Some believe that tatting may have developed from netting and decorative ropework as sailors and fishers would put together motifs for girlfriends and wives at home. Decorative ropework employed on ships includes techniques (esp. coxcombing) that show striking similarity with tatting. A good description of this can be found in Knots, Splices and Fancywork.
Some believe tatting originated over 200 years ago, often citing shuttles seen in eighteenth century paintings of women such as
A close inspection of those paintings shows that the shuttles in question are too large to be tatting shuttles, and that they are actually knotting shuttles. There is no documentation, nor any examples of tatted lace, that date prior to 1800.
All of the available evidence shows that tatting originated in the early 19th century.
As most fashion magazines, and home economics magazines from the first half of the 20th century attest, tatting had a substantial following. When fashion included feminine touches such as lace collars and cuffs, and inexpensive yet nice baby shower gifts were needed, this creative art flourished. As the fashion moved to a more modern look and technology made lace an easy and inexpensive commodity to purchase, hand-made lace began to decline.
In the early '90s two mailing lists devoted to tatting were started, being eTatters(1993), now known as InTatters, and TatChat(1995). The majority of members had been taught by grandparents or were self-taught. The two groups worked together to promote the art of tatting and as a result the craft has seen a resurgence in interest around the world in recent years.