Gilding the Lily: adding tassels to period costumes and accessories for more color, movement, reflected light and weight.
I know I’m drawn to tassels because they supply many of the same things feathers do: color, movement and reflected light but they also have weight. I believe that all four things are important in fashion’s love affair with tassels. Tassels have been around for millennia, ever since the first person tied a knot in a cord to keep it from fraying, but they soon became more elaborate and decorative. I tried to find some early European examples in paintings and I chose Hans Holbein, 1497-1553 following a clue in a figure from Franz Meyer’s “a handbook of ornament” (1920). I found two great examples without much looking, and it appears Franz was right; tassels appear in every period of art.
Young Englishwoman and a section of the Ambassadors by Hans Holbein the Younger
Tassels on clothing and accessories have waxed and waned, but have never totally disappeared. Even today, you can see them often on the zipper of purses (as in this Anya Hindmarch Fan Straw Clutch on Gotham magazine.com), small leather tassels on men’s loafers, or most likely for home decoration. For this article I’m going to skip the home decoration category (although many of the techniques are the same), and concentrate on tassels attached to things people wear or hold. I have been searching for examples of tassels in many of the online museums and auction houses and have amassed quite a collection of links and those have been turned into a pinterest page; the links are at the end of this article. I knew I would find tassels on purses, parasols, fans, hats, shoes and dresses, but I was amazed to find them on a Christening robe from the mid 1700s, a 1630 collar, gloves, a 1603 powder flask, a Sporran, and a few wedding gowns. The tassels I found took many different forms. Some of which I tried to recreate for this article. Another thing I discovered was that the silk covered wooden beads are a crucial part of many Victorian, as well as later period tassels, so I had to figure out how best to do that. I will pass this information on as well.
Why would a person want to make their own tassels when one can take from an hour to 4 or 5 hours to make? The tassels one can purchase in fabric stores and online are usually home decorating styles. Those that are not meant for decor, come in limited colors and sizes. And most have short cords. They are also almost always made cotton or rayon, which might suit depending on what you are making. If you can find the color, size and style you need for your project, I would say purchase them. But, once you have seen a color chart from a silk thread maker you may never want to purchase another tassel.
Tire brand silk thread color chart
I know you can’t feel my silk tassels or see the way they move, nor can I do it justice with my descriptions, but take my word for it, they are in all ways better than commercial rayon tassels.
When I knew I was going to do this article, I wanted to experiment with as many threads types as I could so that I could rate them for you. Going in, I didn’t know anything about thread sizes. There is a number scale (most command weights from buttonhole to very fine: 16, 30, 50, 100) and an alpha scale (from very fine to thick: 0, 00, A-F, FF, FFF). Even after working with both scales, I’m not quite sure how they equate and the answers I got from the thread sellers where not the same. So, my best guess is that size A (the silk sewing thread that has been around for years) is equal to 50 wt. thread. I like making tassels with A or 50 and 30 wt. the most. I think that 100 wt. is just too fine. FF or 16 wt. would give you a tassel very much like most commercial tassels, those not made with chainette (chained cord, not a ply or twist).
Two commercial tassels, the left tassel is made from chainette and the right is made from a twist cord.
To start, it would be good to get some terms out of the way. The parts of a tassel are the cord, mold or body, neck or ruff, and skirt or fringe (see the tassel diagram). I have separated the types of tassels into four general categories. Instructions for making these the simplest of these tassels (types 1 -3) will be in this article and the other in part 2 of this article. But for now, here are the types that I will refer to in the following examples.
- Type 1 – Simple tassel with thread cord
- Type 2 – Simple tassel with twisted cord (version 1)
- Type 3 – Simple tassel with twisted cord (version 2)
- Type 4 – Compound tassel with separate covered mold in part 2 of this article
|Sometimes the body is padded with just the knot from the cord. But larger bodied tassels often use a wood form or bead to pad it. The fringe and the body can be made separately (my type 4) and then added to each other, this is not so common in tassels on clothing but very common on tassels for hats, fans and parasols.
Below are some examples of type 1 and 2 tassels with a description that includes the maker (if not myself or vintage), tassel type, thread fiber, weight and brand along with the bead or mold where used. Note: As you read through the examples below, you will notice that the units of measurement switch often. This is because of the different sources for threads.
1. This 1830’s style wool short cape with velvet trim and reticule are examples of when one does not need to make their own tassels. These are commercial tassels, some type 2 (the larger one on the cape and the two drawstring tassels on the bag) some type 3 (the smaller ones on the cape and the ones that hang from the bag).
2. Three tassels made from a spool (90 yds.) of size FFF Gudebrod Bros. Champion silk thread. From left to right the first tassel is type 2 with an 18x10 mm wooden bead inside the body, the middle one is also type 2 with no bead and the last is type 3 also without a bead.
3. This single tassel was made from a 250 meter 50 wt. spool of Tiara variegated silk thread. The neck below the tassel body was done in a solid color size A silk sewing thread. It is type 3 with an 18x10 mm wooden bead inside.
4. This type 2 silk tassel was made from a 100 m spool of 50 wt. Tire brand silk sewing thread. It has an oval 9x18mm bead.
| 5. I used four colors of silk sewing thread size A to make these small type 1 tassels. The thread that makes the cord for each of the tassels was left fairly long so that they could be tied together. The bundled cords where sewn through the hat and tied off inside.
6. This type 2 tassel was made from a 15m spool of Soie et hand stitch silk thread. This thread is a matte silk thread that is very similar to cotton embroidery floss. It is fairly expensive and I would not recommend it unless you had a silk yarn project and wanted tassels of the same fiber. The tassel has a flat 15mm wooden bead with an enlarged hole so that the cord could fit thru. The wood bead gives the body a nice shape and I would recommend using it over the drapery ring I used for the tassel below.
7. This is another type 2 tassel made from a matte silk fine yarn from Aurora Silk called Ahimsa™ Peace yarn in a 110 yd. skein. It has a ¾” drapery ring inside the body. I really don’t think there is enough difference between cotton and matte silk to pay $20 to make a tassel up in silk (except it was a lot of fun to use koolaid acid dying to ombré dye a tassel).
8. The thread for this tassel also came from Aurora Silk. It is their Peace silk thread and comes on a 216-yard (200 meter) spool. I liked this better that the thicker yarn but I used almost all of a $6 spool to make this tassel. This is also a type 2 tassel. The neck is not thread but two wraps of a braided trim.
9. Here is another set of tassels for a fan. These tassels do not have a bead in the body and are made with a 50 m spool of 30 wt. Tire silk. The slider bead is a 1cm bead with a 3 mm hole. When making a slider ball it is somewhat tricky to figure out just how large the hole needs to be so that after you have covered it with thread it remains large enough to let the twist cord pass through, but still be small enough that they do not pass too easily. I think some trial and error is in order depending on the materials you are using.
Note: Tassels for fan are good examples of functional tassels. If the cord has a slider ball, it can be adjusted to your wrist so that you can carry your fan hands free while you dance, and in most cases, you can use the fan while it is still attached to your wrist.
I have noticed that some reticules and parasols have sliders as well. If you look through the links at the end of this article, note that when a slider is used, the cord can end in two tassels or sometimes it can end in a single tassel. The choice is yours. A slider ball can be made in the same way as the top half of the type 4 tassel (instructions in part 2), steps 5-8. Then you thread your cord ends through the bead hole in opposite directions.
10. This tassel was made with a 15m skein of DMC perle cotton. The wooden piece that makes the body was sold in the craft store to be used as a taper candleholder. The come with a hole but I enlarged it to about ¼”. I covered the candleholder with black soutache trim using white glue. Another piece of soutache is used as the cord for the tassel and it is pulled up inside the cup of the candleholder. The tassel is type 3.
11. This type 2 tassel is made of YLI pearl crown rayon thread. The spool does not list a size for the cord but it is almost the same thickness as the brown FFF silk cord in the three tassels pictured above in example 2. The twist is not quite as tight which gives it a coarser look. It has two of the 18x10mm beads that where glued together. The look of rayon does come close to silk in the final tassel but it can be more difficult to work with because it is so slippery.
12. This Regency style reticule has three type 1 tassels and two larger modified type 3 tassels. The tassels and the twist cord for the drawstrings of the bag where made from threads that where pulled from strips of the fabric.
13. Another garment that usually has tassels, are Men’s Victorian smoking caps. This type 3 tassel, and its cord, where made with unraveled threads from the fabric. Both the chenille and the plain cotton threads where used for the body and fringe. Just the chenille was used for the neck and the cord. There is a round wooden bead in the body mostly for weight.
14. Here is another smoking cap with a type 3 tassel. In this one the wide trim was frayed to give the threads for the tassel, and two colors of DMC cotton embroidery floss where used to make a two color twist cord for the tassel to hang from. There is a round wooden bead in the body mostly for weight.
15. This 20s hat has tassels with two different sizes of round wooden beads inside. They are covered with the same ½” wide woven cotton trim that decorates the front of the hat. The small bead is covered with two widths of trim at 90° to each other then the larger bead is covered with those same widths plus two more at 90° to each other. These are 45° from the first, so that all the surface of the larger bead is covered. The ruffs between the beads are made from the other trim on the front. Below the second band, the eight ends of trim are frayed out. This tassel is not like any of the other tassels in that it does not have a cord. The sections are held together and it is sewn on to the hat with sewing thread.
16. These Chopines made by Frances Classe have type 1 tassels made by Cynthia Barnes, who also took the photos. She made them with chenille thread she got by fraying back the same cotton fabric that was used to cover the Chopines.
Tassel Making Instructions:
Note: Since the same method for creating the tassel neck/ruff is used for the first three types of tassels, I am going to list the steps in the type 1 instructions only. Be sure to go back to type 1 step 4 (**) for this part in tassel types 2 and 3.
Type 1 - Simple tassel
This is the type of tassel that most people have experience making if they have done any crocheting or knitting. The thread/yarn used to hold the tassel strands together makes the cord the tassel hangs from.
1. Wrap thread/yarn around a cardboard that is the length of the tassel you want. Slip a length of thread/yarn under all the rounds. The more rounds you add to the board the fatter your tassel will be.
2. Pull the length up to one edge and knot it with two overhand knots or if the thread is slippery then a surgeon’s knot.
3. Cut the rounds free from the board on the end opposite of the thread tie.
4. Create a neck as described below.
**Creating a tassel neck/ruff
Cut a length of thread/yarn that is about 1 ft. long, and fold it in half. If the thread is slippery it is important to wax the loop area otherwise the knot will not hold.
- Slide the looped end under your tassel.
- Pull the free ends thru the loop while going over the tassel.
- Pull the free ends thru the loop again.
- Snug down the loop until it is as tight as you can get it. Wrap the threads tightly around the tassel several more times working your way towards the body.
- Thread the free ends into a large eyed tapestry needle and pass the tip under the wraps you just created and out the bottom. Cut the thread off at the length of the tassel ends if it is the same thread/yarn. If it is not, trim the threads close to the neck.
This would be the type of tassel to make if you do not need a removable tassel, or a tassel with a short cord. The tied length of yarn (the cord) are threaded into a needle and sewn into a purse or cap as in the 20s hat and the regency reticule above (examples 5 and 12).
Creating a Twist Cord for Tassel Types 2, 3 and 4
With the other types of tassels one has to make a twist cord as the first step. There are special tools that help you make twist cord but I like doing short amounts by hand. All you need are two metal hooks. I’m using #8 9/16 screw hooks they are very easy to hold onto but any hook that is long enough to tape securely to the tabletop will work.
1. Securely tape the hooks to a long table with packing tape with the hook openings facing away from each other. The length of your finished twist cord will be about 40% of the total length.
2. With a slipknot , anchor your yarn/thread to one of the hooks. (Be sure to leave a tail on the knot.) Wrap your thread back and forth between the hooks as many times as you need to create the thickness you want in your finished cord.
3. Tie off the end of your thread to the tail of the slipknot.
4. Carefully un-tape the hook without the tied threads from the table and hold it between your thumb and forefinger.
5. Begin twisting the hook while keeping tension on the cord.
6. Continue twisting until the twist closes down on the hook and the cord starts to kink even though you have tension on the cord.
7. With your finger at about the middle of the cord, keeping the tension on the cord, fold it in half matching the hooks and securing them under the tape. Slip your finger out and begin twisting the folded end of the cord in the opposite direction.
8. Slowly work you fingers up the cord.
9. When you have worked your fingers all the way up to the hooks, carefully slip the threads off the hooks and knot the ends.
Note: The direction that you twist your hook will determine the twist of the cord. If you are right-handed you naturally twist in a clockwise manner and if you are left-handed you naturally twist in a counter clockwise manner. In most cases it does not matter which way the cord twists, unless you are trying to go for a special effect as in the a multi-colored parasol tassel that you will see in part 2 of this article. If I want a reverse twist in the cord, for me it is easier to twist with the other hand than to spin the hook in the opposite direction, so I flip the way I tie off the cord and do everything backwards. I will show how to make two-color twist cord in part 2 of this article.
Type 2 - Simple Tassel with Twist Cord
After you have made your twist cord, tie a knot in it to form a loop of the desired length.
1. Wrap thread or yarn around your cardboard until you have as much as you will need. Slip a piece of tape with the sticky side up under the thread.
2. Fold the tape around your threads; do this on both sides of the board. The use of tape may seem overkill when working with yarn, but when you are working with slippery threads, it becomes necessary.
3. Cut the threads on the taped end.
4. Open up the full length of threads and lay it down on a flat surface; place the twist cord with its knot near the center of the threads.
5. Using a short length of a strong thread of a similar color, tie two overhand knots (or if the thread is slippery then a surgeon’s knot) just to the loop side of the knot in your cord.
6. Before you tighten the second knot in the securing thread from step 5, adjust the tassel threads so that they are evenly distributed and cover the cord knot all the way around. Remove the tape on the loop side of the tassel.
7. Hold the tassel up by its twist cord and adjust (comb) the un-taped threads until they lie evenly around the knot and cover it. Steaming can help at this point. Remove all the tape.
8. Follow the steps above for creating a neck.
Note: The use of so much tape in the making of a tassel might seem like overkill if you have ever made yarn or cotton thread tassels but I learned the hard way silk, rayon and polyester thread is so slippery the tape is a simple precaution to keep threads in line.
Knot in twist cord
Finished type 2 tassel
Simple Tassel Type 3
First make a twist cord and tie a knot in it as with type 2.
1. Wrap thread or yarn around your cardboard until you have as much as you will need, and slip a length of strong thread or cord of a color that nearly matches your tassel under the thread/yarn to secure the top.
2. Slip a piece of tape with the sticky side up under the thread and fold it over your threads; do this on both sides of the board.
3. Cut the threads free from the board on the end opposite of the tie.
4. Lay the threads out on a flat surface and slip one free end of the twist cord below the threads.
5. Tie another knot in the twist cord around all the threads so it covers the securing thread.
6. Hold the tassel up and adjust (comb) the threads around the second knot in the twist cord. Steaming can help at this point.
7. Follow the steps above for creating the neck.
Finished type 3 tassel
Note: Both type 2 and type 3 tassels can have wooden beads or molds added to the twist cord, so that the body of the tassel is larger and heavier than with just the knot. With type 2, the bead needs to be added to the loop end of the cord.
Type 3, the bead needs to be added behind the knot of the cord and another knot needs to be tied behind the bead.
The orange variegated tassel in example 3 is a type 3 with a bead in the body.
A great reference for the history of ornament including tassels:
Franz Meyer’s “a handbook of ornament” (1920)
In another on-line book, The Art of Making: Tassels, the author makes her type 2 tassels with fringe that is flipped over. Nice idea but I think it would be just extra work.
I got most of my wooden beads from Fire Mountain Gems
Another US source Rings and Things.
UK sources for beads The Bead Shop and The Bead Shop Manchester
Silk cord and thread:
I ordered my silk threads from Superior Threads, Aurora Silks and Lacis
Other sellers that have been recommended to me:
Redrock Threads: they carry the polyester Floriani 40 wt embroidery thread
I would have guessed that if you go to an on-line museum collection and use “tassel” to search, you would find everything in their collection that has tassels. But, I did not find that was the case. They do not always tag an item with that word even if it does have a tassel. So, I have amassed the following list of links. Hopefully I have saved you some work.
Tassels on fans
Purse or bag
Christening robes mid-1700
Coat or cape
Powder flask 1603
I was unable link to individual items so you will have to find these on the page.
1872 & 1876 Worth Afternoon Dress & 1884 Visiting Ensemble & 1886 Ball Gown & 1907 suit
Evening Dress 1970
Day Dress Poiret
1820 Regency Dress