A tassel is a finishing feature in fabric and clothing decoration. It is a universal ornament that is seen in varying versions in many cultures around the globe.
In the Hebrew Bible, the Lord spoke to Moses instructing him to tell the Israelites to make tassels (modern Hebrew tzitzit) on the corners of their garments, to help them to remember all the commandments of the Lord and to keep them (Numbers 15:37-40), and as a sign of holiness. The religious Hebrew tassel, however, bears little resemblance to the decorative one which eventually became popular in Europe, especially France.
In the West, tassels were originally a series of windings of thread or string around a suspending string until the desired curvature was attained. Decades later, turned wooden moulds, which were either covered in simple wrappings or much more elaborate coverings called "satinings", were used. This involved an intricate binding of bands of filament silk vertically around the mould by means of an internal "lacing" in the bore of the mould.
These constructions were varied and augmented with extensive ornamentations that were each assigned an idiosyncratic term by their French practitioners. In France[when?] those practitioners were called "Passementiers", and an apprenticeship of seven years was required to become a master in one of the subdivisions of the guild. The French widely exported their very artistic work, and at such low prices that no other nation developed a mature "trimmings" industry. Tassels and their associated forms changed style throughout the years, from the small and casual of Renaissance designs, through the medium sizes and more staid designs of the Empire period, and to the Victorian Era with the largest and most elaborate. Some of these designs are returning today from the European and American artisans who may charge a thousand dollars for a single hand-made tassel.
Tassels (also called tufts) were traditionally worn by Oxford and Cambridge University undergraduates on their caps, those wearing gold tassels were those who had paid for the status of "gentleman-commoner", thus receiving increased social prestige and more luxurious accommodation than ordinary commoners who wore plain black tassels on their caps. Today, only the Chancellor of Oxford wears a gold tassel.
In the Middle East, tassels were worn as talismans, especially on headwear. In Egypt, Mesopotamia, and throughout the Arab world tassels were worn by children on hoods or caps to protect them from malevolent spirits and ward off demons.
In the US, tassels, or liripipes, are also found on mortarboards during university graduation ceremonies and possibly upon the shoes of the graduates at the ceremony. Near the conclusion of the graduation ceremony, the tassel that hangs from the graduate's mortarboard is moved from the right to the left. Typically, the entire graduating class does this in unison.
A tassel is made by binding or otherwise gathered threads from which at one end protrudes a cord on which the tassel is hung, and which may have loose, dangling threads at the other end. Tassels are normally decorative elements, and as such one often finds them attached, usually along the bottom hem, to garments, curtains, pasties covering the nipples of burlesque performers, or other hangings.
A tassel is primarily an ornament, and was at first the casual termination of a cord to prevent unraveling with a knot. As time went on, various peoples developed variations on this, until by the 16th century in France the first Guild of Passementiers was created and documented the art of passementerie. The tassel was its primary expression, but it also included fringes (applied, as opposed to integral), ornamental cords, galloons, pompons, rosettes, and gimps as other forms. Tassels, pompons, and rosettes are point ornaments; the others are linear ornaments.
- Guide to Passementerie. Scalamandre Silks. New York.
- Boudet, Pierre and Bernard Gomon, La Passementerie, Dessain et Tolra, 1981. ISBN 978-2-249-25108-5.
- Pegler, Martin, The Dictionary of Interior Design, Fairchild Publications, 1983. ASIN B0006ECV48.