Beyond The Fringe, A Tassel Extravaganza - Ellen Hess

February 22, 2003
Ellen Hess

Passementerie, Ellen Hess began, is the art of decorative trimmings which includes tassels, fringes and cords, braid and trim." Following this simple beginning, Ellen showed a number of slides and explained each one very carefully. Her talk then became historical as well as informational. It is apparent that both wearing apparel and home furnishings, in their decorations, run the gamut from the simplest braid or tassel to the almost unimaginably (up to this lecture) intricately designed and executed decor.

We saw pictures of furnishings in an Italian palace, an elegant and powerful French nobleman's uniform with its elaborate knotting, ecclesiastical garments with their telling cords and fringes, a richly furnished home in London, an English surrey of the Victorian era, a headpiece from Tangiers, Mexican decor, etc. This was a trip around the world and back in time.

There were collections from different stores; M & J trims, Tinsel Trading Co. All types of braids, woven ribbon, macramé, cording used in upholstery, rosettes (embroidery on fiberboard, stitched or glued in place). The fringes are added after the embroidery is done. An example of a combination of many techniques was an embroidered silk couch, buttoned down, metallic embroidery, fringes and tassels in the fringes. In the military the tassel and elaborate decor shows rank. In fashion, these appeared in the yoke and the shoulders of garments. A beaded fringe can become a necklace. Wrapping is a much-used technique. Fringes can be woven and unwoven combinations. A pillow can have ply cord all around with tassels at the corners. Braiding is woven lengthwise and is used to hide a connection or to supplement the decor already in place.

Then Ellen began to tell us how these trimmings are made. Upholsterer's braid is made on a loom or lace machine. There can be two wefts going on at the same time, one weft thread that does plain weave and another that snakes around. In this way you can make scallops. A gallon is a braid that is symmetrical on either side.

The French kept very good records of their work; there are pattern books. They used heftier cords to make surface patterns.

Fringes can be made in different ways; the simplest fringe or tassel is made by using threads of one length and catching them in the middle, folding over and then wrapping a little way down from the top. Fringes can be made from all kinds of thread; unmercerized cotton, raffia, wool, silk. Silk does not like to hang down so it is twined.

A moss fringe is woven in one pick, folded over and down through the next pick. Another type of fringe is not cut at the bottom but it is plied back up to itself. If you use an over twisted weft then you can make a nice fringe easily.

M & J trimming store is located on 6th Avenue and between 37th and 38th streets. In Long Island City there is Scalamandré. Fringe can be purchased and then can be rolled up to make tassels. You can weave decor by putting one warp in plain weave on harnesses 1 and 2 and then put a supplementary warp on harnesses 3 and 4.

To make a beautiful tassel, Ellen described the anatomy and gave hints on finishing each part; to wit, the head, neck, ruff, overskirt(shoulder), skirt.

For braiding one reference is "Braids," by R. Owen. For tassels, see "The Art of Tassel Making" by Susan Dickens or "Tassels" by Nancy Welsh.

To finish we were all given a packet with all materials necessary to make a tassel and an instruction sheet.
Looking around I noticed that most of us were still so interested in what Ellen was saying that we did not make a tassel then and there but left it for home so we could listen closely to this very knowledgeable and gifted woman.

--Sara Briggs