Technology, competition and cousins: or, How my grandfather learned to tat

I don’t have any clear memories of my maternal grandfather, who died when I was two.

He was born in 1884, grew up in the small town of Paw Paw, Illinois, got a medical degree from Northwestern in 1908 and practiced until the 1950s, when he retired from his position as Medical Director of the Western Electric Hawthorne Division in Cicero, Illinois. These facts make him feel distant from me.

But I’ve heard other things about him that make it really clear that he and I are related. Here’s one.

The story goes that his grandmother1 was trying to teach his girl cousins to tat. Not tat as in, short for tattoo. Tat as in, make this kind of lace.

Handkerchief edged in tatting
Handkerchief edged in tatting, Cleo Smith’s collection

It’s basically macrame at a demonically small scale.

The girl cousins couldn’t do it, or possibly just couldn’t see that it was worth the considerable effort. Can you blame them?

When my grandfather saw that the skill was beyond the girls, he decided he was going to learn it, whatever it took. And he did. Some of his work survives. Here’s a dresser scarf he made.

Tatted dresser scarf by Frank Smith

He said that the manual dexterity he practiced in tatting served him well in his work as a doctor. I love this. I love his respect for a difficult craft done mostly, and taught to him, by women. It reminds me of something I saw at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which organizes items according to their function rather than their place of origin. They had a section labeled “Lace making technologies,” which included examples of tatting. There’s plenty that’s controversial about the Pitt Rivers. But seeing them apply the high-status word technology to women’s tools and skills made me change my attitude toward those tools and skills. Maybe they’re not just fussy pastimes.

Much as I cheer for Grampa’s bending of gender barriers, though, the thing that feels familiar is that he was inspired to learn to tat because nobody else around him could.

I learned to tat. Not from my grandfather, obviously. From a book. And it would be nice to say that I learned it in his honor, but that isn’t quite true. He was the reason I knew that tatting existed and what it looked like. But I wanted to learn it because it was fiddly and difficult, and, at the time, nobody else around me could do it.

I have to wonder how many arcane technologies have been preserved because somebody somewhere wanted the bragging rights.

Tatted motifs by AB, photo by Pei-Lin Yu

1.Most likely, this was his maternal grandmother Catharine Siglin, whose 1862 diary you can read here. But it’s just barely possible that it was his paternal grandmother Eliza Smith. I know very little about her except that in the 1880 census, her occupation is listed as “carpet weaver.” But she died when Grampa was only nine, so the odds are that his tatting instructor was Grandma Siglin.

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