History of Lace

There are several sources at this time which tell us that poor children were taught lacemaking in an attempt to make them self supporting and in England their teacher was paid 2 pence for each child per week. A teacher would hold classes in a room of her cottage while she also supervised the more proficient in the production of saleable lace. In 1699 a child of six or seven could earn 1 shilling and 8 pence a week and a good adult 6 shillings and 6 pence.

In Adelaide a few years ago, two classes of children were taught lacemaking and their work was entered in an international children's competition in France. They won the first and second places - the boys came first and the girls second!

One way of pricing the lace in later centuries was by covering the lace worked with coins but these were usually paid to the middleman who only passed on a small amount to the lacemaker. The lace dealers were the people who made the most money from lace and many of them insisted that the lacemakers bought their patterns and thread from them and when the lace had been made, the dealer would buy it paying with tokens which could only be spent at the dealers own store giving him a nice profit from all sides of the industry.

A working day at this time would have been from 6 am through to 7 or 8 pm and after dark, 4 lacemakers would be sat around a small table on which one candle would be burning. Between each lacemaker and the candle, a glass flask of water would magnify the light from the candle and focus it onto the lace pillow to illuminate a tiny part of the work. On fine summer days groups of women would work outside but on winter days it was a different matter. Open fires were not allowed because the smoke from them would discolour and dirty the lace, so clay or metal pots filled with hot coals would be positioned under the women's skirts to keep them warm. Unfortunately these hot coals could also set fire to the lacemakers clothing. Another way of keeping warm was to work in a room above a barn so that the warmth from the animals below heated the working room above.

The period of greatest prosperity was during the Napoleonic wars, when no foreign lace was being imported and exports to America were being restored after the War of Independence. Both men and women made lace and earned up to 25 shillings a week and in one village, 800 people out of a total population of 1,250 were involved in lacemaking. There was a decline in the second half of the 19th Century when machines took over and by 1862 a child of six earned 4 pence per week, paying half of it for schooling, while a girl of fifteen earned only 1 shilling per week for working twelve to fifteen hours a day.

Smuggling of lace was always a problem for the authorities and it was amazing the lengths people would go to indulge their passion for lace. It came into countries in coffins, wrapped around the corpses of expatriates, including an Archbishop of Westminster. In some cases, only the head, hands and feet of the deceased would be found in the coffin, the rest of the body had been discarded to make room for more lace. Some was wound around small pet dogs, which were swaddled in fur wraps in attempts to avoid detection. Another method was to hollow out loaves of bread and yet another was to bring it into the country with the smuggled brandy by the 'Gentlemen'. Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem called 'The Gentlemen, in which he mentioned 'Brandy for the Parson, Baccy for the clerk, Laces for a Lady, Letters for a spy', in the second verse and 'French dolls trimmed with Valenciennes lace' in the third. Penalties for smuggling were very heavy but the commodity was so valuable that many thought the risk well worth taking, even milady would smuggle lace into the country hidden in her muff.

Over the centuries, bodies on the battlefields of Europe were searched in the hope that valuable lace would be found and one wit suggested that the officers went into battle wearing lace because they wouldn't be seen dead without it.

The classic period for both bobbin and needle lace was the 18th century when thread was at its finest and the techniques were fully developed. Needlelace tended to be rather stiff in texture with the edges padded with horsehair, so with fashion demanding a soft, draped look, it wasn't long before it began to fall from favour.
Towards the end of the century bobbinlace began to come into its heyday but needle lace producers fought back by sewing their laces onto a light mesh and sometimes combined needle lace and bobbinlace onto the one background fabric. Cotton threads were beginning to replace the stiffer linen threads and softer laces were possible. By 1764, background net could be made on a machine and the revolution at the end of the 18th Century brought an end to the over indulgent era in France with the lacemaking industry suffering in the extreme. Many of the lacemakers went to the guillotine because of their connections with the aristocrats. Fashions had also changed and the lace industry had the bottom fall out of its market when the new lacemaking machines in the early part of the 19th centry meant that lace could be produced at a much lower cost.

Lace had a brief revival with the new industrial rich who enjoyed the feel and appearance of genuine hand made lace and Queen Victoria helped, too, when she chose Honiton lace for her wedding dress and the royal christening robe being world famous. Many, many workers would have been employed in the making of these garments.
Designers of the 19th century began to look back at the sumptuous fashions of earlier centuries but by this time there were very few skilled workers left and so lace schools were reopened for training new ones. In a reversal of history, French lacemakers were encouraged to go to Burano near Venice to revive the needlelace industry there, but unfortunately the thread produced at this time was no where near as fine as that produced in earlier times and even today with all our technology the finest thread I have found is approximately twice as thick as that available at the height of the lace making era. When you consider that the finer thread was all handspun in a dark damp cellar so that it would remain white and fine, it is no wonder that many women were blind before they were 30.

There was once a number of lacemaking districts in England but there were only two of any importance: Honiton and the East Midlands. In the latter, Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire were the main lacemaking counties along with the adjoining borders of Cambridgeshire, Hertfordshire, Berkshire and Oxfordshire with many families specialising in one or two patterns. This meant that instead of concentrating on making unfamiliar patterns, the lacemaker could produce much more lace by working automatically on a design with which she was thoroughly familiar.
Honiton lacemaking began as a cottage industry and during the 17th, 18th and 19th Centuries, provided a meagre livelihood for many thousands of workers, not only in and around Honiton, but over large parts of Devon and probably Somerset, too. The lace was sent to London by coach and as the coach left from Honiton any lace on board was called Honiton when, in fact, it could have been from anywhere around that district.

Social, industrial and economic changes brought about its gradual decline and final collapse as a commercial product during the early years of the 20th Century but, due to the far sightedness of the Devon County Council Education Committee, this beautiful old craft was taught, first in schools, and then at adult education classes and courses which continue today.
This continuity of teaching has ensured the survival of many of the old techniques that in some of our other traditional bobbin laces were lost when lacemaking went into eclipse and are only slowly being rediscovered.

Bobbins were originally made of birds' bones and this is the origin of the alternate name for bobbin lace which is bone lace although some people cite fish bones being used in place of pins for this name. Many bobbins were a record of the lacemaker's family history, with births, deaths and marriages being recorded on the shaft of the bobbin. In the 19th Century in England a bundle of bobbins was found with the message 'with love from Charles' inscribed upon them - he must have been quite a lad in his day ! Some bobbins recorded executions and at a public hanging, a huge crowd would gather while some lacemakers would pass the time away, until the condemned was brought out to meet his or her fate, by sitting and continuing with their work as traveling salesmen, like peddlers and probably gypsies, wandered around selling their wares including lace bobbins. Small children would be told that if the behaved themselves then they too would be taken to see the execution.
Other bobbins would be inscribed with messages like 'kiss me quick before my mother comes' or 'if I like boys that is nothing to no one' while yet another had 'I hate men' on it, others, bible texts. I own quite a few inscribed bobbins on my lace pillows including one with the saying ' the things children wear out faster than shoes are parents'.Some of my bobbins I also have bobbins commemorating the dates of my daughters' births and others with small Formula 1 cars painted on them.

In order to make the time pass more quickly the workers would sing songs or 'tells' as they were called. 'Jack be nimble, Jack be quick' is one and 'I had a little nutting tree' another. Others would be counting down from 20 or so and each time a pin was inserted in the work, the number would go down one. Sometimes the workers would have to work so many pins before they could speak or lift their eyes up from the pillow and anyone caught out doing this would have to start all over again. The teachers and supervisors encouraged these songs because they made the children and women work faster.
The beads on the ends of the bobbins are called spangles and are found mainly on the English bobbins whilst the continental bobbins usually have a bulbous end on them instead, serving same purpose as the beads in adding a weight to tension the thread. Sometimes special beads were used to ward off the evil eye or to guard against making mistakes, or even to ease arthritic hands much as some people use copper bracelets today. The circle of beads would also stop the bobbins from rolling all over the pillow during the working of the lace.

Nottingham has become world famous for its lace which was made on frames and in a reversal of history, this type of lace was taken to the continent by a group of lacemakers who became known as the Calais Lacemakers.

Lace History Page 3