Wednesday 13 December 2023

Gift inscriptions on lace bobbins


This lace bobbin is inscribed with the words ‘A present from my father 1836’. I’m not sure of the date as it is indistinct and could also be 1896, however I think the bobbin was made by Jesse Compton who died in 1857 which makes the earlier date much more likely! Jesse Compton and his son James were both bobbin makers and their styles were similar but Jesse’s tended to be thinner probably because handmade lace was made of finer thread during the early part of the century. This meant that the bobbins didn’t have to be very heavy, and as more were required to make the lace the thinner they were the better because more would fit on the lace pillow. However, this fine thread looped round the head of the bobbin often tended to produce a groove in the neck and weaken it and many of Jesse’s bobbins have lost the upper part of the head; as is the case here.

Gift inscriptions were quite common on lace bobbins such as ‘A gift for Mary’ A present from Charles’, The gift is small but love is all’ or even the simple ‘A gift’. The bobbin collector and historian T L Huetson records one bobbin which read ‘A present from James Sinfield my grandfather born April 10 1804 Lidelington a gift in 1864’ luckily by that time lace bobbins tended to be larger than the one in the image to accommodate all that text! Although many lace bobbins were given as presents one expressly stating the fact and naming the giver is a lovely thing to own. I certainly treasure my lace bobbin which was indeed a present from my father who found it in an antique shop.

Wednesday 6 December 2023

Fragments of angels wings in lace


Looking for something festive to write about I decided to show you images of some free bobbin lace I made a while ago based on angels’ wings. The original piece was an installation of ten of these fragments of lace, each mounted on a separate piece of iridescent sheer fabric. They were joined together by ties of the same fabric and hung so that there were four along the top row then three, two and one in the subsequent rows forming an upside-down right-angle triangle to approximate the shape of an angel’s wing.

I was pleased with the installation but then decided to use the separate elements to make panels that could be hung individually. I therefore removed them from their fabric backing and remounted them on crinkled blue tissue paper to suggest movement and added some torn scraps of silk paper to reference wings and framed them as individual pieces. They can now be used as Christmas decorations and I’m delighted to have made two different types of work from the same pieces of lace.

Wednesday 29 November 2023

Tanders and Catterns lacemakers' holidays


Tanders and Catterns were holidays celebrated by lacemakers in the East Midlands of England and both occurred at the end of November; Tanders on St Andrew’s day (30) and Catterns on St Catherine’s day (25). St Catherine was the patron saint of spinners and was adopted by the lacemakers as their patron saint too. Both days were celebrated with fun and games, dancing and special food and drink. Cattern and Tanders cakes were made of dough and caraway seeds, and the ‘wigs’ eaten by those in Wendover (Buckinghamshire) were gingerbread cakes with caraway, while in other areas apple pie and figs were the traditional fare. In Olney, frumenty (wheat boiled in milk) was eaten and metheglin (a mixture of honey, spices, malt, toast and yeast) was drunk. There was dancing accompanied by the music of a fiddle and games such as jumping the candlestick. The latter was no mean feat. The girls and boys danced round the tall lacemakers candlestick, in a ring holding hands and singing

Wallflowers, wallflowers growing up so high,

All young maidens surely have to die;

Excepting [the name of one of the children], she/he’s the best of all.

She/he can dance and she/he can skip,

And she/he can jump the candlestick.

Turn, turn, turn your face to the wall again.

The child mentioned had to turn to face out from the ring. Once they had all turned round they each tried to jump over the lit candlestick, which could be 65 cm high plus the height of the flame. Another game was apple bobbing using the crossed blades from the bobbin winder hung from the ceiling, with pieces of apple and candle attached to it. Each person in turn was then blindfolded and attempted to eat a piece of apple rather than amusing their friends by eating a piece of candle. In some areas the end of the holiday was marked by ringing of the church bells at midnight when all the games stopped and tea and cakes were eaten.

Wednesday 22 November 2023

Lace store curtains


This lovely store curtain was made on a Nottingham lace curtain machine, not necessarily in Nottingham, as much curtain lace was made in Scotland in the Irving Valley, but it was probably bought in Nottingham. The lace curtain machine works on a grid system so the patterns are based on a series of squares, this sounds quite limiting, but as you can see from the image it can be used to produce lovely scrolling designs.

Store curtains were made to be used flat or slightly gathered across the window so the pattern was designed to be seen in its entirety. This image shows the lower part of the curtain showing the wide band of scrolls and flowers in contrast to the centre of the curtain which is more open with cartouches and small floral motifs. This is a typical design with a wide lower border, a thinner top border, side borders similar to the lower one but narrower and a central more open area.

The heading of the curtain includes small openings through which a fine rod could be inserted to hang it. This image also shows the scalloping which runs right round the curtain and was made as part of the machine production.

This image from about 1895 in Die Praxis des Tapezierers und Decorateurs shows how store curtains would have been used under outer curtains. This elaborate assemblage from a decorators manual includes intricate swags and curtains of two-tone satin and damask, but most homes would probably have had straight curtains tied back at either side and perhaps a fixed pelmet above to hide the curtain poles. In both cases however the lace curtains would have been hung flat so that the lovely design could be appreciated.

Wednesday 15 November 2023

Cell lace from Plauen


I came across a short article about cell lace in a 1920 edition of The lace and embroidery review and was intrigued to find out what it was. It seems to have been an initiative by the Plauen lace manufacturers to produce a new type of lace suitable for the post-war period. The main idea seems to have been to create ‘as much lace with as little material as possible’. The article states that lace manufacturers can no longer make the type of lace they produced before the war because that lace requires more material than the industry can now afford. This aim to produce more cost-effective lace seems to be related to a scarcity of raw materials and a consequent rise in prices. The lace and embroidery review was a trade publication and this new type of lace design would have been of interest to manufacturers and lace retailers. The article notes that the designers aimed to create a machine-made lace that would be almost as good as handmade lace ‘regarding artistic value and technical production’ while keeping costs down, basically ‘a lace whose artistic merit would appeal to the select and whose price to the multitude’. The lace shown in the image was designed in the Richard Roeder studio and it is in keeping with the new styles of lace proving popular in Europe and America. However, I have never heard of cell lace so perhaps the term did not catch on or it was just a name used in the manufacturing trade and not by consumers.

Wednesday 8 November 2023

Development of English bobbin laces


I’ve been carrying out more research into Miss Channer, who made and studied lace at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, and she has some interesting ideas about the developments of the English handmade lace industry. She notes that in continental Europe most of the finest lace was made in convents, which provided a ready access to money and ability, in the form of cultured patrons and a resource of talented, hard-working, young women who could be taught how to make and design lace. In effect the convent took on the roles of ‘manufacturer, merchant, capitalist and instructor’. In contrast, with few convents, the English handmade lace industry had little capital or organisation. Teaching was undertaken by village lace schools which was variable and depended on the ability of the lace teacher, and design remained in the hands of a few families. Lace was generally made by villagers in their spare time to supplement their family income and bought by travelling lace buyers or local retailers. Miss Channer praises English lace designs and the dexterity of the lacemakers but laments the lack of organisation and that there were few places to learn design and little time for the lacemakers to concentrate on their work amid the other calls on their time.

She notes that most English bobbin laces were originally attempts to copy foreign styles that were adapted by the local lacemakers to produce lace styles that became typically English. She gives as examples Honiton pieced lace which was introduced to Devon from Flanders in 1662, French point ground lace introduced to Buckinghamshire, and Maltese guipure lace taken up in Bedfordshire in the second half of the 19th century. All these laces were developed and altered by the local lacemakers to produce the three distinct types of English laces known as Honiton, Bucks point and Bedfordshire. The image at the top shows a typical Bucks point lace with integral ground and outlining gimp thread, and the lower image is an example of Bedfordshire guipure lace.

Wednesday 1 November 2023

Decorative tape lace doilies


Seeing some coloured tape lace on an 1890s opera cape yesterday made me consider what a quick way it is to make a bold decorative statement. Of course it can also be used for small dainty lace, using handmade or machine-made tapes with needlelace or bobbin lace fillings, and much continental eastern European lace is also based on the tape lace format. However, my focus today is on contemporary, coloured, handmade, bobbin lace doilies that are purely decorative and non-functional. In both the pieces shown here I worked within an oval mat shape, first designing a continuous swirling tape pattern that worked its way in and out of the centre of the mat ensuring that the tapes touched the sides of the next tape at some point and all lay next to each other at the centre. For the doily in the main image I then made a surrounding outer oval shape using scraps of various gold fabrics stuck on to a base. Once the oval was dry I pinned it over the pattern and worked the tape lace, attaching it to the adjoining areas of lace and the edge wherever they touched. 

To do that I used a crochet hook to pull one thread from the worker pair through the lace or fabric and linked the thread from the other worker thread through the loop. Once the basic swirled outline had been finished I used simple bobbin lace to add filling stitches in the open areas and added scraps of fabric to mirror the fabrics round the edge.

The second tape lace doily was worked without an outer surround and therefore the edge is less rigid than that of the first one. I could stiffen it with starch but have decided to leave it as a more fluid design. It also has scraps of iridescent fabric incorporated into the lace work to add a shimmer of colour and to make it non-functional, as I like to think of these doilies subverting the role of passive, put-upon lace mats.

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Miss Channer’s research into pricking lace grounds


Miss Catherine Channer was a lacemaker, teacher and researcher who was actively involved in the revival of the English East Midlands lace industry in the nineteenth century. As well as teaching lace, as part of the revival, she collected lace patterns and recorded information from older lacemakers with a view to preserving the history of the lace trade. Reading about her work recently I came across her ideas about the origins of some East Midlands laces. She considered that most of the designs had been brought to the area by lacemakers from Flanders and had since merely been altered and adapted by the local designers. She reports that when she asked some old designers in Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire how they pricked the grounds (the patterns for the background net) of their patterns, they replied that they used the ‘cards’. She asked what these cards were and was shown some white cards pricked with holes in the correct placement for working point ground (the simplest net background also known as Lille ground); with different cards for different sized meshes. She asked where the cards had come from and was told “We’ve always had them”. She suggests that the cards had been brought from Flanders by the original lacemakers. Miss Channer was impressed by the accuracy of the cards and after analysing them discovered how to prick the ground on graph paper for the benefit of designers who did not have access to the cards. She explains how to do this in her 1928 book ‘Practical lacemaking’ and explains how to use the pricking for point and honeycomb grounds (both shown in the lace in the image above) as well as kat stitch. I think this shows not only that Miss Channer was a remarkable woman but also the importance of a researcher knowing the craft she is studying and therefore realising the importance of her discoveries.   

Friday 20 October 2023

Spelling on inscribed lace bobbins


The spelling on many inscribed lace bobbins is phonetic which is not really surprising as the lacemakers who bought the bobbins and the bobbin makers who made them may have had little formal education. It was not until 1880 that school attendance, in England, was made compulsory for those aged 5-10 years old. T L Huetson, the historian and bobbin collector notes that the dates on the inscribed bobbins in his collection range from 1797 to 1879; well before the start of compulsory education. Bobbin makers would have learned how to spell the simple phrases on common bobbins such as Dear Mother, I love you, and common Christian names but even then I have seen Louisa spelled as Lueza and Charlotte as Charlot. Certainly phrases like those in the bobbins in the image would have been more complicated. However, even with their inventive spelling ‘Wright my altard true love’ [write my altered true love] and ‘Love dont be falces’ [Love don’t be false] convey the message the lacemaker intended. As do ‘Absent makes the hart groe fonder’ [Absence makes the heart grow fonder] and ‘My hart hakes for you’ [My heart aches for you]. Falces or falcs for false, and hart for heart were common alternative spellings throughout the period. Research by the Springetts suggests that the man known as Bobbin Brown of Cranfield, who was working in the 1840s and into the 1860s, was a poor speller and indeed the two bobbins illustrating this post are his work, however they concede that although his spelling was poor his lettering was very neat.

Friday 13 October 2023

Medallion braid crochet lace


This lace is a mixture of machine-made braid and handmade crochet and was popular in the early twentieth century as a hobby lace. In the piece of lace in the image the braid actually makes up quite a substantial part of the design and the crochet is used to fill the central area of the flower, join the gaps between the flowers, and make a picot edging around the edge of the complete doily.

Therese de Dillmont gives instructions in her Encyclopedia of needlework for making this type of lace and the illustration gives a better idea of how the outer picot edge would have looked when the doily was first made. Also, the piece in the book uses a continuous tape of the medallion braid, which would have made the work quicker, while the maker of the doily has cut the braid and joined it in separate rings to make the individual flowers.

However, I think she probably worked in this way so she could make the flowers individually and then join them all together at the end of the project and finally complete the lace by working an outer crochet edging all the way round the doily.

Friday 6 October 2023

Chinese handmade lace


Browsing a copy of The lace and embroidery review recently I discovered that there had been an extensive network of handmade lace workers in China in the 1920s. According to an article in the 1926 edition of the magazine, the lace trade began in 1895 when Christian mission schools were set up in Chefoo and the surrounding area of Shantung to give girls a basic education and teach them lacemaking so they could earn their own living. By 1926, in the eastern part of Shantung 300,000 girls and women were earning a living by making bobbin lace.

The lace and embroidery review was quarterly magazine, which was published in the USA, aimed at buyers of lace, embroidery and trimmings. Most of the articles and advertisements are from American companies but several European lace firms also advertise in them. The Alfred Kohlberg company of New York are regular advertisers promoting their Chinese laces. As well as premises in Shanghai the company also has representatives in Swatow, Chefoo and Wusih and they advertise a variety of laces including torchon, filet, Irish crochet, Point Venise, Cluny, hand embroidered net, and Binche lace. They highlight that their lace is ‘Made entirely by hand by Kwantung girls and women whose ancestors have been needleworkers for 4000 years.’ In another advertisement they promote Chinese crochet by unashamedly explaining that if they were paying their workers American unionized wages the cost per yard of lace would be $108.22 but the actual cost is a only few cents. They note that it takes the same number of hours’ work to make a yard of fine crochet lace as it does to make a Ford automobile. The advertisement concludes with the words ‘What will happen if the unions win, we prefer not to contemplate’. I do not know if this refers to the Chinese workers wanting to set up unions or the US unions appealing against unfair competition but it does seem that the workers on both sides are being exploited by the middlemen. A later advertisement notes that ‘Civil war and the anti-foreign boycott in Swatow have stopped all production of Irish lace’. However the Alfred Kohlberg company assure their clients that they still have stocks of most types of lace, but buyers are required to buy edgings and insertions and they will not fulfil orders for only one type of lace. In the years after 1926 there are fewer adverts for Chinese lace so it seems that the events in China led to a reduction in the export trade in handmade lace.

Friday 29 September 2023

Subversive doily project

I’m back working on my subversive doily project which has been a running project for many years that I add to gradually as time allows. I’ve recently finished writing a couple of papers and a chapter for a book and although I have a very interesting practice project in the pipeline, the curators are still finalising the funding so I can’t make a start on it just yet, hence I’m working on the latest doily. I’ve already finished the central area which includes the wording (f off in this case, which seems to me just the expression a doily would use when employed to look attractive, keep quiet and be used as a mat!). This part of the lace has been worked using Bedfordshire lace techniques, which I find give me the freedom to work lettering as well as a background of leaves and plaits. I’m making the wider edge of the doily using a tape lace technique which means I only need a few pairs to work the lace but I do have to make lots of joins into previous worked areas so there are pros and cons to the technique although on balance I think it’s quicker than Bedfordshire, for example, and the finished results are just as pleasing. It’s certainly good to be getting on with the project and I hope soon to have made enough doilies to exhibit and write about them.

Wednesday 20 September 2023

Thinking through practice – Amy Atkin and The marriage bond


Much of my work involves practice-based research and this study of Amy Atkin, the first female Nottingham machine lace designer, combined written research and a series of lace table mats inspired by her lace designs. Amy’s lace designs are beautiful but she had to relinquish her career on marriage, which I thought seemed a great waste of talent. I made four lace table mats to include the words from the marriage ceremony ‘for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer’ to reference her loss of work following her marriage. The idea of using table mats came from the work of the second wave feminist Judy Chicago who used place settings to commemorate inspiring women in her famous installation ‘The Dinner party’. The lace in my table mats is only tacked in place to indicate the temporary nature of Amy’s career and show how quickly women’s livelihoods can be torn away from them. If you are interested in reading more I published a paper about the research in Textile: the journal of cloth and culture entitled ‘Neo-Victorianism, feminism and lace: Amy Atkin’s place at the dinner table’ which you can access at

Wednesday 13 September 2023

Winding lace bobbins clockwise and anticlockwise

Traditionally English lacemakers wind the thread on their bobbins in a clockwise direction and continental European lacemakers wind theirs in an anticlockwise direction – why the difference? According to Pat Earnshaw, in her book on Threads of lace, It is all linked to the S and Z twists on the threads they used. She notes that in the nineteenth century, continental lacemakers generally used a hand-spun Z twisted, S plyed linen thread, while English lacemakers had easier access to mechanically Z spun cotton threads. The twist of the thread is important in bobbin lacemaking as the cross and twist of the basic stitches itself introduces an S and Z twist, respectively, as the work progresses. Therefore each twist will partially unwind an S spun thread while each cross will restore its stability. Thus English lacemakers were attempting to counteract the effect of their Z spun thread by winding their bobbins in a clockwise direction. Pat also suggests that the ring of beads, or spangle, that is used as a weight on English East Midlands bobbins may also have been a response to counter the twisting of the thread on the bobbins.

Thursday 24 August 2023

Machine lace Schiffli designs


These lovely lace designs come from a catalogue produced by the Christian Stoll company of Plauen from the late nineteenth century. These laces would have been made using a Schiffli embroidery machine. This machine could embroider on to a machine net background to imitate handmade lace or could produce guipure lace by embroidering onto a ground fabric that was later destroyed to leave only the lace behind.

At the end of the nineteenth century there were several methods for disposing of the backing fabric including treating the ground fabric with dilute acid before embroidering it then putting it in a hot room where the ground threads deteriorated. Alternatively the thread could be treated with an alkali such as ammonia then the embroidered fabric could be place in an acid bath to remove the ground. A cellulose base could also be used which could be removed by heating or acid treatment after embroidering. The number of patents relating to the disposal of background fabrics at the end of the nineteenth century shows how keen inventors were to find the ideal method. If these guipure techniques were used, the designer had to ensure that all parts of the lace were attached to other areas or include bars of thread joining the separate elements of the design so the lace remained in one piece once the background had been removed, alternatively the lace could be applied to a net background to keep the elements of the pattern in place. The Schiffli lace machine was invented in the 1860s in Switzerland and ‘Swiss’ lace became very popular throughout Europe at the end of the century for curtains and clothing.

Wednesday 16 August 2023

Variations in one needlelace pattern

This lace is a lovely mixture of bobbin and needle lace and the way it’s made suggests that it was worked in separate parts by several lacemakers and then combined into the final piece. This practice was common in the nineteenth century as several people working on one piece ensured it was worked more quickly and it also allowed lacemakers to specialise in one type of lace or even one motif.


Concentrating on one detailed part of the design shows how different lacemakers interpreted the same pattern. This area of the lace is a needlelace surround to an area of needlelace ground which holds in place a detailed bobbin lace motif. 

You can see how the two small circular motifs have been worked in a variety of ways. In the upper image they have both been filled with a circle of couronnes, which would probably have been made off the pillow round a pointed former and then added to the work. Making these little circles could also have been delegated to beginners so there was a stock of them to be used when required. 

In other examples, the circles have been worked on the pillow with a series of blanket stitches to form circular shapes. The filling stitches have also been worked differently. In two cases they form a hexagonal shape with picots along the length of the sides and in two other examples the filling stitches are made up of tiny couronnes, embellished with picots, joined together by a pair of twisted threads. 

The final example is completely different from the others. The large circular area has been divided up into quadrants by a cross of bars, each enclosing a little couronne, and the smaller circle has been almost filled with concentric circles of needlelace. The filling stitches are also unique and are made up of a series of triangular woven areas with extended picots. Finding all these different variations in one pattern, in just one piece of lace, highlights the working practices of the lacemakers who worked as a group to make one piece of lace and suggests that these skilled lacemakers were allocated patterns and allowed to interpret them in the way they thought best.

Friday 11 August 2023

Japanese aesthetics of recycling exhibition at Brunei Gallery, SOAS


This exhibition on Japanese recycling focused on textiles and paper although there were some examples of kintsugi repaired pottery. I particularly enjoyed the mended and patched Boro textiles that are shown on the press release in the image. The term Boro comes from boroboro which means something tattered or repaired and many of these pieces have numerous layers and a variety of stitches holding the fabric together. Although these clothes reflect the poverty of those who originally owned them they are beautiful items and are often a record of several members of the same family. There were also several examples of washi paper which had been recycled by layering them together to make wrapping cloths or cut into fine strips and twisted to make paper thread. One example of the use of paper thread was a type of undergarment called an asehajiki, also known as a sweat repeller, made in a lace ground of alternate four thread plaits and two thread twists, so it resembles a strig vest. A replica is being reproduced by Sian Bowen as part of a residency at Kew Gardens, which was also exhibited. There were also two examples of this type of lace in garments from the permanent collection, both worked in the same way but with just one twist between the plaits, forming a denser fabric. Unfortunately photography was not allowed. I’ve never seen examples of this type of lace in Japan before and it was not worked with any type of bobbins or thread holders – although the tangle of threads suggested it would have been easier with some!

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Threads exhibition at the Arnolfini Gallery, Bristol

This textile exhibition, co-curated by Alice Kettle and Arnolfini, brings together the work of 21 international artists and makers to ‘breathe life into materials’ and celebrate the power of textiles to tell stories. Some narratives are personal others explore wider global events but they all make connections between people and places, memory and cultures. Public engagement is much to the fore and on the day I visited dancers were moving among the audience, there was a live commentary in the gallery and the audience was encouraged to join in, sit on cushions and watch, or sew and draw. There were also workshops taking place on the upper floors of the gallery all of which added to the lively ambience of the exhibition.

There were so many interesting exhibits that it is impossible to mention them so I’ll just talk about a few of my favourites. The image here is of Ground by Alice Kettle, a huge embroidery which is part of a series called Thread bearing witness which incorporates images drawn by refugees in the Calais refugee camps reflecting on stories of migration. 

Esna Su’s series of vessels The Burden II ‘My trousseau’ (image at the top) captivated me, initially because of its lace-like quality and also its theme of textile as part of a bride’s trousseau. Each vessel is tied like a fabric bag and includes a small crochet doily or piece of lace (detail above), suggesting the bundle of clothes and domestic fabrics a refugee or bride might carry with them to a new home. These wearable sculptures that fit the shape of a human body are a poignant reminder of the domestic upheaval faced by refugees.

I also found Mounira Al Sohl’s work Mina El Shourouk ila Al Fahmah very moving. This Lebanese artist uses a large, red, tent-like structure to bring together women’s stories of struggle and loss with quotes from the women, embroidered images and song and in this way uses storytelling to bring their memories to life. 

A series of pieces by Anya Paintsil also covered interesting themes relating to her Welsh and Ghanaian heritage. In particular Cwympo ni’n dau, wel dyna I chi dric (We both fall over that’s the trick) a title taken from a Welsh nursery rhyme. This work depicts Rhiannon, a character from Welsh mythology falsely accused of murdering and eating her newborn son who was sentenced to carry strangers on her back for 7 years. Here the artist links that story to the themes of burden and blame that are often place on women in society. 

Celia Pym’s series of Mended paper bags were also an interesting development of her mending and repair series of darned clothes. She produced the bags during the Covid pandemic as a response to the amount of packaging building up in her home. I also enjoyed seeing the stitched cubes of Richard McVetis with their tiny black stitches measuring time. Olga de Amaral’s Viento II also reflects on time with its incorporation of Japanese paper and gold leaf. 

Ifeoma U Anyaeji also considers materials in her installation, Ezuhu ezu [In (complete)] produced as part of a residency at Arnolfini. She uses discarded plastic bottles and bags and by transforming them, using a hair braiding technique from her homeland in Nigeria, asks us to consider the value we place on discarded objects. As you can tell, I thoroughly enjoyed the exhibition and would encourage you to visit if you are in the Bristol area as I’ve only covered a few of the exhibits here. It runs until 1 October and the Arnolfini also has an excellent bookshop and cafĂ©!

Thursday 27 July 2023

Lace and poetry

I was reading a book about the textile artist Gerhardt Knodel and was intrigued by the quotations in the book, including one of my favourites, T S Eliot’s Burnt Norton which begins ‘Time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future’. Much of Knodel’s work is ethereal even though it is often on a large scale and I will write more about him another day. I also like to reference poetry and literature in my work and the image shows part of a triptych I made inspired by W B Yeats’ He wishes for the cloths of heaven. It’s such a lovely poem and quite short so I’ll repeat it here: 

Had I the heavens' embroidered cloths
Enwrought with golden and silver light
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light
I would spread the cloths under your feet
But I, being poor, have only my dreams
I have spread my dreams under your feet
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams

As you can guess the image is of the blue cloth of night. The lace is free bobbin lace and it's embedded in dyed silk paper fibres to give the impression of yearning for love and finding a space for dreaming.

Thursday 20 July 2023

‘Jack Alive’ inscribed lace bobbins


I was always led to believe that lace bobbins inscribed ‘Jack alive’, like the one in the image, were produced to celebrate the return of a sailor who everyone thought had been drowned at sea. The story was that a ship would be reported lost at sea and all on board would be presumed dead, then months later the young sailor would return to his village, everyone would be delighted and inscribe bobbins to celebrate his return. T L Huetson in his book Lace and bobbins says he has seen too many of these bobbins to justify the theory that they were made for this unusual occurrence. I agree with him. Surely if a young man who had been presumed dead returned to the village the bobbins would have included his name rather than use the generic term ‘Jack’ for a sailor. Huetson suggests that ‘Jack alive’ might have been a common Victorian expression whose meaning we have lost. Well, after some research online, and thanks to The Gale Review, I have discovered that ‘Jack’s Alive’ was a Victorian game, which is described in George Arnold’s 1858 book The sociable or one thousand and one home amusements. Everyone playing the game sits in a circle. A small stick is lit in the fire then blown out leaving sparks. The stick is passed from one person to another round the circle each one saying ‘Jack’s alive’ as he passes it on. The player holding the stick when the final spark dies has to have a moustache painted on their face with the charred stick or pay a forfeit instead. It sounds a lively game, and there are several lace bobbins inscribed with music hall catch phrases, so we know lacemakers enjoyed having popular sayings on their lace pillow, but whether this was the meaning of Jack alive we don’t know for sure.

Wednesday 12 July 2023

Guipure d’Art

I looked up guipure lace in an encyclopaedia from 1882 this week and was surprised to find that the entry covered 16 pages and dealt with a range of laces I wasn’t expecting, which just shows how lace terms vary over the years. I thought I would focus on the entry for guipure d’art which seemed to me very like what we call filet lace today. Like filet work this lace begins with the formation of a net base which is secured on a wire frame, ensuring that the net is held taught and the squares are drawn out to their full extent. The net is then embellished using various embroidery stitches to form the pattern. Simple darning is used to fill individual squares or to form a line of solid work as can be seen on the right in the image above. Other stitches such as point d’esprit (interlinked and reversed blanket stitches) or point tiellage (an open twisted cross stitch) can be used to form a lighter filling stitch. Solid leaves, triangles and circles can also be worked by close weaving over thread outlines.

This work was obviously popular for the amateur lacemaker in the 1880 as the instructions assume a level of competence. However patterns for this type of work are also found in Federico Vinciolo’s book of Renaissance patterns for lace and embroidery published in 1587, which as you can see in the image, clearly show the variety of stitches to be worked. This type of lace has therefore been made for centuries although given different names at different times.  

Wednesday 5 July 2023

Brise-bise lace curtains


These pretty brise-bise lace curtains come from a 1904 Peach & Sons catalogue. The Nottingham lace manufacturer produced regular catalogues advertising their lace products including curtains, tablecloths, bedspreads, and other household lace as well as lace clothing, collars and handkerchiefs. Brise-bise curtains were becoming popular at that time and were made to hang across the lower part of the window from a rod or wire. These ones have small brass rings on the top through which the rod can be slotted but others have a channel woven across the top of the curtain for the same purpose. Also advertised with the curtains are newly patented ‘bracketless’ rods for casement or brise-bise curtains. The advert emphasises that they require no cutting and no brackets are required for fixing; they are made of polished brass and come in a range of sizes. The curtains in the image are made in two sizes (26 x 34 or 34 x 36 inches, width x depth) and cost per pair 1/3 for the smaller size and 1/6 for the larger ones. Other, cheaper brise-bise curtains were made from continuous lengths of lace (generally 26 inches deep) and were sold by the yard. The name brise-bise comes from the French briser meaning to break and bise a light cold wind, which I like to think results in the curtains wafting gently in the breeze rather than being buffeted by a gale.

Wednesday 28 June 2023

Teaching boys in lace schools

 In the early nineteenth century, many boys, as well as girls, in the villages of the English county of Buckinghamshire went to lace schools. This was not really a school as we know it – more like a sweat shop - as the children learnt very little apart from how to make bobbin lace, which was sold at the end of the month to the local lace dealer. The children had to attend for 10 to 12 hours every day except Sunday, and were allowed a half day off on Saturday. Their parents paid the teacher a fee ranging from 2 to 6 pennies a week, but all teachers charged more for boys because they were less clean, careful and obedient than the girls. According to Thomas Wright, who interviewed many Bucks lacemakers for his history of lacemaking, another disadvantage, from the teacher’s point of view, was that boys’ smocks were thicker than the girls’ clothes and also covered their necks and shoulders so smacking them as a punishment was less effective than it was with the girls. Many of the boys hated the lace school and there are reports of one throwing his lace pillow down a well, another throwing his into a duck pond and one running away to sea – which seems a very drastic solution! They generally left as soon as they could, to work in the fields. However, many men never forgot how to make lace and one lacemaker told Wright that when she was a small girl and went to bed too tired to finish her lace, her father would often return from work and make a few extra inches of lace on her lace pillow, for her to find in the morning. The second half of the nineteenth century saw the demise of lace schools. The Workshop Act of 1867 forbade the employment of children under 8 years and those aged 8-13 could only work half time. The Education Act of 1871 also brought in compulsory education for children, although lace making continued to be taught as part of the curriculum in lacemaking areas.   

Wednesday 21 June 2023

Domestic trauma: textile responses to confinement, coercion and control


This is the title of a paper I wrote for a special issue of the journal Textile Cloth and Culture focusing on textiles and trauma. Textiles often bear witness to trauma. This may be as forensic evidence or as documents of record made by the traumatised or their loved ones, to ensure that traumatic events are not forgotten. In this paper I concentrate on domestic trauma in particular confinement, coercion and control in the home, all of which increased during the lockdowns resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic. Textiles can be an alternative form of discourse for those without access to mainstream media. One example I quote is Elizabeth Parker’s nineteenth-century cross-stitch sampler, now in the V&A Museum, recording her abuse by her employer. Other examples are the arpilleras made by women in Peru affected by domestic violence. I also reference contemporary work such as 35 I cant’s by Alison Lowry and Jayne Cherry and of course my own practice-based research using net curtains such as Whispering and Marking time. The paper does end on a encouraging note as it also discusses textile based initiatives that help victims of domestic abuse. If you are interested in reading more there are some free copies available from the publisher

Wednesday 14 June 2023

Flowers in tape lace


This pretty lace edging is made from a combination of purchased machine-made lace tapes and crochet and was a very popular technique for home lacemakers in the early twentieth century. Many needlework magazines included patterns for this type of lace and a variety of lace tapes were made and sold for the purpose.

These tapes come from an illustration in Therese de Dillmont’s needlework encyclopaedia and show a few of the styles available. The tapes were tacked down onto the backing fabric following the pattern and joined either by needlelace or, as in this case, crochet work. Then when the pieces were all secured to each other the tacking thread was removed and the lace could be removed in one piece.

Both the pieces illustrated here were made using tapes made up of a series of joined leaf shapes. In the main image the tapes have been angled to form petals but in this piece the tapes have been used to form a circle enclosing a larger crochet design. Both are very pretty and were probably made by the same person (they were given to me by a friend and came from the same source). I particularly like the floral one with the little crochet frill overlapping the fabric.

Wednesday 7 June 2023

‘Economic’ lace curtains

I love the idea of these ‘economic’ lace curtains, which are advertised in a 1933 Lace Furnishings catalogue. They come in one piece with the valance heading, side curtains and tie backs all attached to each other and ready to hang. The catalogue emphasises that each ‘pair’ is woven in one piece, however it recommends that for cleaning the scallops should be tacked together every 6 inches so they can be dressed in the same way as ordinary curtains. They are 40 inches wide (approximately 1 metre) and 2.5 yards long (about 2.25 metres) so are made for a specific window size, although they could probably be slightly gathered to for a smaller window. Unfortunately the catalogue doesn’t have any prices and I assumed they were labelled ‘economic’ because they didn’t cost much to buy, but the write up says they are ‘most economical in use’ which I assume means that they required less maintenance than the usual window dressings made up of separate curtains, valance and tie backs. They are very pretty though and I would love to have them wafting in the breeze at my window.