How to Safely Wash Old or Fine Tatting

Updated on May 12, 2016
Tatted Doily. CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr.
Tatted Doily. CC BY-ND 2.0, via Flickr. | Source

What is Tatting?

Tatting is a durable form of lace, which is created using a shuttle or needle. The technique has been around since at least the early 19th century, and is used mainly for decorative purposes.

Traditionally, tatted lace is used to create doilies, or as edging to adorn handkerchiefs, pillowcases, and even clothing such as collars and sleeves. However, in modern times tatting has evolved to include jewelry, headbands, and similar types of adornments.

Tatted earrings, hand tatted by me. An example of modern colored thread.
Tatted earrings, hand tatted by me. An example of modern colored thread. | Source

Determining the Age of Your Lace

Even though it’s durable for lace, tatting is still quite delicate. When you are washing your piece, you may need to take some extra precautions, depending on the age of your tatting.

Typically, vintage tatting is made with white thread only, and may be slightly yellowed. After a while colored thread came onto the scene, so you may have old piece in color. If this is the case, it may or may not be color safe. To be extra careful, test a small inconspicuous corner by getting it wet, and see if the colors bleed. If they do, you may not want to wash the piece. Always wash any colored pieces separately to avoid bleeding and color transference.

If you know your lace was old, such as the case with heirloom lace handed down through the family, you’ll want to take extra precaution when washing so that you don’t ruin the piece.

For modern lace, the same cleaning principles still apply. However, modern thread tends to be color-safe. Always test a small area of your piece first to ensure it won’t bleed before washing the entire thing, and wash any colored pieces separately, or with similar colors, to avoid color transference.

Washing Lace

First, you will need to determine how dirty your piece is to determine how to wash your piece. Lace that is heavily soiled will need more of a scrubbing compared to lace that is lightly dirty.

Basic Materials Needed

  • Mild Soap (Orvus, Ivory, or any mild soap, face soap, or baby shampoo)
  • Clean bowl, bucket, or sink
  • Warm water

Lace Cleaning Tip

The older the lace, the more fragile the piece, so you will need to be more gentle throughout the entire cleaning and blocking process.

Cleaning Lace: Light Cleaning

If your lace is only lightly soiled, it will be pretty easy to clean. All you’ll need are the basic materials listed above.

Add warm water and mild soap to your clean bowl, bucket, or sink, and mix until sudsy.

Put the lace in the soapy water, and lightly agitate it with your hands. Use your fingers to lightly scrub at any soiled spots.

Once clean, remove the lace from the soapy water, and rinse in cool water until there are no more suds.

Follow the procedure outlined below for blocking and shaping your piece.

Alternate Light Cleaning Procedure

For a different way to lightly clean your lace, take a clean jar with a lid and fill it with warn water and soap. Place your tatted piece into the jar, shut the lid, and shake gently. Remove the piece, and rinse clean.

Follow the procedure outlined below for blocking and shaping your piece.

Cleaning Lace: Heavy Cleaning

If your lace is heavily soiled, you might need to do a little extra work to get it clean. Aside from the basic materials listed above, you will also need: a piece of clean cotton cloth, thread and needle for basting, and a sunny area (for white thread only).

For really dirty items, baste your lace onto a piece of clean cotton. This will help give it some stability, and make sure you don’t wreak havoc on the stitches while you’re washing it.

Using the basic materials, add warm water and mild soap to a clean bowl, bucket, or sink, and mix until sudsy.

Place the lace on the fabric in the soapy water, and agitate it with your fingers. If you need to, fold over a piece of the cotton, and use it to gently scrub the soiled parts of the lace. While you will need to apply some pressure, you still want to be gentle because your lace is delicate.

Remove the piece from the suds, and rinse in cool water until clean.

For pieces that are all white, lay the work on a clean surface in the sun. This will help bleach out the piece, removing some of the yellowness. You do not want to do this with colored pieces as it could sun-bleach your piece, changing the look.

If your piece is in the sun, check it, and repeat cleaning steps as needed until piece is clean.

Then, follow the procedure outlined below to block and shape your piece.

What is a picot?

In tatting, a picot is a loop which is used to attach parts of the lace together. Picots may also be used as a decorative element throughout the piece.

Blocking Tatted Lace

While cleaning your lace is important, it’s only half of the procedure. The natural tendency of cotton thread is to curl and twist when it dries, so you will need to block your piece to help it hold its shape.

Blocking Materials Needed

  • Blocking board / foam board / cardboard
  • Grid (optional)
  • Iron / Ironing Board
  • Rust-free pins
  • Towels

To block your piece, you will need a blocking board, which you can pick up at most craft stores.

If you do not have a blocking board, you can easily make one. Really, all a blocking board is, is a surface keeps your lace flat while drying, but that is sturdy enough to poke with pins and keep the pins upright throughout the drying process.

One way to make a blocking board is to take a piece of cardboard, and cover it in wax paper, towels, or something else that will keep the moisture from seeping into the cardboard, so that it doesn’t get soggy. You can also do the same thing with a thick magazine, or a couple of fluffy towels. In a pinch, your ironing board can also work as a blocking board.

If your piece is really large, like a tatted tablecloth, you will have to find a very large surface to use as a makeshift blocking board. Mattresses covered with sheets and towels (to protect the mattress and keep wetness from seeping in) work well in instances like this.

The important thing is that the pins remain upright and hold the lace securely in place without any additional support aside from the blocking board. Additionally, you’ll want to setup in an area where you can leave your piece undisturbed for a period of time.

Once you have your blocking board situation figured out, carefully unfold and lay out your lace. Gently smooth your piece flat, taking care to untwist the piece, and open any picots along the way.

When everything is smoothed down by hand, take your pins and start pinning your piece down, gently stretching it out as you go. Because the piece will move and stretch, it is best to first pin the outside corners, so that it is secured, and then reinforce with extra pins.

Continue pinning around the piece. How you pin your piece depends largely on preference and what you are doing with your piece afterward.

If you are going to enter your piece into a competition, you will want to pin every single picot on the piece. It may seem tedious, but it’s worth it in the end because it will give your piece a crisp, clean look.

If you aren’t going to enter your piece, you don’t have to be as thorough. Some people don’t like the look of super straight picots, and if that’s you, try pinning the rings, or just behind the chains.

Once your piece is pinned, let it sit until it is mostly dry. Then, remove the pins, and carefully move the piece to your ironing board. Place a clean press cloth over your lace, and gently press your piece with your iron. Use a heat setting that’s appropriate for the thread the piece was made with. If you are unsure, use a lighter heat setting and adjust as necessary. Do not let the lace get too hot and be careful pressing pieces with beads, particularly plastic beads.

Using a pressing cloth is important, so that you don’t flatten out the stitches in your lace.

How to Block a Tatted Lace - Video Tutorial

About Stiffeners

There are many kinds of stiffeners available today, however they are not all comparable. When in doubt, or when working with a vintage piece of lace, stick to more traditional stiffeners such as sugar or starch. If you are using a commercial stiffener, test a small area before applying to your entire piece.

Starching Tatted Lace

By now your piece is cleaned and blocked. Now, all it may need is a good starching, depending on what you are going to do with it.

Take a good look at your clean piece, and how it lays. Think about what you are going to use it for. Is it stiff enough for that purpose? If the lace was created as jewelry, or another similar item which needs extra support, you may want to consider stiffening it with starch so that it lays better.

Stiffening Materials Needed

  • Stiffener
  • Paper towels
  • Blocking board
  • Rust-free Pins
  • Wax-paper

Most commercial stiffeners come in a bottle and need to be poured into a glass bowl before use. Use stiffeners like this full-strength for a super stiff product, or dilute with water for a softer starch.

Some commercial stiffeners come in spray-on form, although they typically aren’t as strong as their bottled counterparts.

Dip your lace in the stiffener, and then blot with paper towels to remove any excess. If your piece has beads, or if you are concerned with the stiffener pooling, consider painting the stiffener on with a paint brush.

Protect your blocking board with wax-paper, or some other stick-free surface material, and then layout and pin your piece just like you did when you blocked it. Unpin your piece and turn every few hours to ensure it doesn’t stick to the blocking board. Repeat until the piece is dry.

The Lazy Way of Stiffening Tatted Lace

However, if you’re like me, you may not want to go through the blocking process one more time. If that’s the case, there is a lazy method of stiffening that works fine for non-show quality pieces.

First, get a magazine and cover the surface in wax paper, taping down the sides so that it stays in place. You really only need to cover one side of the magazine. Dip your piece in the stiffener, or pain the stiffener on, and blot off any excess.

Place your stiffened piece on the wax-paper covered magazine, and smooth it out. Make sure to straighten any picots. Then, place a second piece of wax paper on top of your lace, and cover with a few heavy books (old high school yearbooks work great for this). Check your piece every few hours, turning it so that it doesn’t get stuck to the wax paper. Continue checking and turning until your piece is dry.

Lazy Stiffening Method

With lazy stiffening, sometimes I just put the lace in a jar of stiffener mix, and shake to apply. Then, I blot on some paper towels before arranging on the magazine to dry.
With lazy stiffening, sometimes I just put the lace in a jar of stiffener mix, and shake to apply. Then, I blot on some paper towels before arranging on the magazine to dry. | Source
Once stiffener has been applied, arrange pieces, and then cover with a second piece of wax paper.
Once stiffener has been applied, arrange pieces, and then cover with a second piece of wax paper. | Source


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    • ChitrangadaSharan profile image

      Chitrangada Sharan 

      5 years ago from New Delhi, India

      Congratulations for HOTD!

      Very useful information sharing the washing tips for a delicate tatting piece. These tatting and embroidery work requires lot of expertise, fine work and time. They must be taken care of so that they last long.

      Thanks and voted up!

    • Thelma Alberts profile image

      Thelma Alberts 

      5 years ago from Germany and Philippines

      Congratulations on the HOTD! This is a great article. My late mother-in-law used to make this. Thanks for sharing.

    • Nicoinstitches profile image


      5 years ago from Ottawa, ON

      Great article. Will keep it in mind for next washing time

    • Marcy Goodfleisch profile image

      Marcy Goodfleisch 

      5 years ago from Planet Earth

      What a helpful topic! I think anyone who has a precious piece of this handiwork (or some lace or other cherished treasure) would love to have these tips. Just the other day, at a baby shower, someone gave the mom-to-be a set of supplies safe to use for baby clothes. She included Ivory Snow (our old standby, when my kids were little) and a bar of Fels Naptha. I don't think I've ever used Fels - but it turns out it removes stains well and is pretty gentle. I plan to buy some to keep around for that purpose.

      Great tips on starching the lace afterward - and a great HOTD, all the way around. Congrats!

    • poetryman6969 profile image


      5 years ago

      Interesting and useful information. I like the tatted earrings.

    • GiftsByDiana profile image

      Diana Burrell-Shipton 

      5 years ago from Hubbard, Ohio, USA

      My Grandma used to do this.

      She wanted to teach me, but could not see well enough by the time I came along. She did teach me how to crochet; embroider; cook and many other things though :)

    • pstraubie48 profile image

      Patricia Scott 

      5 years ago from North Central Florida

      Congrats on HOTD.

      I have many pieces such as the one shown in your first photo. They were precious pieces that belonged to my Momma and to her Momma and to a precious Aunt. And, by the way, I use them...I do not keep them stored away never to be seen :D

      I do treasure them and proper care is the reason I still have them, no doubt.

      Well done...

      Angels are on the way to you this morning. ps


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