Reviving the ancient art of tatting

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 6, 2015

If you’re anywhere near Knoxville, TN this weekend, head on over to the Museum of Appalachia for the Tennessee Fall Homecoming. Crafts and demonstrations include weaving, pottery making, grist milling, wood crafting, basket weaving, broom making, quilting, and tatting.


Tatting is the centuries-old art of making fine lace. The lace form consists of circles and curved lines which are created by looping and tying knots which slide on a core thread. This fine thread is fed into a cat-eye-shaped shuttle. The tatting shuttle consists of two oval blades of either bone, ivory, mother of pearl or tortoise-shell, pointed at both ends, and joined together in the middle.

Tatting manual by Anne OrrA good shuttle contributes materially to the rapid and perfect execution of the work. In the eighteenth century, when tatting was in great vogue, much larger shuttles than today’s were used, because of the voluminous materials they had to carry, silk cord being one.

The English name of tatting is said to be derived from ‘tatters’ and to denote the frail disconnected character of the fabric. The Italians called it ‘occhi,’ while in the Orient it still bears the name of ‘makouk,’ from the shuttle used in making it. The term tatting can encompass a variety of lace-making styles, as well as social aspects of gatherings.

In the early 20th century, Anne Orr emerged as a champion of the needlework arts. Her magazine pieces published in Southern Woman’s Magazine, Good Housekeeping and Better Homes and Gardens made tatting patterns available to all.

Anne Champe Orr (1875-1946) was endlessly fascinated with needlework and designed and sold hundreds of thousands of patterns for cross stitch, quilting, crochet, filet crochet and tatting. Orr began her career as art editor for the Nashville-based Southern Woman’s Magazine in 1913-14. She quickly became widely known at home and abroad for the published needlework patterns she began producing in 1915.

Even though she was not a needleworker herself, she created easy-to-follow charted designs for cross-stitch, embroidery, and crochet, later doing the same for knitting, lacemaking (particularly tatting) and rugmaking.

Tatting at Museum of Appalachia Tennessee Fall Homecoming 2011.

Tatting at Museum of Appalachia Tennessee Fall Homecoming.

Orr’s designs were innovative to boot. Teri Dusenbury, in Tatting Hearts, says of Orr’s contribution to the craft: “Through the genius of one designer, Anne Orr, tatting evolved one step further with one of the most innovative techniques to be discovered since the true chain was established in 1862—split ring tatting. The technique first appeared in 1923 in a J&P Coats publication entitled Crochet, Cross Stitch and Tatting, Book No. 14. Of the thirteen edgings shown, twelve utilized the new technique.”

Anne Orr provided employment for women throughout the Appalachians, who thanks to her skilled guides could make such things as appliqued quilts and delicate tablecloths for sale.

“Encyclopedia of Needlework” Therese de Dillmont, 1906, DMC, Dornach, Alsance

“Tatting Hearts” Teri Dusenbury, 1994, Courier Dover Publications

related post: “Winter’s the Quilting Season”

Home+Craft+Days Big+Stone+Gap+VA Tatting Anne+Champe+Orr appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+mountains+history

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Meeting princes at the gate of Rugby, in the New World

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 5, 2015

The Rugby Colony was founded by English author and social reformer Thomas Hughes in the eastern Tennessee mountains, and was officially christened on October 5, 1880.

Rugby colony founder Thomas Hughes, Tennessee State Library and Archives, no date

Rugby colony founder Thomas Hughes, Tennessee State Library and Archives, no date

Hughes published the President’s Address he’d given at the opening of the town site in a pamphlet circulated in London, Boston and New York with the intent to attract additional lot purchasers:

“The prospectuses and pamphlets of the numerous corporations and individuals who are just now engaged in this work of settling and developing the unoccupied lands on this glorious continent, are full of figures and statements showing the rapidity with which enormous gain will be made in the several regions to which they desire to attract settlers. This being so, you may fairly ask, what have I, standing here at the representative of the founders of this settlement, to say upon the subject?

“I answer them broadly and frankly; we have nothing to say. We believe that our lands have been well bought, and that those who settle here and buy from us will get good value for their money, and will find it as easy as it is at all well that it should be to make a living here.

“Beyond this we are not careful to travel. Whether the lands will double or quadruple in value before you have fairly learned to live on them; whether you will make five or twenty or one hundred per cent on your investments, we offer no opinions. You can judge for yourselves of the chances, if these are your main aims.

“Speaking for myself, however, I must say that I look with distrust rather than with hope to very rapid pecuniary returns. I am old fashioned enough to prefer slow and steady growth. I like to give the cream plenty of time to rise before you skim it.

The wise men wait; it is the foolish haste,
And, ere the scenes are in the slides would play,
And, while the instruments are tuning, dance.

“So far as I have been able to judge, these new settlements are being, as a rule, dwarfed and demoralized by hurrying forward in the pursuit of gain, allowing this to become the absorbing propensity of each infant community.

“Then follows, as surely as night follows day, that feverish activity of mercantile speculation, which is the great danger, and to my mind, the great disgrace of our time.

“If it must come it must, but, so far as we are concerned, it shall get no help or furtherance here.

“On the other hand, all that helps to make healthy, brave, modest, and true men and women will get from us all the cordial sympathy and help we are able to give.

Members of the Rugby Colony in Morgan County, Tennessee, participating in a summer outing. Undated photo. Image 0012_000090_000200_0000/University of Tennessee Special Collections Library, Knoxville, Tennessee

Members of the Rugby Colony in Morgan County, Tennessee, participating in a summer outing. Undated photo. Image 0012_000090_000200_0000/University of Tennessee Special Collections Library, Knoxville, Tennessee


“In one word, our aim and hope are to plant on these highlands a community of gentlemen and ladies; not that artificial class which goes by those grand names, both in Europe and here, the joint product of feudalism and wealth, but a society in which the humblest members, who live (as we hope most if not all of them will, to some extent) by the labour of their own hands, will be of such strain and culture that they will be able to meet princes in the gate without embarrassment and without self-assertion, should any such strange persons ever present themselves before the gate tower of Rugby in the New World.”

The utopia Hughes envisioned didn’t last long. In 1881 a typhoid epidemic took the lives of seven Rugbians. By 1884 the 400 or so colonists had managed to establish a canning company, a sawmill, a commissary, a printing office, and The Tabard Inn, a boarding house which drew in summer holiday traffic. But by 1887 a decline in commodity prices, falling land prices, and a long drought marked the beginning of the end for the settlement.

On top of these woes, the Cincinnati-Southern Railroad failed to build a spur line through Rugby, as they originally had promised. And so, less than two decades into Hughes’ grand experiment, many of the original colonists by the 1890s had left for other parts of America, unable to prosper in Rugby.


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Let Sears, Roebuck & Co. be your architect

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 2, 2015

A headline on page 594 of the 1908 Sears Catalog probably startled readers used to page after page of plows, obesity powders, sewing machines, and cook stoves. It announced: “$100 set of building plans free. Let us be your architect without cost to you.” From 1908–1940, Sears, Roebuck and Company sold roughly 75,000 homes nationwide through their mail-order Modern Homes program. Illinois probably has the largest collection in the US, but Sears homes are located in all 48 contiguous states.

Over that time Sears designed 447 different housing styles, from the elaborate multistory Ivanhoe, with its elegant French doors and art glass windows, to the simpler Goldenrod, which served as a quaint, three-room and no-bath cottage for summer vacationers.

Sears mail order homesCustomers could choose a house to suit their individual tastes and budgets. A few weeks after the customer selected a home and placed the order, two railway boxcars containing 30,000 pieces of house – everything from doorknobs and carved staircases to varnish and roof shingles – would arrive at the nearest train depot.

How to get it from the station to the lot was up to the new homeowner. In the early days, people made trip after trip between the building site and the railroad station. Since it would have been difficult to transport all that material long distances, Sears homes were often located within a mile or two of train tracks and in cities that were reachable by rail.

Karen Hudson, of the Library of Congress’ American Folklife Center, reports the results of a 1992 survey the Center conducted in the New River Gorge region of West Virginia to describe that area’s built environment:

“The survey revealed a much more diverse landscape than has been described in the past,” she notes. “While it was easy for project researchers to locate log cabins and abandoned coal towns, we also found many cinder block bungalows, glazed tile barns and silos, Lustron houses, concrete block churches, Sears mail order homes, and geodesic domes. Contrary to past reports, the New River Gorge cultural landscape reflects the history of a community that designed, built, and used its buildings according to individual tastes and principles.”

In 1932, Sears Modern Homes department began operating at a loss for the first time since 1912. The company’s annual report stated that sales of the mail-order homes had dropped 40 percent in one year.

Sears closed the Modern Homes department in 1934. At a time when the average Sears house cost well under $3,000 (and mortgages were typically a fraction of that amount), this was a staggering sum. Foreclosing on (and evicting) customers from their homes became a public-relations nightmare. The Modern Homes department was reopened the following year, but the days of Sears “easy payment” mortgages were over.

Between 1932 and 1940, Sears probably sold another 15,000 to 20,000 homes, perhaps fewer. When the last Sears Modern Homes catalog was issued in 1940, Americans had purchased an estimated 75,000 homes.


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They would work up the apples the next day

Posted by Dave Tabler | October 1, 2015

“Pa bought a mountain farm of about eighty acres that was located about five miles up Coon Creek from where the state road went from Pikeville, Kentucky to Williamson, W. Va. This farm had a framed four-room house on it, but Pa was never satisfied with it, as it was all hillside except maybe two acres.

“Pa and Ma both worked hard and were good managers. They raked and scraped and saved all they could, and didn’t waste anything. Pa was a great hand to set out fruit trees, so naturally he had an apple orchard. They canned apples in fruit jars, dried apples over a kiln, and made apple butter. Of course there were other fruit trees on the place, such as a cherry tree, several peach trees and some pear trees. They made use of all the fruit. When apples were ripe, they would peel a couple of bushels at night by kerosene lamplight, then they would work them up the next day.

Sorting fruit in Kentucky
“Pa was intelligent and he had about fifth grade education at three or four months per school term. Women in those days rarely attended school as it was considered useless as a woman’s place was in the home. So naturally Ma could neither read nor write. Pa taught her to read, write and count. He used a blue-backed speller as a textbook. Ma would practice writing or printing the words from the speller, and soon she could read her bible and the mail order catalog.

“Ma was an intelligent woman and had great pride in her manners, cleanliness and character. She always had a smile for every one and never downed people. They seemed to prosper right along, and they vowed they would send their children to school and educate them. This they did.

“Bertha completed eighth grade, took six weeks of high school, took a Normal Course Examination and received her certificate to teach school. She taught school for three years on Brushy Fork of John’s Creek. Orrison completed high school at Pikeville, and went to the University Of Kentucky at Lexington, where he graduated with a Law degree. He was admitted to the Bar in Kentucky, and set up his practice in Pikeville. John completed high school in Pikeville, and was an outstanding basketball player. After high school, he went into business with Garfield Blackburn, selling White Sewing Machines.”

By Ireland Everett Layne
Coon Creek, KY


Pikeville+KY Apple+harvesting appalachia appalachia+history appalachian+culture appalachian+history history+of+appalachia

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She had one husband, four children, and four legs

Posted by Dave Tabler | September 30, 2015

Myrtle Corbin was known far and wide in the late nineteenth century as the Four-Legged Woman. While at a glance one could plainly see four legs dangling beyond the hem of her dress – only one pair belonged to her, the other set to her dipygus twin sister.

Born in Lincoln County, TN in 1868, the girl with the incredibly rare condition spent most of her childhood in Blount County, AL. The tiny body of her twin was only fully developed from the waist down and even then it was malformed – tiny and possessing only three toes on each foot. Myrtle was able to control the limbs of her sister but was unable to use them for walking and she herself had a difficult time getting around as she was born with a clubbed foot. Technically, the ‘Four-Legged Woman’ only had one good, usable leg.

Myrtle became an exhibit at thirteen. Her first promotional pamphlet (Biography of Myrtle Corbin, 1881) describes her as “gentle of disposition as the summer sunshine and as happy as the day is long.”

Myrtle was a popular attraction with P.T. Barnum, and later with Ringling Bros. and at Coney Island. Her popularity was likely linked to her showmanship – she would often dress the extra limbs with socks and shoes matching her own and this gave her a truly surreal appearance. Myrtle was so popular that she was able to earn as much as $450 dollars a week, a handsome sum in that era.

Myrtle’s younger sister, Willie Ann, married Hiram Locke Bicknell in 1885. Hiram’s brother Dr. James Clinton Bicknell proposed to Myrtle shortly afterward, and the two were wed in June 1886.

It’s clear that James Bicknell married Myrtle for love, and not for money, for upon their marriage he insisted she leave show business. It was then that other aspects of her bizarre anatomy became evident. It seems that her twin sister was also fully sexually formed – thus Myrtle possessed two vaginas.

Myrtle Corbin, 4 legged womanJames, Myrtle & daughter Lillian in 1915.

In the early 1890’s, James & Myrtle moved their family from Blount County, AL to Johnson County, TX, settling near and finally moving to Cleburne City. The farming couple lived happily and over time produced a brood of eight children, half of whom died in infancy. The 1900 census for Johnson County states that Myrtle was the mother of five children, only three then living. The 1910 census for the same county states that she had had eight children, four then living. The surviving Bicknell children were Nancy Estelle, Francis Clinton, Ruby, and Lillian J.

It has been rumored that three of Myrtle’s children were born from one set of organs and two from the other. Whether this is true or not, it is medically possible. In ‘Anomalies and Curiosities of Medicine,’ by George M. Gould and Walter L. Pyle it was observed that both vaginas menstruated – thus indicating both were possibly sexually functional.

We don’t know the specifics of the Bicknell family’s economic situation, but it must have deteriorated severely. Showpeople like Myrtle came out of retirement simply because they needed the money. Just so, the Four-Legged Girl from Cleburne, TX was back in the business appearing at Huber’s Museum in New York in 1909 at age 41.

The family no doubt intended this new turn of events to be temporary. But then 1910 turned into 1915: Dreamland Circus Sideshow, Coney Island. Riverview Park, Chicago. Myrtle worked the circuit and Myrtle made money. It had been more than 20 years since she last exhibited. She appears to have finally stopped exhibiting around 1915.

In 1928 Myrtle developed a skin infection on her right leg. When it failed to heal she finally went to a doctor in Cleburne. He diagnosed her as having erysipilas – a streptococcal skin infection. These days, a simple round of antibiotics would have eliminated the problem and Mrs. Bicknell would be on her way. Unfortunately, Myrtle lived in those days.

On May 6, less than a week after being diagnosed, Josephine Myrtle Corbin-Bicknell was dead.

Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit, by Robert Bogdan, University of Chicago Press, 1990

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