Tassel Making Primer

Rissa Peace Root © (2002,2004, 2006, 2007) All Rights Reserved

Tassels once denoted military or social rank in most western cultures, but in modern times they are strictly decorative items.  Somewhere along the way, they became ornamentation.  Interestingly, tassels cross all cultural, social and time boundaries; they can be found in evidence on ancient battle grounds, in modern interior furnishings, even on the bridles and tents of nomadic herdsmen.  There are probably tassels on your pillows, on your drapery tie-backs, or even on your shoes.  Tassels are everywhere in our lives. It may be the aesthetic decorative nature itself that explains an almost culturally universal use of tassels.

At no time did the tassel as art form flourish as much as it did during the reign of Louis XIV to Louis XVI.  Chances are, you have never actually seen Versailles (until recently, the closest I had gotten was the Splendors of Versailles Exhibit), but you have probably seen incredibly rich, dramatic tassels and tie backs reproduced somewhere. Scalamandré, an interior design firm in New York, is famous for its historically accurate reproductions and fine passementarie.  They have done historically accurate reproductions for some of the most famous people and homes in the world.  One particular tassel, known as the Marie Antoinette, cost the client $9,000 for their research and painstaking labor. 


Photograph of Marie Antoinette's bedroom at Versailles

For me, tassels have the same decadent allure as silk ribbon.  You feel the urge to touch as you admire them.  It has been said that tassels served no real purpose, but I disagree.  First and foremost, I think that there is purpose in decoration.  That said, tassels can be functional on a more practical level.  The tassel you hang from a skeleton key or a pair of embroidery scissors is there to ensure that the small, but very important item, is not lost in the clutter of daily living.   

Passementarie, a French word that has been carried over into English, is the decorative use of trim.  Modern examples include military dress uniforms, couture clothing, fringed lampshades and fine furnishings.  Tassel making is considered part of passementerie and not just because of the cording, trim and braid work involved.  Tassels are often an integral part of decorative trim.  The endless variety and form of modern tassels and trims is astonishing.  There is something to suit every need, taste and decor.  

chenilletassels.jpg (24810 bytes)Soft tassels, made solely of fibers, are usually the first kind that people try to reproduce at home.  You can use the most basic of supplies and come up with a lovely tassel in under an hour.  The plain soft tassels to the right were made using very fine rayon chenille.  The head and skirt were made by wrapping the chenille evenly on a "Yarn Crafter".  The cord was made by twisting multiple strands of the same chenille, then looping it through the wound yarn.  The neck was created by carefully wrapping the threads about an inch below the cord.  Once it was completed, I cut through the bottom of loops, then trimmed the skirt until all strands were even.  

perletassel.jpg (34982 bytes)Soft tassels can be decorated further by adding embroidery or beading to the neck, like a ruff or collar.  The tassel to the left was made about 1999, when I was first experimenting with silk ribbon.  It is a simple soft tassel made of DMC cotton perle, then embroidered with YLI silk ribbon leaves and Caron variegated silk thread bullion knot flowers.  I have learned a lot since making this tassel, and one of those things is that cotton perle has a tendency to fray over time.   The one on the right was made recently from 1000 denier silk, then embellished with beads.  It was from a commercially available kit "Victorian Tasseled Scissors" by Delinda Amura. 

There are also fancy decorative tassels that utilize hardware, such as wooden or ceramic molds, beads, or finials.  These tassels also employ the standard cording and skirt like a soft tassel.  Often, the tassel skirt if made from rolled fringe, which can buy commercially if you do not wish to make it yourself.  They usually employ ruffs or collars to cover the place where the head and skirt meet.  Beaded tassels seem to fall into this category, even though they sometimes do not utilize molds.  No matter what type of tassel, they all share a common anatomy.

The photos below are of some of Mae Vernon's tassel work and are exceptional examples of workmanship!

Art Deco 2.jpg (53687 bytes)  Green with Fuschia.jpg (50050 bytes) Orange front.jpg (50127 bytes) Orange back.jpg (45462 bytes)
Blue on Blue.jpg (46950 bytes) pink.jpg (13668 bytes) Red on Red.jpg (42606 bytes) 

The photos below are of tatted ornament covers that I made for friends and for charitable auctions to which I decided to add simple tassels for a more dramatic effect.

orn1.jpg (19205 bytes) orn3.jpg (26161 bytes) orn4.jpg (27476 bytes)
 orn5.jpg (20773 bytes) ornsizecomp.jpg (66853 bytes)

Anatomy of a tassel:

Cord or Rope:

This can be any form of cording, hand made or purchased, as thick or as thin as you desire.  It's sole purpose is as something from which the tassel can hang.  The simplest method for making your own cord is to secure one end, loop the other around a pencil, knitting needle or chopstick and hand twist it.  The Spinster® is an inexpensive little tool that is perfect for winding the cords.  I have done my cording many ways in the past, but I purchased this neat little tool several years ago and am very pleased with its ease of use.  You could also modify a hand drill or a cordless screwdriver by placing a cup holder or other small hook into the chuck.   A cord does NOT have to fit through the head of the tassels, it can be attached with thread or wire.

Head, Mold, or Finial:

If you are making a soft tassel, the head will be the wrapped end of your fiber skirt.  If you are using a mold, they can be made of wood, ceramic, polymer clay, beads, or any type of hardware.  Many molds are hand painted, but often they are covered with gimp or fiber.  Crocheted or tatted netting or needle lace can also be used to cover the head of a soft tassel or a wooden form.  

Neck, Collar or Ruff:

On a soft tassel, the neck will be repeated tight wraps of fiber.  This neck can be left plain or later embellished.  On a tassel with a mold, the ruff is designed to cover the joint between the head and the skirt.  Most ruffs are decorative, often a piece of nice trim or cord, but a plain one can be used and later embellished with embroidery or ribbon.  

Skirt:

The two common types of tassel skirts are cut and bullion.  A cut skirt is like the one seen above in the simple chenille tassels.  It is as simple as this, if the ends of the fringe are cut, it is a cut skirt!  If the ends are wrapped or twisted, it is a bullion skirt.  In a bullion skirt, the threads are wrapped and allowed to twist back onto themselves, creating a *bullion* looped effect.  Often highly decorative tassels will have will be a combination of both, with the inner skirt being cut and the outer one being bullion.  

Tips and ideas:

  • If you do not have a tassel maker, you can use a piece of cardboard or foam core, a piece of well sanded wood, a crochet fork (AKA Crochet Frame or Hairpin Lace Frame), two dowels attached to a base, or even the back of a chair.  
  • Keep the threads centered, rather than spread out, on your form while wrapping. 
  • Pay attention to your tension.  If your form bends while you are wrapping your skirt the tension is too tight.
  • Use a piece of waste thread like crochet cotton, to make the first tie at the top, before removing it from the form.  Once it is off the form, you can get a tighter gather by retying it and cutting away the waste thread.
  • If you are going to create a decorative ruff/collar, use a ponytail holder to keep the skirt out of your way while you work.  
  • To conserve expensive material, make an underskirt with less expensive material and save the nice stuff for where it will be seen.
  • You can buy cord fairly inexpensively.  If you have something that you know would look great, use it.  Often, you can hide the join or flawed spot inside of the mold or head.  
  • If you decide to make your own cord, all you need is a securely attached hook and a knitting needle, pencil, dowel, or chopstick to hand twist. However, it is much easier to use a Spinster® Twisted Cord Maker, Kreinik Custom Corder™, hand drill or cordless screwdriver with a cup holder attached. 
  • You can use sturdy thread or thin wire to secure and attach the pieces of your tassel.
  • Silk, rayon, linen, wool and cotton threads and yarns are available in a wide variety of colors, textures and weights.  Most have some application in tassel making, you can either experiment or get a good resource book that lists acceptable materials.   
  • Rayon chenille makes excellent tassels, acrylic chenille does not.  The acrylic chenille will pill and pull apart.
  • You can use purchased fringe trim for the skirt or part of the skirt for your tassel.  Just roll it up and insert it into your mold.  
  • Keep a comb handy to straighten out your skirt. The threads may get twisted in the process of making your tassel.
  • Use steam to straighten fibers that are kinky and to fluff your tassel.  
  • If you are making a soft tassel, you can string a wooden bead from the cord and cover it with the fibers to create a more distinctive head. Wrap the neck under the bead.
  • Don't skimp.  Since tassels are decorative, sometimes it is a matter of bigger is better!
  • If you can, try some nice wooden or ceramic molds.  If you don't have access, you can either have someone make them for you, or improvise.  You can buy wooden finials for drapery rods and drill a hold through the top. You can buy other small wood supplies, like large beads and candle holder cups.   You can make your own ceramic-like mold, using polymer clay.  You can use found objects, like large decorative beads or buttons.
  • You can cover a mold with gimp, fiber, paint or even decoupage.  Got some tiny little pieces from a vignette or greeting card that you want to keep as a souvenir?  This is a great project for incorporating small personalized designs.  
  • Use small tassels to decorate large tassel skirts.  
  • Try ribbon for your skirt.  It gives a lovely effect.  

Tassel Making Resources:

Magazines:

  • Embroidery and Cross Stitch.  Express Publications.  Australia.
    • Volume 4, Number 2.  "Tassel with Ribbon Rose Ruff" (pp. 41) 
  • Inspirations. Country Bumpkin Publications.  Australia.
    • Issue 18 - "Allegro" SRE Tassel (p. 56)
    • Issue 53 - "Gum Blossom Tassel" (pp. 40-41)

Books:

  • Campbell-Harding, Victoria. Beaded Tassels, Braids & Fringes.  Sterling Publishing. Soft cover.  128 pages.  ISBN 0-80694-8396 (An excellent resource for beaded tassels.)
  • Clement, Cari.  Terrific Tassels and Fabulous Fringe: Heirloom Accents from Modern Materials.  Krause Publications.  Soft cover.  128 pages ISBN 0-87341-8190 (This is an exceptional book with a lot of really great, practical advice.)
  • Crutchley, Anna. The Tassels Book: An Inspirational Guide to Tassels & Tassel-Making, with over 40 Practical Projects.  Hardcover.  160 pages. ISBN 1-85967-2221
  • Crutchley, Anna. Tassel Making: Revealing the Secrets of how to Make the World's Most Gorgeous Fabric Decorations.  Southwater.  Soft cover.  160 pages. ISBN 1-84215-229-8  (An interesting book with some excellent tassel patterns.)
  • Dickens, Susan.  Art of Tassel Making.  Independent Publishers Group.  Soft cover.  152 pages.  ISBN 1-86448-1226
  • Dickens, Susan.  Tassels. Allen and Unwin.  Hardcover.  136 pages.  ISBN 1-86508-0810 (There are patterns for some extraordinary tassels in this book.)
  • Taylor, Enid.  Tassel Making for Beginners. Guild of Master Craftsman Publications. Soft cover. 128 pages. ISBN 186108062X
  • Welch, Nancy.  The Creative Art of Tassels.  Sterling. Hardcover.   128 pages. ISBN 0-80696-2534
  • Welch, Nancy.  Tassels the Fanciful Embellishment.  Lark Books. Hardcover.    pages. ISBN: 188737423X
  • Welch, Nancy. Simply Tassels: The Creative Art of Design. Sterling. 128 Pages.  Soft cover. ISBN 0-80697-7159

Home Stitch Dictionary Gallery Instruction Blackwork Redwork Biscornu Basics Crazy Quilting Crewel Punch Needle Shadowwork Silk Ribbon Stumpwork Tassels Free Patterns MS NeedleArts Needle Felting Spinning I Love Crochet Knit Knut Clint Schaum Every Day Matters Search This Site Blog

The fine print:

This site is intended to be an educational site to share my passions. The images and ideas herein are my sole intellectual property, unless other wise noted, and I reserve and retain all rights. Linking to this site is perfectly acceptable, but reproducing any of the contents electronically or in print, without my express permission, is not.  

 

 Rissa Peace ©1999-2013

This site last edited: 01/01/13