Wednesday 25 November 2020

Thomas Lester and Bedfordshire lace

Thomas Lester was a nineteenth century Bedfordshire lace manufacturer who was responsible for some of the most beautiful English lace designs. The image above is taken from a cap piece he designed which is now in the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery, Bedford. He exhibited lace at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London where he won a prize medal for his ‘improved arrangement of Bedfordshire pillow lace’. This was probably not an original design but an adaptation which showed that he understood the process of lacemaking and had an eye for designing. It is thought that he may have been able to make bobbin lace and his wife was definitely a lacemaker. In the 1850s there was a move away from the traditional point ground lace in Bedfordshire to the plaited laces which subsequently made Lester famous.

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’.

Wednesday 18 November 2020

‘Frayed nerves’ needle lace

Walking the dog today and looking at the bare branches of the trees reminded me of this piece of lace I made a while ago. Based on nerves rather than branches it still reminds me of this bare, raw season of the year and the feeling of wind and rain tearing everything off the trees, leaving things exposed and vulnerable. It also seemed quite apposite to a time of lockdown and isolation. It’s made of needle lace cordonets and I kept the frayed ends to embed into silk paper and also to reference the title of the piece. As you can tell I’m not an autumn person but I am trying to tune in to the beauty of the season by reading the anthology on Autumn compiled by Melissa Harrison and it is changing my view. I’d always thought of autumn as just a wet cold time we had to get through in the run up to Christmas and then look forward to the spring but Melissa has shown me that it can also be a time of renewal and beauty.

Thursday 12 November 2020

‘For better; for worse’ Amy Atkin lace mats

I’ve had a busy week writing about my response to the life and work of the first Nottingham machine lace designer, Amy Atkin, who although very successful had to give up work on marriage. The idea for using lace mats came from the work of the second wave feminist Judy Chicago who used place settings for famous women in her monumental installation ‘The Dinner Party’. She used complete place settings for her guests but I’ve just made place mats for Amy Atkin. Each one includes a strip of lace inspired by her lace designs, but only tacked in place, to show how easily women’s careers can be taken away from them and that domestic duties still have a huge influence on women’s lives. Each one also has part of the wording from the marriage service embroidered on it ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’ to reference the fact that she had to give up work when she married. Studying Amy Atkin’s life and lace designs, feminism, and the work of Judy Chicago has been interesting and making a practice based response seemed the appropriate approach to the research so writing about it is a great way to pull all those strands together.

Wednesday 4 November 2020

Lace making in Bobowa, southern Poland


I’m delighted to let you know that I’ve just had a review published in the journal of Craft Research volume 11 (2) about a book on Polish lace makers. The book is by Anna Sznajder and is called ‘Polish lace makers: gender, heritage and identity’. The link to the current issue and my review is CRRE 11.2 but I’m afraid there are no free offprints with this journal. The book was based on research the author did for her PhD in the lacemaking community in Bobowa, southern Poland, and although it is obviously an academic and thoroughly researched book it is also very readable. It describes how lacemaking was brought to the area in the late eighteenth century and became a cottage industry in the nineteenth century. Throughout the twentieth century various organisations encouraged lace teaching and design but by the end of the century lace making was more of a hobby than a business. However, since 1995 lace making in Bobowa has been revitalised following the introduction of the International Bobbin Lace Festival and the setting up of the Gallery of Bobbin Lace in the town. The author makes lace and clearly has an interest in the lives of these Polish lacemakers. She is interested in the politics, both national and local, that have affected lace making and her interviews with lacemakers allow insight into the changing details of the local lace making industry and women’s role within it. She concludes the book with suggestions on how activities linked to the lace heritage could encourage more tourism to the area. It’s an interesting book, and well worth reading especially if you have been or are planning a visit, to the Bobowa lace festival..