By Anne Davie
A lace altar frontal edging, during its elaboration by Anne in 2010
Many thanks to Anne Davie for contributing this fascinating insight into the world of lace making, and its history. The photo above gives some insight into the intricacy and complexity of the craft. It depicts the preparation of a lace altar frontal made by Anne for St. Pius X Church. No fewer than 150 bobbins were involved.
Let's start with a story:
Once upon a time, in the city of Bruges, lived a young girl named Serena. Her mother was dying, and Serena prayed for a miracle that would help her to provide comforts for the poor woman. As she prayed a spider's web, perfect in construction, fell into her apron and she looked on this as a gift from the angels. Being a skilled needlewoman she took her threads and tried to copy the delicate web, but the threads tangled and she sat wondering how to manage them. Her lover, on hearing of the problem, suggested that she tied each thread onto a separate twig; Serena then found that she was able to twist and weave the threads into a beautiful copy of the web. From this small beginning grew the craft of bobbin lacemaking for which Bruges is famous.
What is lace?
It is a textile based on a pattern of holes produced by the manipulation of threads thereby establishing that it is a textile rather than a continuous substance like paper; that it has a predetermined design of holes, rather than random or incidental ones and that the holes are produced by working the threads rather than by processes such as punching or cutting.
When we talk about lace, there are two main types – bobbin lace and needle-made lace.
There is evidence of the production of macramé and braids where threads have been wound onto some sort of bobbins to aid production going back at least 2000 years. Macramé fringing has been found on Assyrian tunics on sandstone rocks above Nineveh and drawn-work on the burial clothes of Egyptian mummies.
The next evidence for lace is in the 16th Century; if you look at portraits by Holbein and others you can often see some decoration round the neckline. Lace was certainly being made on the Continent as is proved by the publication of pattern books in 1536, and from then on its development was dictated by fashion. For some reason lower classes could wear bobbin lace but needle laces were considered superior so they could be worn only by the upper classes.
It seems that the best lace (needle made, mind) came from Italy, reflecting their obsession with fashion, and the women who made it could boost their income quite handsomely. Venice was a leading centre but other Italian centres were Milan, Genoa, Sicily and Lucca. Lace was also being made in Flanders and in France but it seems that the French lace was inferior to that from Flanders so there was a series of edicts prohibiting the importation of foreign lace but the ingenuity of smugglers was prodigious. English monarchs tried to protect local production in a similar way. Lace was smuggled in barrels, loaves of bread and even in coffins. Jack Rattenbury tells that "on one occasion I had a goose on board, which the Master who overhauled the vessel was very desirous of buying; but I was too well aware of the value of the stuffing to part with it, for instead of onions and sage, it consisted of fine laces."
Daphne du Maurier's Jamaica Inn features smuggling and there is a verse in Puck of Pook's Hill by Kipling:
Five and twenty ponies
Trotting through the dark –
Brandy for the Parson,
'Baccy for the Clerk;
Laces for a Lady; letters for a spy,
And watch the wall, my darling, while the Gentlemen go by!
This was the time when lace was considered as valuable as jewellery, so much so that it was not uncommon for a lace edging to be unpicked from one garment and sewn on another.
Lacemaking in England was never so widespread – it is not even very clear how the art arrived here. There were two main centres, the Midlands where the lace resembled continuous laces of Flanders, and the South-west round Honiton, where the speciality was free or pieced lace – I will explain these terms later – and that was more like Brussels lace.
In the 19th century lace was not so important in fashion – Queen Victoria was persuaded to commission Honiton lace for her wedding dress and other lace for her trousseau. The other problem was the development of machinery, initially to make net onto which lace could be attached, but soon machine made lace produced in Nottingham and the surrounding area was in the ascendant. Somehow hand made lace continued to be produced commercially until the 1930's.
An article in The Embroidress in 1927 said:
“There is, perhaps, no industry which has suffered so much from the eager desire to substitute machine for hand-made methods as that of lacemaking, and the wonder is that there are any lace workers left to carry on what remains of their precious traditions in the face of such overwhelming competition and almost complete indifference on the part of the public. But there is a secret behind their activity which only those who have experienced the absorbing interest of lacemaking can understand. It is not merely an occupation; it is a need which must be satisfied.”
In 1937 H E Bates wrote:
“It is simply indifference which is killing the art of making lace on pillows… This is one of mankind's oldest tricks: indifference to a thing while it possesses it, then a great howling and crying out for it when the thing has gone. So with lace. In fifty years, unless something remarkable happens, lace making on pillows will be a memory.”
Now let’s talk about making lace.
Needlemade lace developed from drawn thread work, through cutwork until the spaces were filled with arrangements of buttonhole stitches.
Bobbin lace needs a little more equipment - a pillow, traditionally stuffed with straw, either a dome on a flat base or a bolster shape, though modern ones are often made of Styrofoam; bobbins, patterns, pins and thread.
Thread was initially linen which got increasingly fine which of course dictated the quality of the lace. In the early years of lacemaking the workers would have had to sit in a rather damp atmosphere as dry linen thread is very brittle. And lighting would have been pretty poor too…
Cotton thread developed in the 19th century; silk was also used.
The pattern was usually on parchment, with the pin holes pricked in and a few details drawn onto indicate features of the pattern: these are known as prickings. There is a large range of designs and each area of production developed different characteristics, the main differences being continuous lace and free lace. The best known free lace is Honiton where individual motifs are linked together by lace made net or later stitched onto machine made net.
Continuous lace would have been used for edgings.
There are other fabrics which can be classed under the general heading of "lace": tatting, crochet, embroidery on net, knitted lace.
Anne ends her fascinating introduction to the subject of lace making, by reflecting on some of the perils of the craft in this prayer:
From breaking threads and bending pins
Brittle parchments, unmarked prickings
Lumpy pillows, half hitches that run
And people who say "Is that ALL you have done?"
Good Lord deliver us.