Tassels, also known as liripipes, are found on mortarboards during graduation ceremonies. But have you ever wondered why?
It turns out a liripipe has been a part of clothing for centuries. Most often if was the tail or a hood or cloak, but it might also be found on the peak of a shoe. Several dictionary sources including Webster’s Dictionary suggests that it was taken from cleri ephippium (clergy’s caparison). “Tassel” is a little easier to track down. A tassel is defined as a finishing feature in fabric decoration, or a universal ornament seen in various versions in many cultures around the globe. The word “tassel” comes from the Latin “tassau” which means a clasp. (reference link)
The tassel is attached to the center of the mortarboard cap. The cap got its name because it looks like the device bricklayers used to hold mortar. The cap is part of the overall academic dress which is determined by the occasion and the degree for which the person is entitled to. Customs vary among cultures and even universities.
The color of the tassel is often different among educational levels and schools. The high school tassel will often by the schools color, up to three colors. There is a charm added to the wrapped area, often containing the year of graduation and perhaps the school mascot. Depending on the university, tassels may be black, contain the school colors, or be the color of the degree being given. For example, light blue signifies Education and Brown signifies Fine Arts. Only one tassel is worn at a time.
But why do graduates even where a cap and gown? It was because the scholars of long ago were cold and the long gowns were warm. Because many of the medieval scholars had taken some level of vows with the church, the robes resembled clerical garb. The robes were worn every day. From that practice, academic dress codes for graduates developed around the 12th century. Universities mandated a strict dress code consisting of academic robes. Around the turn of the 19th century, disciplines began to be color coded. However, only the United States has fully standardized the apparel.
Another custom regarding the cap is when to move the tassel. For almost ever educational level, the tassel starts out on the right side of the cap and is moved to the left after the degree is conferred. It will depend on the school whether the graduate moves it as soon as s/he receives their degree or if the class does it all at once at the end of the ceremony. If a person is receiving a doctorate, the tassel begins on the left side and is moved to the right side after the degree is conferred.
Now that we know how tassels are used during graduation, let’s explore how we can use them in stitching.
The art of making elaborate trimmings which includes braids, cord, fringe and tassels is called passementerie (pronounced pahs/mahn/TREE). Tassels came about in much the same way as beads. First they were just a way to end a cord or rope, with the frayed ends beneath the knot. People began to experiment with ways to make that end neater and more elaborate. Almost anything can be used in the tassel including stones, feathers, shells, and fibers of all types. The methods people used soon evolved into an art form. The Guild of Passementiers was organized in France in the 16th century, which covered not only tassels but fringes, rosettes, ornamental cords and pompons. It took an apprentice seven years to become a master in just one area! Each era has its own designs with the Renaissance period being smaller to the Victorian which had the larger and more elaborate trimmings.
In the past, not only were tassels a status symbol but they also identified the wearer. A wealthy man would have a robe created for his son that had the family tassel on it so anyone approaching would readily identify the wearer. Military uniforms were constructed with a lot of braid, roping, and tassels, along with the troop flags, and tents. If you look at the portraits of royalty especially from the 15th and 16h centuries, you will see braids, cords, and tassels prominently worn or used in the room décor.
Today there are still companies devoted to this art that design trimmings for interior designers and clothiers. Many of these companies are family owned and have passed down their secrets through many generations. However, a new market has also sprung up for European and American artisans who are recreating the tassels from eras gone by with a single hand-made tassel bringing up to one thousand dollars. You don’t have to pay someone to make your tassels. They really are quite easy to make and you can get as elaborate as you want. Let’s learn how.
There are three parts to a tassel: the suspension cord, the mould (body), and the skirt. If correctly done, each part is made separately and then combined for the finished product. Before you begin to create your tassel you need to determine its purpose. That will help you decide on colors, size, shape, and design.
Making tassels requires some equipment that you probably don’t have in your workbasket yet.
You need a sturdy warping frame. The frame is used to help calculate the length of threads needed and to get them organized and in order. The frame is usually made of wood with pegs along each side, so that you can vary the length of threads. You can also do this down a long hallway where the threads will lay alongside each other on the floor. Your four-legged friends will want to “help”!
A warping post is made from a heavy dowel attached to a base which can be clamped to a sturdy table. The purpose of the post is to help hold the tassel when you are binding the cords or working with the tassel moulds.
A cord maker is an essential tool. This allows you to create the cording faster and more uniform than if you turned it by hand. The Spinster and the Euro 4-ply Cordmaker are excellent choices. A short term alternative would be to get a hand drill with a cup hook inserted in the end of the drill. You hook one end of your threads over the warping post and the other you attach to the cord maker or drill. Then the threads are spun together to create the cord. Follow the instructions included with your particular machine.
Wire snips are needed to cut the wire used to manufacture some tassels. Don’t use your good embroidery scissors.
A set of craft pliers especially a round-nosed plier will be useful in getting your wires tight.
The skirt of the tassel are made on skirt boards. They can be made out of wood, cardboard, or wire. These devices are used to wrap the threads around to create the proper length for the skirt.
A tape measure is essential as you figure out the length of threads and fibers for the cording and skirt. Click here to see all our rulers and tape measures.
You need both sharps and tapestry needles. Click here to see all our needles.
Threads can be as varied as you can find. Really nothing is off limits. Have fun and experiment.
Tassel moulds are usually turned wood with a hole running through them.
Beads and embellishments such as shells and charms can be added to enhance the tassel’s appearance.
Glue is used to coat the tassel mould and to make minor attachments.
Parts of the Tassel
No matter how intricate a tassel may be, it really only has three parts – The cord, the mould, and the skirt.
The cord is used to hang the tassel. It is often the last thing to be completed so that the designer can get the right sense of color, size, and length.
The mould is the “middle” of the tassel. It often is wrapped around a mould and then covered with fibers or painted.
The skirt is usually some type of fringe that hangs down from the mould. It could be made from individual threads that are cut and trimmed. Or it can have a bullion skirt, which is like cording that twists back on itself, so there is not a cut edge.
Sometimes the tassel will also have a ruff, which is really just a way to cover up the spot where the skirt or the cord is attached to the mould.
Making a Tassel
For most of us, we are creating tassels to help finish off a project. Therefore, we don’t want the tassel to be so elaborate that it overshadows the piece. A soft tassel is a good option. This tassel requires few tools and it does not use a mould. Here are the basic instructions.
Cord: You will need to make the cord first because it is tied into the skirt. So determine what size and colors you want your cord to be and make the cord so that it is about an inch longer than you want the finished length to be. When you are done creating the cord, fold it in half and knot the ends together. Keep your knot close to the end of the cord.
Skirt: Determine how long you want your tassel to be. Using whatever method you have available (warping post, cardboard, or a wrapping frame) wind your thread around the frame so that it is twice the length of your finished tassel. If you want a 5″ tassel, then use a 10″ board. Remember that your tassel will actually be twice as thick as the wrapping since you will be cutting it and then folding it in half. Don’t skimp on the amount of thread in your tassel.
Construction: Once you have wrapped the thread to the size you desire carefully slide it off the frame and lay it on the table. Lay a length of strong polyester thread underneath the threads, running across the middle of the threads. Next, place the knotted end of the cord along one side of the threads so the knot is just left of center.
Draw the polyester thread together like you were starting a knot. Be sure that you cover the knotted cord. Pull the skirt together, check to be sure you have even tension and that it wraps around the cord. Make sure you have a good solid knot and that the skirt threads are tight. Cut the looped ends of the skirt. Hold the tassel by the cord and comb out the skirt so that it is evenly spaced and the end of the cord is not seen.
Once you have the skirt the way you want it, you are ready to wrap it. The wrap is sometimes known as a Whip Knot or the Sailmaker’s Knot.
- Step 1. Make a loop out of the thread you are going to wrap with. You want the loop to be towards the bottom of the ornament. You want the loop just a longer than the length of cord you will be wrapping (less than a 1/2″). Leave a 2 or 3 inch tail at the beginning of the loop. You will start wrapping at the bottom of the loop whatever distance you want your wrapping to be long, say 1/2 inch for our ornament.
- Step 2. Wrap the thread around the cording, not really tight, but snug. You don’t want the wrapping to overlap, but lay neatly above the previous round. When you get to the yo-yo, you want to run the end of the wrapping thread through the loop.
- Step 3. Gently pull on the tail and the loop will be pulled through the wrapping and bring the end of the thread with it. Do not over pull or the loop will come out the bottom. You want to stop pulling so that the loop and the end of the thread are buried under the wrapped part. (the circle inset shows how that looks if we could see it.) Cut both ends of the wrapping thread close to the wrap.
Now you can fluff the skirt out and trim it as needed.
Finishing a Cord End into a Tassel
Sometimes you can use this tassel wrap to finish off your project trim. You may have a Christmas ornament where the outer edge is a continuous piece of cord. Make the cord twice as long as the length you desire plus four inches. This includes the height of the hanger, around the ornament and the length of the tassel.
Determine how long you want the hanger cord to be. Take the cord and fold it in half. About a half inch down from where you want the hanger to stop make a figure eight knot as shown below. You could also use a large bead or stone instead of the knot.
Glue and/or tack the cording along the sides of the ornament until it meets at the bottom of the ornament. You could finish with a knot or a bead here also. However, this is a good place to do a whip stitch around the cording. Make your wrapping as close to the ornament base as possible. Once you have it wrapped, cut the cords and let them unravel. Trim the tassel to the length desired.
There are small pre-made tassels that you can add to your projects. They are not as personal, and certainly not as fun to create, but they do come in handy if you run out of time!
Click here for simple tassel finishing instructions »
We hope this guide makes your stitching easier and more enjoyable!
For those interested in using this article or others published by Nordic Needle, Inc., please use this copy when referencing the information:
“The following article was published by Nordic Needle in their weekly e-mail newsletter. Permission was granted to share this article in (name of your publication). For information on subscribing to their newsletter, visit www.nordicneedle.com.”