The Catholic Church used lace to decorate vestments worn during religious ceremonies as the wealth of the church allowed them to purchase large quantities of this beautiful material. Many convents were involved with the making of lace and the nuns devoted time to producing this fine product. It was not widely used as decoration outside the church until the 16th century when due to popular demand from the rich, cottage industries began to develop and the different styles of lace making evolved. At this time aristocracy developed a more flamboyant taste in clothes as the portraits of kings and queens from this period show its extensive use. Queen Elizabeth I was shown in all her splendour adorned with lace ruffles and collars so show off her riches and majesty.
Later Charles II showed his love of adornment with sleeves and extravagant jabots of lace cascading down the front of his velvet jackets giving him the air of the man about town.
The ever increasing popularity of lace meant that it quickly spread throughout Europe to countries such an England, France, Malta and Finland. Each country developed its own unique styles and patterns.
It is thought that lace making may have been brought to England when the Huguenots were forced to flee persecution in the 16th and 17th centuries. Centres often developed where they settled - Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and around Honiton in Devon and here, because of isolation, very different styles were formed.
Patterns were kept secret and handed down from mother to daughter, and if there was not a daughter to carry on the craft, the equipment was ritually burned so that the patterns would not fall into the wrong hands.
One of the most popular and widely practised forms of lace making is Torchon Lace – this word comes from the French for dishcloth or duster. Another name for Torchon Lace was beggar’s lace and was not widely thought of but now it has made a renaissance and is popular with modern lace makers. It is also thought to be a good lace to start with as it has a structured form which is easy to pick up and follow.
Bobbin lace as the name suggests uses a pillow and bobbins. The bobbins are made from turned wood, ivory, bone or modern materials like plastics, glass or paper. They are wound with threads which can be silk, cotton or linen and modern lace makers are using diverse materials such as wire and metal threads to develop a more contemporary style of work.
The pillows were originally stuffed with oat straw or sawdust and again modern materials such as Styrofoam are now being used. Patterns are pricked out on card and the threads are woven and kept in place by pins until the piece is completed.
Bobbins were finely decorated and intricately carved. Some commemorated special events and even hangings and executions were depicted on very old bobbins. Some were carved out leaving a small bobbin enclosed in a cage of wood - these were known as “Mother and Baby Bobbins” and both “mother” and “baby” were wound with thread.
Most English bobbins are spangled to prevent the bobbins from turning in use and untwisting the threads. Spangling is a ring of wire threaded with beads – this helps with the tension and keeps the bobbins in position.
Lace making is still practised throughout the country and many clubs and schools have been formed to prevent this beautiful craft dying out.
Where to find out more
Find a club teaching lace making
The Lace Guild - www.laceguild.org
Winslow Bobbins – www.winslowbobbins.com