When presented with a tatting diagram, many tatters will question where the pattern should start. Recently more tatting designers are adding arrows or other marks to indicate the start of the pattern. Without that clue the pattern must be first studied.
Begin by seeing if the pattern has both rings and chains. If so, you know at once that you require are least one shuttle/needle and a ball thread (or two shuttles.) If there are only rings, then it is all one shuttle work or true rings worked on the needle. [Note: true rings are those needle tatted rings which close automatically when drawn up. They are not self-closing mock rings as most needle tatted rings are.]
Next determine if the pattern uses beads. If the beads are on both the rings and chain, you need to load beads on both threads. Needle tatters need only load beads on the ball thread. Of course, there are other ways to add beads to the tatting without loading the beads first.
Now you are ready to pick the starting point. In round, oval, square or rectangular designs, the pattern most often starts in the center and we tat outward to the edge. Edgings usually start at one side and work to the right directly or forming motifs or points as it is tatted. I arrange the pattern or the diagram in what seems to be the most efficient place to start and the direction that is the easiest to work. And go from there.
Vintage edging by Emmy Liebert with tatted points.
Note that the edging begins with a chain. When the direction are modernized, this chain is not necessary as the points move from one to the next through a split ring.
You do not have to start where the directions say. Remember that older patterns also told us many times to cut and tie when it was completely unnecessary. Tatters today strive to avoid that now whenever possible by starting with a starter picot, or using a mock picot to climb out into a split ring or chain to advance to the next row or round.
Center ring, mock picot, split ring.
When looking at a pattern, you see a line that shows which way the tatting is headed, usually left to right. We call this the line of progression. When referring to the construction of a piece, we most often assume that the rings are ABOVE the line of progression and the chains are BELOW the line of progression. Most patterns begin with a ring.
If your pattern has a straight edge but also has a variation at the corner, it is wise to start at that corner. By starting there you know where you are in the directions and which way you are headed. Also the rings would usually be above the line of progression and the chains were below.
The pattern above is from the Emmy Liebert book whose link you will find below on the Free Tatting Books Online Page