A Brief Discussion of Bobbin Lace

Kate of the Oaks

Two or three months ago I was quite fascinated to witness a bobbin lace-maker at work. Whilst I had heard of the delicate art in the past, I had never before given much thought to either the history of its development or the manner in which the lovely work is created. Being entirely ignorant of these things, I grew curious, and turned my thoughts to discovering a little more of these matters. Here now I share with you my paltry findings, garnered from the electronic web. I share these small discoveries in the humble hopes that those reading them will understand that this is intended only as the briefest of overviews of the history and methods of the art of lace-making. I hope any errors or omissions will be forgiven, and that the information will be of some interest.

The delicate beauty of lace has long been associated with luxury in attire. Lace fabric, defined by a myriad of open spaces and tiny ornamental stitches integral to the whole design, has been a premier fashion accessory for hundreds of years. Its cost, fragility and the intensity of labour required to produce even the smallest piece made lace a prestigious luxury, highly desired by the nobility.

There is no date pinpointed for the beginnings of lace-making, but apparently it originated towards the end of the 15th century, appearing in both Venice and Flanders. Authorities have not resolved the matter, but it is generally held that Italy was the cradle of needle lace, and Flanders that of bobbin lace (I shall go a little more into these methods later). The actual process of lace-making is thought to have arisen from the knotting of fringes at the edges of fabric. The art is, interestingly, an apparently exclusively European one, no records having been found on it in either Asia, Africa, Australia or the Americas.

By the end of the second half of the 16th century, lace was being made in most European countries as well as the British Isles. Each area where lace was being made began to develop their own patterns, styles and types of lace. I shall refrain from going into detail on these, as there is a great deal of information available. I leave it in the hands of the reader to discover more though the references at the end of the article, should they so wish.

The making of lace was (and is) exceptionally time-consuming, but the tools were both cheap and fairly readily available – early bobbins were made of lead, and later of wood or bone. Both this availability and the great demand for the delicate work both facilitated the spread of the art and meant that there was a need for more lace-makers. The orphaned, poor, and the elderly were able to learn and practice the art, and being called upon to do so apparently gave these unfortunates the opportunity to rely less upon charity and more upon their own independent labour. It was no easy life, however, especially considering the time and effort required to produce lace.

Lace-making became a thriving industry due to the demand – indeed, lace schools were opened, mainly in Italy, France and Flanders, where children as young as five or six years old were apprenticed to learn the art.

Lace was originally worked in linen or silk threads, and was thus usually either white, near-white or black. Coloured lace was less common in the early days of lace-making, largely due to difficulties of consistent dyes for the threads.

There are, apparently, two types of “true” lace, known as needle lace and bobbin lace.

With needle lace, as may be imagined, the primary tools are needle and thread, and it is a descendant of embroidery. The initial design is drawn onto parchment, usually backed (though the needle never penetrates the backing), and the outline threads couched to the pattern. These are then covered with tiny button-hole stitches and the rest of the design is filled in with a variety of pattern stitches. Once completed, a knife is passed between the layers of backing and the lace lifted off.

Bobbin lace has also been called pillow or cushion lace, because of the tools used. These are primarily bobbins, pins and a cushion. There are tales of fish-bones being used as pins, but apparently this is unlikely as they would not have been strong enough to pierce the originally straw-stuffed pillows. In the case of bobbin lace, the design is pricked onto the parchment where each individual stitch will be made and the pattern pinned to a cushion. The threads are then wound on the bobbins (holders), and hung on pins pushed into the pattern. Pairs of threads are then crossed and twisted individually, each stitch or row of stitches held in place by a support pin stuck through the pattern parchment. As the work progresses, the pins can be removed. In working bobbin lace, anything from 22 to 200 bobbins can be used. Two bobbins, called the conductors, are woven from left to right and form the weft. The other bobbins, with vertical threads, form the warp.

The tools for this art are small and still easy and not too costly to acquire. It seemed to me that lace-making would not be inconvenient to carry to and from events, and indeed anywhere you go, and worked on at many opportunities. But perhaps there are already Gentles of the Shire producing touches of extra luxury for their garb!

So there, good gentles, you have the sum of my findings. If your curiosity has been tweaked, or you have an interest in trying your hand at lace-making, here are the webpages I looked at and a few references that I found on the Internet.

www.brintannica.com

www.belgian-lace.com

people.delphi.com/standart

www.arachne.com. Perhaps the most useful, the webpage of an SCA gentle with links to the SCA lace-makers mailing list amongst other things. She also highly recommended Lace: A History by Santina Levey as the best book on the subject.

I will also add that I found references to Lace-Making Guilds and Groups all over South Africa: the Cape Lace Guild in Mowbray, the Gauteng Lace Group, Pretoria Lace Guild, Suikerbosrand Lace Group and the Witwatersrand Lace Guild.