Generally when we think of tassels, little tufts of ratty thread hanging from the key to the china cabinet or the curtains of your grandmother's house come to mind; fussy little objects which are always an addition to something else rather than an art form in themselves, yet if we dig a little into the past we find that tassels have a long and fascinating history and are not by any means banal.
The art of tassel making has been around for thousands of years. In the Bible (Numbers 15:38-40) the faithful are urged to decorate their garments with blue tassels to remind them of the Lord's commandments and in the Middle and Far East there is a long tradition of using tassels to ward off evil. They are also found all around the globe from China to Egypt to Perù in an extraordinary variety of forms and techniques.
One of the main uses which pushed the development of tassels as a textile ornament was their extensive use for decorating livestock. This is still commonly practiced in India and the Middle East and it is likely that the custom was introduced to Spain by the Arabs and the Romany. There it has remained an important traditional craft and animals, particularly horses, are dressed for festivals and other important events with exquisite tassels which cost hundreds, if not thousands of Euros.
In Europe they became an important part of male costume in the second quarter of the 17th century, the fanciful white linen constructions being a sign of wealth and status and can be seen in many male portraits of the time. Those little tufts which hang from the centre of their falling band collars are actually extremely sophisticated confections which required an incredible amount of skill to make.
The making of these Jewels of Thread was practiced throughout Europe but many of the most intricate and over-the-top examples are attributed to Italy where the art flourished in Milan under Spanish Rule (1535-1706). The Spanish founded a school of braid makers in the city which consolidated and expanded the already significant textile industry of the area. And it was a period during which incredible collaborations between highly skilled artisans brought forth some extraordinary creations such as these tassels below:
These same artisans also collaborated with armorers, creating perfectly coordinated decorations for dress swords in silk and metallic threads, such as these examples from the Poldi Pezzoli Museum in Milan:
During the 17th and 18th centuries the manufacture of poly chrome silk and metal tassels also developed into a complex craft in Europe being used to decorate bags and other accessories, gowns and furnishings. These Baroque and Rococo tassels were produced throughout Western Europe, and many fine examples can be found in museums adoring ecclesiastic objects, fine furnishings and some of the most charming examples are to be found on ladies purses, where fantasy was allowed to be freely expressed, leading to some of the most fanciful and opulently beautiful objects of western fashion history. Some examples can be seen here below.
We will be offering two more workshops about the art and history of Baroque Tassels this year; one in Melbourne 5-7 July and the other in Wollongong 10-12 October. You can find more information via the links.
Do you love tassels? Did you know they had such a rich history? We would love to hear any stories in the comments below!