Follow the Thread

a textile & costume history blog from the Design Center at Thomas Jefferson University



Andean chullo, photo by Gabby Ramos

∼ by Ann Wilson

This post is a celebration of that most fanciful of embellishments–the tassel. At its most basic construction, a tassel is a group of threads, yarns, or other lengths of material that is gathered and hung from a roundish head. Usually suspended from a cord, the resulting tassel fringe or “skirt” is meant to move, catching the eye as it sways, adding a bit of flare to objects that are worn or carried. In our collection we have many wonderful examples of tassels in a range of materials and from a variety of cultures, and from very simple constructions to elaborate “passementerie” trimmings.

Passementerie: “Fringes, tassels and trimmings applied to upholstery, especially to window curtains and bed-hangings. Also used to decorate textiles for clothing and other purposes…It greatly enhances the finished appearance of furnishing textiles, and in the 17th and 18th centuries it often represented considerable extra expense. The finest passementerie was produced in France by master trimming-makers (passementiers), who followed an apprenticeship of up to five years.” -Oxford Art Online

Our fanciest tassels are found on some of our oldest women’s outerwear.

This cape from the mid-19th century is entirely hand-stitched. Its faux hood is purely decorative and is weighted by two salmon-colored silk tassels, tying in with the pink of the trim and the small woven motifs in the taupe silk of the cape’s body.

This linen burnoose-style cape, also mid-1800s, features beautiful basket-weave trim, but the star of this piece might be the elaborate braid on its faux hood, ending in a tassel of pom-poms.

The elaborate tassels on this cape have gotten quite tangled over the years but are still quite impressive as they hang from thick twisted silk cords. Dating from 1890-1910, this cape features wide bands of faux-fur silk at its front and bottom edges. The chenille in the tassels and cords has a similar look and touch to the faux fur.

This piece dating from the late 19th century isn’t in the best condition, but it’s a valuable study piece, allowing students to examine the structure of a highly embellished garment. This velvet coat includes not only elaborate tassels, but an array of passementerie trims, including metallic jacquard ribbons, soutache, and claw-like metal pieces.

Beaded tassels are a category unto themselves, and in our collection they are usually found on bags, as in these examples.

T&CC 1989.26.8 Miser purse with beaded tassel and woven fringe
T&CC 2006.1.3 Velvet bag with brass handles and beaded tassels, early 20th century
T&CC 1981.26.1 Drawstring bag, tambour beading technique, early 20th century
T&CC 1980.3.1 Beaded reticule, late 19th-early 20th century

The leather examples below are from Liberia. Both are embellished with leather tassels. The bag on the left, dating to the 1930s, is appliqued with leather faces resembling the painted faces of men of the Wodaabe tribe of the Sahel region of Africa, as seen in the image below of the Gerewol Festival. This festival involves a ritual courtship dance in which the males beautify themselves and compete for the attention of eligible women. It’s interesting to note that tassels are adorning the males’ hair and headwear as well as the pouches around their necks.

And here are two more leather examples from the 1970s-80s: a fun belt and a fabulous pair of purple stacked heel oxfords by Susan Bennis and Warren Edwards.

Our student assistant Gabby Ramos has been photographing and inventorying our South American hats, belts, and bags. Here are a few examples of the wonderful tassels in this collection. At left, an Andean style chullo hat, knit from camelid fiber or wool, with a multicolor tassel on top and smaller tassels on the ear flaps and ties. The middle photo is a woven belt trimmed with twisted tassels, and the woven bag on the right is a Peruvian chuspas or coca bag, traditionally used to carry the leaves of the coca plant.

And our final highlight is this saucer-shaped wool felt hat, likely from the Chinchero region of Peru. Hats like this are worn by women, and the particular design and colors chosen can signal to others the wearer’s tribe and heritage. Sitting atop this hat is a multicolored tassel, similar to a pom-pom.

Most often, the tassel’s job is simply to add charm and beauty, but as we’ve seen from these examples, they can have cultural and ritual significance as well. A shared memory for many of us was the moment when we moved the tassel from one side of our commencement mortarboard to the other, symbolizing the official moment of graduation. Whatever their significance, it’s nice to take a moment to notice tassels and appreciate what they bring to our objects.

Thanks to our former student assistant and fashion design alum Chukwuma Udezeh for his research on bags of the Sahel region of Africa.

Further reading:

Tassels, by Doris Hoover and Nancy Welch, Walch Grafiks, Sunnyvale, CA, 1978.

Tassels: The Fanciful Embellishment, by Nancy Welch, Lark Books, Altamont Press, Asheville, NC, 1992.

To learn more about Peruvian textiles, visit Centro de Textiles Tradicionales del Cusco.

Special Collections Technician, Textile & Costume Collection, Thomas Jefferson University

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