I’ve Got a Use for This

I’ve picked up the Neverending Tablecloth again, despite the fact that there’s a sock sitting around here somewhere half-done. In part I was inspired by another box from California, which included the book that the pattern’s in–I had forgotten how hard these patterns were to decipher, too, as the language varies between spelling every little thing out in excruciating detail and assuming that you’ll understand a vague allusion to “the last one”.

Anyway, it got me to thinking about the decorative versions of fiber art. Knitting, for example, can make perfectly functional things: sweaters, socks, bags. Of course it can also make frilly and decorative things like wedding ring shawls and beaded purses, but when it comes right down to it knitting is a Useful Skill. Other things in this category include weaving, crochet, sewing, netting.

Tatting really isn’t Useful. Everyone can live without lace edges on their pillowcases and snowflake Christmas ornaments. Even the Tablecloth would be more useful–that is, more likely to protect the surface of the table–if it were solid cloth rather than lacy. Tatting’s tougher than your average lace, making it theoretically suitable for garment construction, but nothing made solely of tatting is going to be particularly warm, protective, modest, or anything other than decorative. Indeed, the kind of dense work you’d have to do to make a useful tatted purse would really defeat the purpose of having it be tatted at all; you’d be better off using the thread to crochet with. I suppose one might make a tatted dishcloth…but then who would use it? The big techniques here are the various laces–tatted, bobbin, needle–beading, and embroidery. These are things you do to prove you had the leisure to do them, or have to prove you could afford to buy them.

Don’t get me wrong; I’m all for pretty for the sake of pretty. I think it’s a shame that the world today has so little concern for making things attractive; I think there’d be less graffiti if more walls had murals, and I’m highly in favor of whoever it was who decided that the lightpoles in my neighborhood needed to have flowers painted on them. There’s definitely a place in my worldview for embellishment.

But this, I think, is the reason that some techniques are never going to be big: in order to embellish something, you have to have a functional object first. A length of lace, no matter how beautiful, isn’t going to do any good without a dress to put it on; a pair of embroidered gloves is great, but you have to have the gloves first. And there are only so many pincushions, bookmarks, eyeglass cases, needle books, and wall hangings one person needs to own. A bridge-table cloth with the symbols of the suits in tatting is not an item that any sane person would consider a necessity of life; a pair of socks might be. There’s a great trade in “useful items to embellish”, like baby’s bibs made of evenweave fabric for the crosstitchers.

I do believe I’ve stumbled upon one of the reasons crafty people have a reputation for giving away their work: their own walls are already covered in Teresa Wentzler dragons, so to keep enjoying their craft they have to find other people to take the results. It also likely has something to do with the Victorian tendency to embroider or attach lace to anything that didn’t run away fast enough–here were all these middle- and upper-class women with nothing much to do but nonessential needlework, and after a while they started running out of obvious things to do with it.

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