Sally Biggers is reviving the art of tatting

Shelly Frome
Special to The Black Mountain News

There’s a common understanding in Black Mountain that externals are of little concern. It doesn’t matter what car you drive, how much money you make, or your so-called social status. There is, however, a continual interest in more resonant aspects of one another’s lives.

Take Sally Biggers, for instance. On the surface, she’s the administrator of Black Mountain Digital Media and Computer Services. She’s also a dedicated nurse. Beyond that, she’s a consultant, historian, expert practitioner and conference lecturer on lace. Her abiding devotion to lace harkens back to 1975, the year she and her husband settled here. She noticed a marked proliferation in the creation of handcrafts in the Swannanoa Valley, especially in weaving and furniture making - an outgrowth of the mission of the former Black Mountain College, she believed.

She was smitten by the wide range of handcrafts that people produced in the area.

At the same time, she sensed in Black Mountain what she calls an “earth way” that attracts people who are “supposed to be here,” she said. “And I felt I was one of them. These mountains take the chaff, the essence of a person, and leave the rest behind. If the kernel isn’t good, it withers. But if the kernel is good, someone will make bread out of it.”

Just like she does with the needle arts, something her grandmother introduced her to. A widow , she made and sold scarves, quilts and other fabric goods.

“As a restless young child, to keep me busy, I naturally was taught to knit,” Biggers said. In the late 1970s, she watched a segment of the CBS show “Sunday Morning,” hosted by the late Charles Kuralt, on lace-making in Indiana. She was, at that time, already crocheting and was making doilies.

Becoming more and more fascinated, Biggers soon discovered that tatting was essential to lace-making because lace could not be produced by a machine.

“I was taken by how enduring and precious this was,” she said. “There’s a 1490 portrait by Leonardo Di Vinci displaying the fine lace along a lady’s sleeve. This embroidery became so fine, it required a magnifying glass to appreciate how intricate it was. Ancient specimens of netting laces date back 2,500 years, to Egyptian tombs. Bobbin laces stem from weaving, which is the most ancient handicraft of all.”

Historical heritage notwithstanding, Biggers believes the resurgence in lace-making is partly due to the 100-year phenomena, how things tend to come back every 100 years, such as the current interest in making things out of wood. She made her case by pointing to furniture makers in the Swannanoa Valley who use century-old techniques. In her view, lace-making is part and parcel of the return to spinning, weaving and natural crafts.

“Going back to Charles Kuralt,” Biggers said. When he claimed that tatting would die with older practitioners, “Georgia Seitz (a tatting teacher who lives in Illinois) declared, ‘Like heck it will,’” Biggers said. “She posted on the internet that there are exquisite patterns and pamphlets from everywhere, from 1850 on.”

And so the art thrives today. Any time Biggers is confronted with an intriguing tatting issue, she sends out an all-points bulletin to 700 tatters worldwide. Someone is bound to answer and rewrite the pattern (locally, she’s available to test other people’s patterns). Her network includes the Palmetto Tatters Guild in Columbia, South Carolina; her own group is a branch called The Palm Frond.

Biggers helps beginners and teaches at conferences where tatters come from every corner of the globe to decipher vintage designs and share the latest innovations in thread and technique.

Last year at the N.C. Mountain State Fair, Biggers won red ribbons in 2011 and 2012 for her work. Now she has set her sights on a blue ribbon.

Call of the Valley is writer Shelly Frome’s periodic profile of people who are drawn to the Swannanoa Valley.