Get Ready to Twirl Your Tassels Girls!
Written by Rissa Peace, April 2002, all rights reserved.
Tassels once denoted military or social rank, but these days they are strictly decorative items. Somewhere along the line, they became ornamentation. Decorative tassels cross all cultural, social and time boundaries; from ancient battle grounds, to modern interior furnishings, to the bridles and tents of nomadic herdsmen. It may be the aesthetic decorative nature that explains an almost culturally universal use of tassels. If you own a skeleton key, chances are there is a decorative tassel attached. There may be tassels on your pillows, on your drapery tie-backs or even on your shoes. Tassels are everywhere in our lives.
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 (the closest I have gotten is the Splendors of Versailles Exhibit), but you have probably seen some 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 fine reproductions for some of the most famous people and homes in the world. One particular tassel, known as the Marie Antoinette (from Versailles again), cost the client $9,000 for their research and painstaking labor.
For me, tassels have that same decadent allure as silk ribbon. You feel the urge to touch and 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.
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 shirt 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.
Soft tassels can be decorated further by adding embroidery 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. One of those things is that cotton perle has a tendency to fray over time, so unless you plan to constantly trim the skirt, you may want to reserve perle cotton for bullion skirts!
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!
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.
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 recently purchased this neat little tool and am very pleased with its ease of use. You could also modify a hand drill or a cordless screwdriver by filling 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.
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 other one being bullion.
Tips and ideas:
Photos of tassels for inspiration:
Tassel Making Supplies & Patterns:
Patterns and kits for sale:
Printed patterns and information: