One of my most treasured possessions is a simple wooden tatting shuttle which used to belong to my little Granny Ethel. She was, ironically, often referred to as ‘Big Granny’ to set her apart for her great-grandchildren. This avoided confusion with the relevant Granny attached to that family. I say ironically because this enduring matriarch of our family was a tiny little woman. Yet she was one of tremendous emotional strength, courage, humour, and practicality.
That little tatting shuttle brings back so many memories. I inherited this after Big Granny’s death at 99 years old. Yes, it seems that hard work, clean living, and a good conscience do make for a long life. The shuttle came to me because I was the only granddaughter who had learned how to tat. The learning came with much laughter and, I would imagine, extreme patience on the little lady’s part. Still, I learned, using varigated green-and-white cotton thread which was all the rage at the time. It now prompts the ‘what were we thinking’ response.
It’s precious for a number of reasons. One, because of the memory of the moment of learning. That remains with me to this day. Another is because it was made for her by my father. It seems to capture the very essence of who he was. A strong, simple man with many talents, woodwork amongst them. Sadly, hard work and long hours left him little time to develop them. The shuttle is like him – what you saw was what you got. No unnecessary embellishments, no frills, no fuss. Yet it’s well made, durable, and smoothed with the constant wear from those tiny little granny hands.
Tatting is reminiscent of a simpler life.
You’re no doubt wondering where the image of the ocean fits in. Well, it’s a prettier lead image than a tatting shuttle. But it’s also an image that is engraved in my mind, along with all those shuttle-related memories. As children, we would go off to a little holiday town on South Africa’s Wild Coast called Haga Haga. This was our annual Easter holiday with Big Granny, Aunty Joan, and Aunty Molly. My much-loved aunts were her two daughters. One was a widow and one, sadly, lost the love of her life during the war and never married.
Haga was, and probably still is, very much a ‘family resort.’ By that I mean the ‘regular crowd’ were usually from the farming community in which we lived. Some were actual members of the extended family. Most lived in different towns in the general area, where our parents and their parents before them had all grown up. (We used to joke that we had to go far away to find husbands to make sure we weren’t related.) It was a solid, comfortable, familiar haven in which we girls grew up in bubble bathing costumes. Remember those? The fabric was all ruched up so that the whole thing was a mass of bubbled fabric (what were they thinking?) Life was dunking biscuits baked into wonderful shapes, Easter egg nests (made of cut grass, which no doubt helped the adults with fair distribution), and any number of other delights.
The sea view is the one from Trollope’s Cottage, where we stayed every year. It perched right on the top of the dune overlooking Dead Man’s Bay. The bay was so named because – or so the legend goes – the corpse of some poor sailor washed up there. It was also where Dad used to fish. Big Granny loved to sit on the little back porch overlooking this same beach, doing her handwork, usually either tatting or crochet. I recall her saying once how she loved that little porch, because, when it rained, she could sit there in the sun…
We would sit and talk with her, and she’d tell stories of her childhood. We heard how they made the trip to the beach by ox wagon and it would take weeks to get there. The fun part was that we actually recognized all the outspan spots along the route where they would stop overnight. A favourite was how her son, Uncle Dudley, slept with his boots on so he wouldn’t be late and be left behind the next morning when the wagon left for their beach holiday. Then there was how, as a young girl, Big Granny had tried to fly. Using a black sheepskin rug as wings, she flung herself off the henhouse roof… Thankfully, no harm was done
And I learned to tat. I confess, I’ve never done much of it. At the time, I learned to please her, because she was saddened that no one wanted to learn. But I treasure the pieces she made for me. For all her grandchildren, actually, the boys included so their wives would have the family treasures too. I still love them, even though tatted doilies on side tables doesn’t exactly fit with contemporary decorating trends. I think about the time and effort that went into each one, and the love. And I remember the peace that working with her hands would bring her. It reminds me that that their lives were never idle. When not working at farm or household chores, she would work her hands to create masterpieces. It ‘keeps them out of mischief.’ I remember that too.
I’m reminded that, living in a rural community with little opportunity for ‘shopping’ and no malls, they made almost everything themselves. I recall Granny’s Petticoat – a simple cotton ‘slip’, essentially shapeless. But it boasted crochet bodice insets and the most fabulous, wide crochet edging around the hem. My sisters and I coveted it and sadly, I never got it. But I do recall it being worn by my eldest sister as the funkiest dress you could ever hope for. I would kill for Granny’s Petticoat today.
Sadly, we don’t have the time in our frenetic lives to pursue these wonderful skills. And with ‘China’ in every shop, the sentiment is why bother? Except we’ve lost a ‘something wonderful.’ Tatting has died out in many communities. We don’t see the love-wrought trims and pretties that were such a central part of life in the past. I mourn the loss of something unique. There are days where I wish I could simply sit and work at a bunch of holes tied together with knots. This was my father’s definition of this lost art, and I recall laughing each time I heard it. Yet it defines something extraordinary, an ability to make something beautiful out of nothing. It is a way to work memories that last a lifetime, even in their fragility.
Sometimes, in my more poetic moments, I imagine it describes life too.