Wednesday 29 March 2023

Needlelace edging

This beautiful little edging is made entirely with a needle and thread using a technique based on a variation of buttonhole stitches. It always amazes me that some of the most beautiful lace began its life as a simple reel of thread and it is the ingenuity of the lacemaker, using nothing but her hands and a needle, that transforms it into such a fine and delicate fabric. The pattern for this lace would have been drawn on a firm piece of card which would have been attached to a thick piece of supporting fabric and could then have been worked in the hand or attached to a firmer base such as a lace pillow. The shape of the pattern would have been couched down first using a thick outlining thread, tacked down through all the layers. The buttonhole filling stitches would then have been worked between the couched threads in a finer working thread. Once the main areas had been worked, the filling net stitches round the flower would have been worked and final embellishments such as the spots on the net would have been added.

Once the entire lace was completed the tacking stitches used to secure the original outline would be cut between the pattern and the backing so that the lace could be removed from the pattern. This design could have been worked by several lacemakers specialising in different parts of the work with some concentrating on the main motif or the outside edge while others assembled the separate pieces and added the net filling. I’m pleased to see that this lace has clearly been well loved as its original footside is missing and it has been reattached to a machine-made edging for reuse, showing that all the hard work that went into its construction was appreciated.

Friday 24 March 2023

Smuggling lace in coffins


In the eighteenth century, French and Belgian lace was so greatly prized and expensive that the British government imposed an import tax on it. Generally, whenever taxes are imposed people try to avoid them by whatever means they can and smuggling was the easiest way to avoid the tax on lace. One of the ways of doing this was by claiming that a relative had died on the continent and that their body needed to be transported back to England for a funeral. The coffin would be buried in the churchyard accompanied by a solemn service and weeping mourners, but in the night the mourners would return and dig up the coffin to retrieve the valuable lace it contained. In many cases there was no body at all, but even if there was, the coffin allowed plenty of space for a good quantity of lace. 1n 1732, when Bishop Atterbury died in France and his body was returned to Westminster Abbey for burial, the High Sherriff of Westminster found French lace valued at £6000 hidden in the coffin with the body. In response to all this smuggling, Customs Officers became more efficient and by the middle of the century all coffins coming from the continent had to be opened and inspected. This unsurprisingly led to a sudden decrease in the continental death rate. However the new regulations caused some unfortunate moments. When the Duke of Devonshire died in France In 1764 and his body was repatriated the coffin was opened despite the protests of his relatives and the body was poked with a stick to ensure it was not a bundle of lace. Understandably the family were very indignant especially as no lace was found.

Wednesday 15 March 2023

How was old handmade lace kept so clean?


I was asked recently how lace was kept so clean and pristine in the past, I didn’t have an answer but thought it was an interesting question so I’ve done a little bit of research. Until the early nineteenth century most lace was handmade using linen thread which comes from the long outside fibres of the flax plant. When separated from the plant, linen threads are smooth, but they can become damaged during spinning, lacemaking or storage, leading to breakage in these weak areas. Linen threads absorb water during washing, which can cause ruptures at the damaged areas so old lace would have had to be handled carefully. Soaking lace can release soluble dirt caught between lace fibres but often some type of soap is also required. The best type of soap is saponin which can be obtained from the soapwort plant (Saponaria) by steeping its roots in water to make a soapy liquid. Its advantages are that it only forms a slight lather (which has to be rinsed away after washing), it cleans well without having to agitate the lace, and it doesn’t form a scum with hard water. Once the lace had been washed and rinsed it would have been laid on a flat surface, without wringing it out or squeezing it, and gently teased back into shape before being left to dry. I must emphasise that this is how lace would have been washed in the past. If you are considering cleaning old lace today please bear in mind the wise words of lace expert, Pat Earnshaw, who notes that ‘cleaning old lace is likely to change it, probably in an irreversible way’ – you have been warned!

Wednesday 8 March 2023

Cheeky lace bobbins


‘I love the boys’ boldly states the lace bobbin in the centre of this group. The owner clearly knew her own mind as did the owner of ‘I wants a husband’ on the left, while ‘Kiss me quick’ on the right could have been what the lacemaker wanted or a request from a cheeky young man. While many lace bobbins are inscribed with romantic sentiments about true love and friendship some, such as these, are more forward and direct. However many of the lacemakers who owned these bobbins obviously experienced disapproval from others in their village, encouraging them to acquire bobbins such as ‘If I love the boys that is nothing to nobody’ and ‘If I love a lad in Ravenstone that is nothing to nobody’. Unfortunately for the lacemaker her love of the boys and ‘the lad in Ravenstone’ in particular, rather than being ‘nothing to nobody’ was probably of great interest to everyone and the topic of local gossip for months! I like to think that her bobbin allowed her to express her own views and encouraged her while she worked at her lace pillow.

Thursday 2 March 2023

Magga Dan Antarctic expedition lace panel


This lace panel celebrates the Commonwealth Trans Antarctic expedition in 1957-1958, which was led by Sir Vivian Fuchs and Sir Edmund Hillary. The Magga Dan was the ship that transported the expedition, it was built in Denmark (hence the Dan part of its name which means Danish) and has a special type of hull designed to withstand crushing in the ice of the Antarctic. During this expedition Fuchs became the first person to cross the Antarctic, covering 2200 miles in 99 days. The lace panel was made by the Nottingham lace manufacturer Steibel and Co in 1957 and depicts scenes from the expedition including the ship, icebergs, the aurora borealis, penguins, the explorers and some huskies. It was made on the curtain lace machine using cotton thread and has been coloured after weaving using stencils and coloured dyes.