Betty The Artist

Betty's Hankies with the tatting on the edge.
Betty’s Hankies with the pink and purple tatting on the edge.

Betty had white hair, mint green earrings and used a walker.  She stood behind the empty chair at the table we were having breakfast at and asked if she could sit with us.

It was our second morning at Wesley Acres Retirement home, where we were staying for a few days in the Tudor style guest house.   Jon had already given a talk there the day before and he was scheduled to give three more talks before we left Iowa.  I saw a table for two when we first walked into the dining room and feeling antisocial was thinking we should grab it, but Jon walked right past it and sat down at a table set for four.

Moments later Betty appeared.  Her earrings caught my eye, mint green snowflakes. She was as friendly as everyone we met in Iowa, but by the time we were done eating, we had made a deeper connection.  It began when I told her I liked her earrings and she told me she made them.  “Do you know what tatting is?” she asked.   Tatting, that handmade, tiny lacy edge on so many of the vintage hankies I’ve collected over the past few years. I told Betty how I used  hankies in my art and then she got out of her chair and from a pretty pink pouch tied to her walker, she pulled out two hankies, with tatting that she had made, and gave them to me.

Then Betty told us how she learned tatting.  It was the winter of 1935-36 and it was so cold they could only heat two rooms of their small farm house.  There were six children and her mother said to keep them from driving her crazy she would teach the three oldest tatting.  Even Betty’s brother learned.  The rest of her sibling didn’t keep it up, but Betty never stopped.  Even today, at 94 she’s still doing it.  The difference is that now she doesn’t even have to even look at what she’s doing, it’s all by touch.  She uses tatting to make  hankies, earrings and greeting cards.

When I called Betty an artist, she didn’t believe it, but I think she liked the idea of it.  And I know she is an artist, because once she started creating, she never stopped.  And for me, Betty’s story is the story behind all the handmade hankies that come to me and that I use in my work.  When I look at one of those finely detailed handmade hankies, I think of the woman who made it. I think that maybe it was the only way she had to express her creativity.   And so she made hankie after hankie.  Each one affirming that she is an artist even if consciously she doesn’t see herself as one.  And if the time she grew up in a different time or the situation she grew up in was different, maybe she’d be painting or doing performance art or making videos instead.

So now, each time I see some tatting on a hankie that someone sends me or I already have in my collection, I’m going to think of Betty, who put a face to the story.  The story of the artist who created what she could when she could and didn’t give up.

10 thoughts on “Betty The Artist

  1. I love this story, as I have been cleaning out my mother’s house, and now have many, many old hankies, some lace-trimmed, and some trimmed with tatting. How thrilling to meet someone who still carries on the tradition. And who is coming up thru the ranks of artists to continue the tradition?

    1. I don’t know who’s carrying it on Carolyn. I’m thinking some artist somewhere will need to learn to do it to make their art. Maybe….

  2. Maria, I love this post. Reminded me of my mother who with 8 children could not afford ten cents to buy a newspaper pattern would sit and crochet from the newspaper photo. She counted the stitches, pointing with the fine tip of her crochet needle. The true artist will find a way to create. Like a knitter with a cut off clothes hangar when she lost a knitting needle. Thank you for this.

  3. What a lovely story, Maria. Now, I too, shall think of Betty when I see tatting. It is such a lovely art form and when I have seen it I have wondered how on earth it is made. Thank you for sharing that experience.

  4. Beautiful description of how we find connection and meaning in our interactions with each other. I’m so glad Betty asked to join you two!

  5. Both my grandmother and mother did tatting. I have hankies, and dresser scarves and table runners. I even have their round tin with the thread and shuttle that they used. Unfortunately, no one ever taught me 🙁 But I guess when I was young..Knitting and crocheting where the thing!! I keep saying I’m never too old to try something who knows!
    Love the story of Betty, thanks for sharing it.

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