I learned to tat, a form of lace making, on a bus. As we rode along on the way to a funeral for a Sister’s mother, I noticed a Sister seated across the aisle in front of me doing strange things with her fingers. Curious, going home, I sat beside her, and she gave me a shuttle along with a ball of thread and taught me this art. Lesson one: You never know how your life will unfold.
The thin thread used to tat easily becomes knotted. You can either cut the thread and begin again or carefully work out the knot. Lesson two: With patience and perseverance you can solve your problems.
My first products were delicate flowers. Our maintenance man, whose last name happened to be the same as mine, had an aunt in California, who happened to be a Sister of Notre Dame like me. She happened to make stationery using tatted flowers and sold it. Since I didn’t like the messy, tricky task of gluing the seven petals onto paper, and she needed a source of flowers, I sent mine to her. Lesson three: Life is full of coincidences, otherwise known as God-incidences.
From making flowers, I graduated to making delicate items like a tatted shamrock for an Irish Sister, a white cross bookmark for a newly ordained priest, and green wreaths with a red ribbon to wear in Advent for the Sisters in my convent. Lesson four: You can always build on what you know.
I tried to show a Sister who taught home economics how to tat. She couldn’t master the first basic step when the thread must jump from one side to the other. Her conclusion was that I wasn’t a good teacher! Lesson five: Everyone has unique gifts.
I did successfully teach a young sister to tat. She was going to make a tatted heart and send it to her mother who lived out of state. When I asked if she had completed the project, she said it was in the mail. The next day I received a thank-you card with the Sister’s tatted heart. Lesson six: You never know how people will surprise you.
Often when I flew out of state to give talks, I whiled away the hours in the boarding section and on the plane tatting. Sadly, on one trip my ball of thread rolled down the middle aisle of the plane! Another time, two young men who had been stopped for carrying a hunting knife, sat behind me. One told me that his grandmother tatted.
My largest project was making edging for pillowcases I had embroidered. They were to be sold at our community’s boutique. But my mother said to my sister, “Kathleen spent years making them. I want to buy them.” Lesson seven: A mother’s love is constant. (Years later I inherited the pillowcases.)
Tatting has a long history. In the portraits of eighteenth-century noblewomen, some of them are holding shuttles, including Marie Antoinette. More important to me is the fact that St. Julie Billiart, our spiritual mother, made lace for a living. I’m following a fine tradition. If you examine some altar linens, you will find they are edged in tatting.
I’m sure Mother Mary also took pleasure in doing needlework. It is a calming activity, and you end up with a physical product. No doubt her mother, St. Anne, taught her to sew. I imagine that when Mary visited Elizabeth, the two or them sewed baby clothes. Later, surely the mother of Jesus made (and darned) clothes for herself and her two men. Maybe in their Nazareth home there was a loom.
Apparently, God too enjoys sewing. According to the psalmist, God knit you together in your mother’s womb. (Psalm 139:13) Also, after Adam and Eve sinned, “The LORD God made garments of skins for the man and for his wife and clothed them.” (Genesis 3:21)
My latest tatting project is decorating prayer cards with the tiny flowers. The Sister in California passed on, so I sometimes endure the painstaking task of straightening the petals with a straight pin and gluing them down to make mementos for people who make my retreats. The prayer card pictured here shows a favorite prayer of St. Teresa of Calcutta. She said, “If you ever feel distressed during your day — call upon our Lady — just say this simple prayer: ‘Mary, Mother of Jesus, please be a mother to me now.’ I must admit — this prayer has never failed me.”
I don’t tat much anymore. Instead I crochet baby blankets, mostly as I watch Jeopardy. I’m grateful that my mother taught my sisters and me to sew, crochet, and embroider. We also wove dozens of potholders on metal looms. I wonder if modern mothers teach their girls these skills.
• What kind of needlework do you enjoy doing? Who taught you?