth.
O’Donal has been tatting – making knotted lace – for 18 years now. The 40-something Gorham woman, whose husband runs O’Donal Nurseries in the same town, took up the craft as a young mother.
“I’ve always loved lace,” she recalled. Initially, O’Donal pored over printed instructions without much success. “I stumbled around with books for a year.”
What she needed was someone to show her how to get started tatting.
“That was Clare Libby. She taught a number of people in the area,” she said. Libby has since died, but O’Donal still has a few of the shuttles passed on to her by Libby’s son.
Once she got the knack of tatting, O’Donal began giving things to family and friends, then went on to selling them. In 1985, she opened her own business, Tatted Webs, and now she works full-time at the craft.
Does she ever.
O’Donal shows her work in a half-dozen shops and at some 14 shows a year in New England and New York. She belongs to organizations such as Lacemakers of Maine, and educational groups such as International Lacers and Ring of Tatters.
For professionals, she added, “It’s also good to get into reputable groups like United Maine Craftsmen, which puts on very good shows.” Shows organized by promoters sometimes are not as good, she said.
“Then you have to learn who your audience is,” she said. Even for the experienced crafter, the task can be tricky. Framed tatting may sell quickly at one show, and ornaments at another. Handwork vendors have an advantage at venues that draw groups such as bus tours, though. “You can’t take a chair home on the bus,” she pointed out.
Often O’Donal is the only tatter at a show or exhibition. People are surprised she is so young. The other reaction she gets, always, is “Wow. This is a long-lost art.”
It only seems that way, she emphasized. Tatting is the stuff of old trunks and antique dealers – O’Donal herself has collected old pieces and preserved them from further disintegration. And it’s true she knows only about five or so serious tatters around the state who practice the craft on a regular basis. Some have to give it up when their fingers grow arthritic or eyesight fails.
But more populous, urban areas in other states often have tatting groups that meet for reasons that are social as well as practical, “like quilting bees,” she said.
When there’s a real desire to learn, those inspired to tat will find a way.
One of those was Judy Lambert, who has tatted pieces from her family hanging on the walls in King’s Daughters Home in Bangor, a residence for young women where she and husband Rick have been the directing team for the past five years. She’s added to the collection by purchasing items at yard sales.
Lambert looks at a tatted collar, a cuff and a piano scarf as though seeing them for the first time.
Pointing to one piece of tatting from decades ago, she said, “This was so precious back then, they would have saved this, cut it out and used it over.”
Lambert considers herself a beginner, though she has completed small items such as bookmarks. She learned tatting from a friend who spent time with a tatter and learned just because she knew Lambert was so intent on getting instruction.
“I began with big cotton thread because it’s so hard,” she explained. Tatters from long ago made the craft “by the yard,” she said. “It would have gone around anything and everything,” from clothing to pieces covering tables and other furniture.
“I cannot imagine women did yards and yards of that without error,” she said. “There’s nothing to measure it by. I can’t unravel it. I have to take a tiny little crochet hook and pick it out” if there’s a mistake.
O’Donal, of course, is more experienced, to the point that she can chat or look through magazines while easily keeping count of her tatting stitches. And she likes using the smaller thread that frustrates some tatters. “The finer the work, the better I like it, personally,” she said.
O’Donal herself has taught more than 100 people how to tat in recent years. Beginning in January, she will teach adult education classes in Cumberland and Gorham. Her students not only learn the basics, but the importance of exercising the wrists and taking breaks, she said, adding that working on different types of projects also is a good idea.
She currently is hard at work on a tablecloth a customer ordered for Christmas. It’s nearly a year since she began the piece, which at 50 inches square will use more than 1 pound of crochet cotton.
“It’s so repetitive, I work on other items, then come back to it,” she explained.
O’Donal has designed many one-of-a-kind items, from a lacy collar that took second prize in an international competition to a three-dimensional rose that will fit in a bridal bouquet, then be saved as an heirloom once the live flowers have been tossed.
“And I made a yarmulke once – all tatted, for a bar mitzvah,” she said.
In a nook off O’Donal’s dining room, work is laid out on a table. Small chests of drawers hold pins and tiny doilies in frames. An unfinished collar is draped around the neck of a mannequin.
She explained, “In order for the collar to lie flat, I have to watch to make sure I’m ‘easing’ it,” reducing the tension in the lower edge as she goes along.
Most tatting requires a lot of tension, enough tightness to keep the loops close together, whether in a row or in little rings. O’Donal also has tried making bobbin lace, but said that requires a looser touch. One of her daughters actually is better at bobbin lace than her mother.
O’Donal thought she was the first member of her family to take up tatting. About a dozen years ago, she found out otherwise, when she was using a shuttle that made a clicking sound.
“My mother said, ‘That was what my mother did.”‘ O’Donal never knew her grandmother, Aure Belisle, who died when O’Donal was but a year old. She has checked with relatives, but none of her grandmother’s tatting has turned up.
This time of year is very busy for the owner of Tatted Webs. On recent weekends she took her wares to holiday shows in Litchfield and in North Yarmouth.
“And I’ve had people come to the house Christmas Eve to pick up their orders for Christmas,” she said with a smile. But she won’t be idle in the new year.
“In January, when I’m playing with designs, that’s fun. I enjoy that and find that is a real creative outlet for me,” O’Donal said. Works in progress include a fan that can be taken apart and used as a collar on a baby’s christening gown.
“And I would like to do more tablecloths,” she said, “possibly even keep one for myself at some point.”
To keep tatting in good shape, she advises using liquid starch. “It helps keep it clean and gives it a little bit of firmness,” she explained. Earlier generations used sugar and water for starch, but she says it wasn’t a good idea. “The bugs will get in and eat it.”
O’Donal has faith that tatting will continue to draw the interest of crafters who keep the intricate handwork alive.
Designs for tatting have been shown in publications for more than a century. The June 1895 Ladies Home Journal presented “An Attractive Wheel” and “A Pretty Square.” O’Donal’s work will be shared in the January-February issue of PieceWork magazine.
No one knows exactly how far back tatting goes – perhaps several hundreds of years. The Egyptians did knotting on ceremonial clothing, and O’Donal has heard of tatting being found in Egyptian tombs.
Queen Mary, who reigned in England during the 17th century, was apparently quite taken with tatting. In 1707, Sir Charles Sedley made note of her interest in a poem, “The Royal Tatter”:
For here’s a Queen
Now thanks to God
Who when she rides
In coach abroad
Is always knotting threads.
Elaine O’Donal may be contacted at Tatted Webs, 213 Burnham Road, Gorham 04038; 839-4676; or e-mail email@example.com.