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“Reverse work” and “turn work” are techniques in tatting that are so simple that they usually get little to no explanation. Yet when I was learning to tat, these techniques confused me at times, and I still feel there is more to these seemingly simple tricks.


All right, let’s start with the basics. To “reverse work,” you turn whatever you are tatting upside down. Then continue tatting in the new direction. That’s it. If you’d like to view this in action, watch my video on combining rings and chains. Patterns abbreviate reverse work as RW.

To “turn work,” you simply turn your tatting over from left to right like turning a page in a book. Same deal as the reverse work, except in a horizontal instead of vertical direction. You will see this in patterns as TW or “turn.”

The concepts are simple enough, but putting them into practice can sometimes be a bit confusing. This is mostly because not all patterns tell you when to RW or TW, and you have to know when to apply the concepts. So let’s talk some theory.


  1. Tatting is always made in a clockwise direction. That is, the whole project, as well as individual sections within a larger project.
  2. Tatting stitches have a natural curve to them. Notice that the top of each double stitch is a bit wider than the bottom, and that when you bunch up a bunch of them next to each other the bottoms curve in together.
  3. Each ring or chain you tat will follow the direction of the stitches, but that is not always clockwise.

So unless you only want to tat in circles—that is, rings—you’ll have to make those curves go which way you want them to go.


Take this pattern as an example. R 3-3-3-3-12. Ch 6-6. R 12-6-6. Try it with me, and pay attention to the curve of the stitches. As I tat the first ring, the stitches curve clockwise. Reverse Work Ring 1Then I close the ring and get ready to make the chain. If I continue the chain at the base of the ring, Reverse Work Ring and Chain the stitches will follow the curve of the ring, clockwise, but when I turn the ring upright the stitches go off to the left, counterclockwise. Reverse Work Ring and Chain 2That’s not what I want. I want the chain to go toward the right.

To fix this, when I finish the ring I will turn it upside down and then make my chain. Now I have reversed the ring so the bottom is up and the back of the stitches are facing me. Reverse Work Ring BacksideWhen I continue tatting the chain in a clockwise direction, I am making the front of the chain stitches to align with the back of the ring stitches. Reverse Work Ring and Chain Right Side
When I then turn the ring the normal way up, the the back of the chain stitches will be on the same side as the front of the ring stitches, and the chain is going to the right.Reverse Work Ring and Chain Right SideThis is what I want. The ring and chain are both moving toward a clockwise direction.

To finish the pattern above, I’ll make one more ring. At the end of the chain I will again RW so the second ring is facing the same direction as the first one.Reverse Work Two Rings and ChainThere you have it. Turn work is the same thing as reverse work, except flipping horizontally.

In this pattern the rings and chain curve in different directions, so we needed to reverse that curve between each ring and chain. This is completely normal. You will almost always RW when you switch between rings and chains.

Some patterns will create interesting design elements by reversing work in unexpected places, or not reversing work where you normally would.


Since the point of RW or TW is to change the direction that the stitches curve, look for places in patterns when you want the curve to go a direction it naturally wouldn’t. This will usually be between rings and chains, but another common place is between separate elements of a design.

When you finish one section of a pattern, look closely at how the next one will connect. If the pattern is written or abbreviated, try drawing it out as a diagram to get a better visual idea of where each part will lay. If the pattern is already diagrammed, trace the order you will make each bit with your finger. Each place you pause to turn your finger (or pencil) is a likely place to reverse or turn your work.


That is the question. Whether you will either reverse or turn the work in any given spot is not all that complicated, for two reasons.

  1. It doesn’t really matter most of the time.
  2. When it does matter, it will be specified in the instructions.

Hunh? Doesn’t it matter? Well, yes and no. There are times when it will matter to make the pattern look right. If you turn it and the curve is going the wrong way, backup and try reversing instead. Also, if the pattern makes a point of emphasizing one or the other, then there is usually a design reason.


However, the two terms have long been used interchangeably, so what one designer means by “turn” is often what another will mean by “reverse.” This is especially true in vintage patterns, as there was no distinction between the two until around the middle of the 20th century.

Even today, though many modern designers try to differentiate between them, some do not, so it is not always possible to tell in a casual reading of a pattern which term is really meant.

There is one more factor to muddle things up. In this picture of closing a ring, notice that the ring is more or less upside down.

Reverse Work Closing RingWhen finishing a ring, some tatters immediately turn it upright, give it a final tug, and consider that the “end position,” while some tatters call the upside down position the “end” because that is the way the ring looks when they finish closing it.

Which way is the “end?” If having the thread coming out of the top is the final position of the ring, then you don’t need to turn it upside down to flip the stitches; you only need to turn it over sideways. But if the thread coming out of the bottom of the ring is the end, then flipping it vertically will both change the direction and the side the stitches are facing.

So, when an author is writing a pattern, their point of view will make a difference in the directions they give. Since they might “finish” their rings in a different direction than you do, when they indicate “reverse,” you might need to “turn,” and vice versa.


If all of this sounds complicated, take heart that putting this into practice is not as difficult as it seems. If you get stuck and are not sure whether to flip the stitches over, or which way to go, just try one out and see how if it works. You’ll be able to tell after just a few stitches if it is turning in the right direction.

With a little experience, all of this will become easier to sort out. Though I sometimes still have to pause and figure my way through a pattern, it is much easier after years of developing a better understanding of what I am looking for. I hope this exploration will dramatically shorten the process for you.


This post is part of a series of Absolute Beginner Tatting Lessons. Go back to the previous lesson, Starting with Two Threads and Hiding Ends Under Picots, or jump ahead to the next lesson, Reading Patterns and Making Projects, Part 2.

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