This image shows pages from Lester’s exercise book of designs in the Cecil Higgins collection. He was designing point ground lace in the early 1850s but after visiting the Great Exhibition, and in particular seeing that Honiton lace was not only a more free style of design but also was held in higher regard and fetched a higher price, he began designing Bedfordshire lace in a freer style using plaits to join the elements rather than grounds, which he used as filling stitches instead.
The designs often feature realistic plant forms and animals and the source of these may have been books of natural history, illustrated periodicals or Owen Jones’ The Grammar of Ornament which was used as a teaching aid at art schools. Such realistic natural designs were popular at the time and feature for example in Honiton and Brussels lace as well as other textiles. In the 1862 International Exhibition Thomas Lester was awarded a medal for his new type of lace, which he called ‘Bedfordshire white fancy lace’. He died in 1867 but the Lester family continued their lace manufacturing business in Bedford until 1905 and won medals in several exhibitions including the one in Chicago in 1893. However, the success of machine lace reduced their business considerably, particularly following the 1860s when the Levers lace machine became capable of producing imitation Bedfordshire (Maltese) lace, and they diversified into art needlework and Berlin work as well as continuing to sell ‘real lace’.