Wednesday, 23 June 2021

Lace ruffs in the late 16th century


By the 1580s lace ruffs began to get wider as well as deeper. They also began to become slightly flatter and probably more comfortable to wear, although they were obviously worn for display not comfort. Paintings of the time also show some being left open at the front rather than forming a complete circle around the neck. These wider ruffs often required some support under them to keep them in place as even strong starching was not enough to keep them displayed properly. The supports could be underproppers, supportases or rebatos (but that will be the subject of a future blog as there is so much to say about them!) or even a small plain ruff under the larger one. Ruffs made mainly of lace also became popular towards the end of the 16th century. Until then lace had tended to be used as an edging attached to a fine linen ruff (see my previous blogs about ruffs on 19 May and 31 March). The image shows part of a miniature of Queen Elizabeth I by Nicholas Hilliard in the V&A collection. The ruff is made of lace and seems to include spangles or jewels around the edge that are also attached to her hair and ear, it must have looked spectacular in candlelight.

Wednesday, 16 June 2021

Hanging lace bobbins celebrating executions


These bobbins are known as hanging bobbins but they don’t just hang on the pillow like other bobbins they actually celebrate hangings of those convicted of murder. Seven executions are commemorated in six hanging bobbins, most were public hangings at Bedford Goal although one took place at Newgate Prison. Those in the image record the hangings of William Worsley in 1868 and William Bull in 1871. William Worsley’s was the last public execution carried out in Bedford. He and Levi Welch were tried for the murder of William Bradbury in Luton, but Welch turned king’s evidence and said Worsley had inflicted the fatal blow. Worsley was hung and Welch was given 14 years penal servitude for stealing from Bradbury. However he appealed on the basis that anyone giving information leading to the conviction of the murderer was entitled to a free pardon and he was released 3 months later. William Bull’s execution took place in private at Bedford but still attracted a large crowd to the town. Bull, a 21 year old labourer, had murdered Sarah Marshall, a poor, simple old woman, in a motiveless drunken rage in her home, and his execution was popular with the local people. The other four hanging bobbins record the executions of Matthias and William Lilley in 1829 for the attempted murder of a gamekeeper; Sarah Dazeley in 1843 for poisoning her husband; Joseph Castle in 1860 for murdering his wife; and Franz Muller in 1864 for the first murder on a railway train.

Wednesday, 9 June 2021

Repeat pattern design in lace


Researching some lace designs from the archive I’ve been interested to see how the pattern is developed and how the various elements fit with one another. Most designers use a grid to help in positioning the units within the pattern. The pattern in the image above requires several gridlines for the main design and the border that runs around it. Interestingly although the border has been designed to accommodate a corner the central design hasn’t and just seems to end at the edge. In the border, the main motif in the corner block is exactly the same as those in the rest of the border but the edgings have been reworked to form a corner. It seems quite a simple and elegant way to make a border design. According to the late 19th century designer Lewis F Day the simpler the border the better because it should frame the main design without dominating it, just as this one does. In contrast, the main floral design has been cleverly laid out to allow linear repeats with no need for drops but it does not seem to lie well against the border. Perhaps this piece is still a work in progress and the designer made adjustments to it for the final version. I doubt it though as it looks quite resolved in other ways. Perhaps the border and main design are not meant to work together but are two separate designs, one for an all over pattern and the other for a border. We will probably never know but speculating is part of the fun!


Thursday, 3 June 2021

Lace smuggling


Smuggling French and Belgian lace into England was a profitable venture in the 18th century. The favourite method was in a coffin either replacing the body with lace or tucking lace around the body. When Bishop Atterbury died in France in February 1732 his body was returned to England for burial in Westminster Abbey, where the High Sheriff of Westminster found £6000 worth of French lace concealed in the coffin. Customs Officers soon became wise to the practice and all coffins coming from mainland Europe were opened as a matter of course resulting in a sharp decrease in the number of British ‘deaths’ on the Continent. The relatives of the Duke of Devonshire who died in France in October 1764 were not amused when his coffin was opened and the body poked with a stick to ensure it wasn’t a bundle of lace. Coffins were not the only hiding places however, on one occasion a loaf of bread was found to contain £200 of lace, and books, bottles and babies wrapped in lace were also used for smuggling. The loss of customs duties was only one reason for the smuggling, another was the desire of English lacemakers to exclude continental lace from their home market. In 1764 George III ordered that no foreign lace was to be worn at his sister’s marriage that year and in the following year English lacemakers petitioned parliament to demand the prohibition of foreign goods. However, French and Belgian lace was so desirable that these measures had little effect on the smuggling trade.

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Lace antimacassars


The images of these lace antimacassars come from a furnishing catalogue dated 1933-34. Antimacassars were small mats laid over the back of easy chairs in the 19 century to protect the fabric of the chair from macassar oil which was used by men as a hair dressing. However they seem to have been originally used in the 18 century to protect furniture from wig powder. They were clearly still being sold in the 1930s to prevent stains from hair products and grease rather than wig powder or macassar oil. The earliest mats were made to match the furnishing fabric but by the 19 century the fashion was to have decorative mats that contrasted with the fabric of the chair and this is the style of these 1930s designs.

I would have thought that white lace antimacassars would have become dirty fairly quickly but perhaps that was part of their purpose, to show how clean the house was kept as they would have required frequent laundering. The antimacassars in my catalogue were sold by the dozen. Unfortunately there are no prices but the buyer received an assortment of three designs, presumably four of each pattern to allow for the regular washing required. This suggests they were aimed at a home with four easy chairs whose owner was not particularly concerned about the design, as only one representative design is given for each set – perhaps their function was more important than their appearance. They were quite large with the rose design at the top being 24 by 36 inches and the floral one with the leaves measuring 18 by 27 inches. I hope that they were easy to wash and iron for the sake of the poor laundress.

Wednesday, 19 May 2021

Starching and shaping detachable ruffs


The origin of the ruff as it developed from a frill at the edge of neckwear to a deep starched figure of eight ruff-band are described in my blog post of 31 March. Those ruffs were all attached to a smock or partlet but from the 1570s onwards there was a trend for ruffs to become detachable. This made them easier to launder and starch and starching houses grew up where ruffs could be sent to be washed, starched and set. Setting, to give the ruff its figure of eight appearance, was carried out using long cylindrical ‘putting sticks’ or a ‘setting stick’ which was a forked device like a goffering iron.

This engraving of the processes involved in caring for detached ruffs shows the details of the process but also satirises the fashion as all the participants are monkeys, apeing this bizarre new fashion. The image reveals that the ruff was washed then covered in starch and dried. After that it was lightly dampened before ironing and setting. The monkey in the picture is setting the ruff over a form which can be rotated as she works. Her assistant is heating the putting sticks for her before she uses them to make the sets. This was skilled work as the laundress had to make sure the sets were all of an equal size. Starching was also a skilled job especially when coloured starches were used as they were prone to streak. The starch was generally made from grains such as wheat or bran or even from roots and could be coloured white, or pale shades of yellow, red, blue or purple. Yellow in particular was popular and was made using saffron. However all these fine preparations were of little use if the wearer went out in the rain resulting in the beautifully starched and shaped linen collapsing in a limp mess.

Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Lace designing

Now I’ve finished my MeToo mat I’m designing another one in the series. I’m still not quite sure what wording to use on this one as it has to be something fairly short to fit in the inner circle of the mat but pithy enough to convey a message. However, I’ve decided to design the outer circle of the mat first and hope that while doing that I will make a decision about the alternatives I’m mulling over for the text. I find that a large part of the design process is fairly meditative once the initial decisions have been made, especially with a repeat pattern, so I’m hoping the right wording will become obvious as I progress. I’ve decided to design the new mat in the same tape lace style I used for the last mat as I enjoyed working it and would like to do more using that technique. The design I’m working on is a repeat motif around the edge of the mat. I need six repeats to complete the circle and rather than being traditional like the last one this one includes a heart design with an asymmetrical trail beside it. Again I think I will incorporate a ninepin edge in the design but it won’t encircle the entire mat. I’m only at the sketching phase at the moment so no decisions are final but I do feel it’s coming together.