Exotic Shuttles


bone shuttles

This seems an exotic material to us today, but it was in many ways the plastic of the 19th century. It was a common and easily available material so bone shuttles were made in vast quantities, and many still survive. The shuttles below vary in length from 2" to 3.5". They are all different because they would have been made by different local craftsmen working with the size and shape of a particular piece of bone.

Like the ivory shuttle below, this carved bone one has a very narrow space between the blades so it is impractical for tatting. Expert Heidi Nakayama says that in the later 19th century as ivory became more scarce, Asian carvers began using bone instead. Bone is much harder than ivory, so the carving is not as delicate.

Coconut Shell

Made by modern craftsman Peter Cua from the Philippines:


ivory lace tools

These intricately carved ivory tools - shuttle, needlecase and threadwinder - were made in China in the 19th century. The shuttle was carved from a single piece of ivory. They were made for export to the West, and it is obvious that the carvers knew nothing of tatting as the blades are close together with very little room for thread. No use for tatting, but a collectors' delight!


horn shuttle with flower spray
horn shuttle with flower spray

Antique 19th century shuttles like this appear from time to time on eBay or in antique shops and fairs. They are made from ground up, reconstituted and moulded buffalo horn inlaid with sprays of flowers and leaves in abalone, mother-of-pearl and silver wire. Sadly, over the years the inlay tends to drop out, as with this shuttle.

buffalo horn shuttle
horn shuttle with dragon

These modern shuttles were made by Peter Cua from the Philippines. The lower one is engraved with a dragon design. The shuttles are carved from water buffalo horn. A single horn can be up to four foot long. Most of it is black, but it also comes in cream or a translucent brown.

The water buffalo is a vital domestic animal throughout Southeast Asia. It does the work of a tractor, as well as supplying meat, milk and horn.


abalone shuttle
another abalone shuttle

These shuttles show the distinctive wavy pattern typical of abalone, as well as the lovely colours. It is made from the thick inner layer of the shell, highly iridescent. Abalone is also known as paua (New Zealand), ormer (Jersey), and sea ear (Australia) from the ear-like shape of the shell.


bone and mother-of-pearl shuttles

The two top shuttles (at right) are bone, the crochet hook and bottom shuttle are made of mother-of-pearl.

Mother-of-pearl comes from the lining of the pearl oyster or abalone. It can lose its iridescence if exposed to sunlight over a long time. Cleaning is best done by rubbing the shuttle with fingers, and the natural oil helps too. Antique shuttles are often delicately carved. They are usually very expensive.

abalone shuttle
another abalone shuttle

These two shuttles (at left) are modern ones from India. The smaller one is only 1" long – not very practical, but it could be worn as a pendant at tatting days!