Why I Am a Tatting Book Critic

I'm not nearly as harsh with tatting designers as I am with soft toy and cloth doll designers and I've been thinking about that. Part of it is the fact that I've owned a business designing soft toys and I expect certain standards to be kept - also, most Soft toy and doll books are developed and distributed through professional publishing houses, while the majority of tatting books are self-published - so I'm reluctant to point out definciencies. It isn't a business for these tatters, it's a heart-felt expression of their passion for this art. There was never really a payday for them - it costs a lot to self-publish and everyone who does it is bootstrapping their knowledge of the process from scratch. If they're lucky, they eventually break even. I'm betting less than 10% ever make a profit. I really truly get that. If they are smart and lucky, they were able to get another experienced tatter to go over the book and test the patterns(which could be a very lengthy and time-consuming process) who is also willing to point out where things could be improved before the final revision goes to print. But criticizing a friend is really tough, even knowing it would be a whole lot kinder than eventual public criticism of what one is tempted to let slide. Hardly any designers have the benefit of the boot of a professional editor pressing down firmly on their throat. BUT (and isn't there always one of those stinking up the train of thought) there are valuable reasons for criticism after the money has been spent and the published book is loose in the world. Sadly, most of those reasons won't help the intrepid designer except to point out potential improvements for future efforts. As a writer, a know nothing I've ever written was perfect - but everything HAS been perfectable. I believe this is true in every artistic endeavor.

So, here's why I think reviews are important:
1) For those who take the art of tatting seriously, a certain standard needs to be established(and met). Design appeal can be very subjective. Design notation is not. Universal notation that anyone can understand no matter what language they speak makes the art stronger and is quite objective. There has been great improvement on this front with the advent of diagrams and the symbolic notation. Tatting has become multilingual as well as multinational. Take a look at any of the amazing work coming out of Japan over the last 10-15 years. Very little of it has English translations, but they do have diagrams, instantly making them accessible to a world-wide audience. I also believe Judith Connors' Illustrated Dictionary is a profoundly important step in the permanent establishment of this art. I can't praise her efforts enough. Criticism is one of the tools at our disposal for encouraging a high(er) standard.
2) We are being asked to buy these books. No, we don't have to - but the internet, while widening dramatically the potential buyer pool, also makes it more difficult for that pool to browse the title before deciding to buy. i.e.- you can't just pick it up and take a look at it like you can in a brick-and-mortar shop (shop owners really hate showcasing, by the way - that's going to a store to take a look at it, then buying it on-line because you can get it a few dollars cheaper. Keep it up, and you will no longer have a brick-and-mortar store to go window shopping in...). I buy the vast majority of my out-of-print craft books from on-line and from catalogs. I haunt used bookstores as well on a regular basis, but only occasionally find books in my favored art forms. E-bay is practically my only source for antique, out-of-print and/or self-published tatting titles and magazines. A reasonable review on a reliable site could have saved me from buying something I can't or won't end up using. So reviews help other potential buyers. A reasonable review can also clue potential buyers in on designers they may not otherwise ever heard of or considered pursuing. Word of mouth has introduced me to the work of several designers(like Ineke Kuiperij) whose work I really adore. I make a point of buying all of her books whether I'll ever use it or not because I want to encourage her to put out MORE. You've got to feed the bear if you're planning that fireplace rug eventually... If all I say is good things, ignoring the bad, I am writing an ad, not an honest review.
3) Tatting books come in and go out of print so quickly - far more quickly than professionally bound and distributed books do - and they all have small print runs(with the exception maybe of some Dover publications that have hung around for decades). And because they don't have the usual distribution system disseminating them, you have a very slim shot as a buyer of ever encountering a designer unless they are lucky enough to be picked up by one of the on-line supply stores. (I would really love to change that - but that's for another discussion.) Having sites where the public can familiarize themselves with the body of work on a subject is a critical element in fixing our understanding of its place in history, and for furthering its evolution. I think Georgia Seitz has been an unflagging champion on this front - but she's one of the few persons I can point to with confidence who takes the time to collect, organize, AND MAKE ACCESSIBLE all the published information she can lay her hands on. She's also the only other reviewer on-line that I'm aware of. Barbara Foster is another powerful resource in her own way - by having her own publishing company. Handy Hands Inc has the largest selection of in-print tatting books - many of which she has ponied up the money to publish herself. I am very grateful for that. And why doesn't every tatting designer who's published have a page on Wikipedia? Every fiction writer who is professionally published seems to have one. "National Geographic" has its own page on Wikipedia, but no women's craft magazine that I checked does. Is it just that no woman who does needlecraft has ever thought to do this? Food for thought. It isn't just the Library of Congress who considers women's arts inconsequential. I wonder how much of that we do to ourselves.
4) And finally, Bibliographies are pins in a map of potential destinations. Critiques are the travel guide you need in order to make an informed decision on whether you want to go there or not. It would be fantastic if others with large collections would take the time and expense to review the books they have - I'd be first in line to benefit from their insights. Any time I run across someone else's bibliography, I am happy. Mimi Dillman has a link in the bibliography because she published a listing of all the cluny patterns she was aware of. Georgia Seitz also has an extensive bibliography on-line. I would love to see more of that.

Keep in mind that critiques, when done correctly, evaluate the work and not the worker. A criticism is not an indictment of character - all it is useful for is pointing out where that designer can do better with the next effort. It is a powerful tool to be used respectfully. A critic shines a search light where a gaslight would be much more flattering. I've been thinking about this a lot lately - I know, 400 reviews and I'm just now codifying my thoughts on the matter?! Call me slow. I am loath to criticize the work of so small a pool of people - after all, I may meet them eventually. And some of them are going to be mad. It takes a certain amount of nerve to be publically critical of people you will socialize with. I don't worry about what people think of me personally - but I don't like the idea of my opinions hurting the feelings of others. THAT bothers me. For those I bruise, you have my abject apologies. I try to be careful with my criticism - just remember it is the work I'm evaluating, not the designer. I tend to be somewhat gruff and direct in my social dealings and I'm not always aware when I'm ruffling feathers. It is even easier to do on-line, where all subtext is lost except the bare conduit of words. We communicate on so many more levels than that. If my review upsets you, consider the source, remember that you are published and I am not, and trash me thoroughly on your blog. You'll feel better, and I'll have no hard feelings.

Thanks for reading this. I hope the bibliography is helpful to you - and if it is, drop me a line. If it isn't, let me know how to improve it. Yes, I get criticized too. What goes around, comes around...

Best wishes in all your creative endeavors,
M. Leigh Martin