Author: NicoMak

Making Lace in Central Slovakia

Doing fieldwork amongst bobbin lace makers in the Central Slovak villages of Staré Hory and Špania Dolina in the mid- to late 2000s, I was faced with an unexpected paradox: when speaking to me, artisans would present their craft work as a pleasurable hobby, then as menial labour, and later as a dangerously addictive obsession. In the very same conversation, I was told that making lace was ‘work’ and a way of ‘making do’ in times of economic hardship, and barely a breath later artisans would claim that craft practice was nothing more than a personal indulgence and a ‘labour of love’. Artisans seemed equally ambivalent in their descriptions of their experience of making lace itself. They would emphasize the emotional and therapeutic aspects of craft practice, and then warn me that it could develop into an obsessive ‘sickness’ or a kind of nervous disorder for which there was no cure. The process of making was described in terms of mastery and control, but also in terms of submission brought on by a seduction of the craftswoman by her own tools.

 The lace making village of Spania Dolina in Central Slovakia.

Weaving lace, I was often told, is an emotional experience. This was most eloquently expressed by the lace maker I call Hana Majerová, who saw her special relationship with the craft as stemming from her memories of family life in the village of Staré Hory:

……very few of the women who do it today, have developed such an emotional relationship with it as I have, literally emotional, because for me, just the sound of the lace making, for me it is magical. It…already when my grandmother used to do it and I sat beside her as a child, it……is peace and quiet. And that is why I have a very good relationship to it, because….today, when people run, fly about, chase each other around, they don’t have time and I can afford to – quietly, with calm nerves and a calm soul – just sit and work.

Hana expressed the opinion that women in lace making clubs pursued technical perfection for its own sake, and that they could not have such an emotional bond with the craft because they had no kinship connections to the lace making communities in Staré Hory or Špania Dolina. Yet, I found that regardless of their family background, the vast majority of lace makers presented lacemaking as evoking emotion. I found that many of my informants fell into lace making a time of change or crises in their lives. Women continually pointed out that it ‘took the mind off’ marital problems or the grief at the loss of relative:

(And when you started, what interested you in it?) I’ll tell you, when you want to make lace, you have to concentrate on it, especially when you are a beginner as I was. And all your worries are set aside. When my husband was very ill, I cried all day, but when you make lace, you have to concentrate on that work… concentration on something else.

A characteristic description of the effect of intense sessions of lace making was the loss of the sense of time passing. Apart from making them ‘forget the time’, lace makers also told me that while making lace, there were periods when they lost awareness of what was going on around them. The American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this experience as a state of ‘flow’. Characteristic of this ‘flow’ sensation, is that the actor – completely engrossed in their activity – concentrates on the skills needed to perform the task and the limitations and possibilities presented within, reflecting little on what may happen around them. I found that learning a new stitch or a new pattern was well-known a source of such a ‘flow’ experience for local lace makers. As the lace maker Jana Horvathová recounted:

And this, when I was learning………I couldn’t learn the half stitch. The lady who taught me would ask ‘What are you doing?’ And I (would say) ‘I’m undoing again’. And now look how nice it is! I like doing it now. And I was giving up, ‘I won’t do it’ I said.

The pleasure with which Jana described how she finally learned the half-stitch illustrates how the acquisition of skill was experienced emotionally. Jana had quite literally mastered the half-stitch because it was only when she was no longer engaged in a frustrating battle with bobbins and thread which did not respond to her efforts that she experienced the ‘flow’ sensation which followed confidence in craft activity.

 A lace maker from the village of Stare Hory, Central Slovakia, shows off a lace tablecloth.

Mastery, therapy, and control, however, were only some of the terms which lace makers used to articulate the emotional outcome of their tactile involvement with their pillow. Indeed, compulsion and obsession emerged as the ‘darker side’ of craft work in my conversations with them: there was apparently a constant danger that the therapeutic value of lace making could be subverted and rather than the lace maker gaining control over the process, it would force her into submission. All my informants described lace making as their love, but also as a curse. Craftswomen warned beginners – half mockingly, half seriously – that lace making is a ‘sickness’ which will never release them once they have come under its spell. Several lace makers told me that they became ‘unwell’ if they did not have an ongoing project pinned on their pillows at all times. This meant that they suffered from a sorts of nervous frustration which could only be mitigated by vigorous activity:

I feel totally sick if I can’t work [make lace]. Sick. I cook, I clean and clean.

Receiving new designs, lace makers described themselves as grabbed by an irresistible urge to execute it, and stubbornly refused to complete other tasks before they had mastered it. Upon encountering a problem, they stayed up long after the rest of the family had retired to bed to battle it out with the pillow, or found they could not rest:

Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up. To see whether I can master it or I can’t master it.

This submission seemed not only to have a pleasurable aspect, but also an addictive power. The un-worked pillow often came up in conversation as a picture of seduction, the pillow itself often being treated as the lace maker’s partner (or adversary) in the process of production. It was not unusual for artisans to stroke (or hit) and speak to their pillows (‘Sit still’! or ‘Now, look what you have done’!).

The author making lace while doing fieldwork.

Lace makers were keen to emphasize the pleasurable aspects of lace making (the paired aspects of therapy and submission). However, as I befriended different artisans, I began to hear them speak of craft activity in much more instrumental terms:

Well, in the summer I don’t make much anyway, when it is so hot, your hands sweat. (So one can work better in the winter?) Yes! (But there isn’t any light?) During the day I work 2-3 hours, and then again in the evening…Everywhere the light has to be turned on at 4 – 5 o’clock, so I work until 9 – 9:30, but only with the white thread. I can’t work with the dark ones, because that is [too much] on the eyes.

Jozefina Mišíková was a lively elderly lady, who at the age of 70 began selling her lace by renting stands at folk festivals and seasonal markets across the country. Mišíková reasoned that she was lonely after her husband’s death, but also that she needed an extra income to supplement her meagre old age pension. Despite her advanced age, she was not only willing to travel several hundreds of kilometres to attend festivals, but she was also a very astute saleswoman, quickly mapping which festivals were worth attending, as well as the tastes of various groups of clients. Mrs Mišíková’s efforts to gain a small income from her craft work were not unique: Whether in Banská Bystrica town, or in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory, lace making emerged as a way of ‘making do’, that is, of supplementing the income from employment, old age pensions, and social benefits. For some informants, like the 26-year-old designer Jaroslava Genderová, who worked for a local clothing manufacturer in Banská Bystrica, ‘making do’ through lace making was a vital part of the family’s domestic economy – the manufacturer she was working for was limping towards bankruptcy and owed her several months wages. As another lace maker living in Špania Dolina told me: Well in this day and age every crown is precious. I don’t mean just for me, but for the other ladies too, for everyone.

The history of lace making as cottage industry in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory means that the craft has always been associated with the need for ‘making do’ in these communities:

(So you learned how to make lace as a small child?) Yes, probably about at the age of 9. I started working then……every day, I had to make such two-three forms (worth), and then mother went to sell it, when there were 5 meters. Because that is how we made our living. Father was always ill. So, my mother worked and I did too, she taught me.

This lace maker’s description of her childhood in the 1940s was typical of that of many of my elderly village informants. The association of lace making with poverty alleviation was further strengthened after the Communist Party’s collectivisation of craft work through the ÚĽUV2 and the organisation Kroj (literally ‘folk costume’), in the early 1950s. As one of my lace making teacher told me:

We used to get orders for holidays, where it had to be done, Sunday, not Sunday, holidays no holidays, it had to be done. So many times I worked all of a Sunday or holiday, so I could get it done. She knew who would do it. (Did they pay more?) No, well they did, but not much. You got more for being able to do more and more complicated (designs). I tried. Those who didn’t need to, didn’t.

Ana Paličková’s statement that ‘(t)hose who didn’t need to, didn’t’ take on difficult orders reveals a pragmatic attitude contrasted to women’s propensity to call their lace making a ‘hobby’ or ‘obsession’ at face value. Moreover, Mrs Paličková’s comment shed light on the apparently addictive nature of lace making practice: It not only suggested that craftswomen were able to resist its seductive aspects, but that lace makers highlighted various aspects of their craft practice according to the context in which it is spoken of. For example, the lace maker Dagmar Babjaková described lace making both as an obsessive hobby (‘Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up’) and a source of income (‘Well, in this day and age every crown is precious’). Pleasure and pragmatism, just like submission and mastery, were not incompatible, but appeared to be used instrumentally by craftswomen in conversation.

When I left the Slovakia and began writing up my findings, I assumed that the experience of lace making as both a pleasurable hobby and as drudgery was unique to the Slovak environment – that is was the result of the harsh economic climate following the end of communism, alongside specific local traditions of domesticity, ideals of femininity, and traditions of lace making as a way for women to supplement the income of their male family members (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons). And yet, when studying the historical experience of lace makers in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found that craftswomen expressed many of the very same mixed feelings of enjoyment, obsession, and distaste towards the craft (see the blog post: Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?). This begs the question of whether – and to what extent – such feelings are the result of the experience of craft work itself, and how much this experience of making is itself influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place.

[All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the participants]

Global Histories of Lace: From the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

Under large glass case to one side of the ground floor of the Pitt Rivers Museum stands a lace maker’s pillow on a lace maker’s ‘horse’, a specially constructed wooden stand. A half-finished sample of lace is pinned to the pillow, a mass of bobbins handing from the pins used to create the intricate pattern. This lace maker’s pillow seems to be a small piece of English history marooned amongst the shrunken heads, baskets, pottery and shields of the Museum’s ethnographic collection. If one traces the history of English lace and lace making traditions through the Pitt River’s collection, it becomes clear that the history of lace and lace making follows the contours of European history itself, the fortunes of England’s lace makers rising and falling together with the religious schisms, economic policies, and changing political alliances between British and Continental rulers over time. Styles of lace we now identify as ‘English’ emerged from the courtly traditions and trade routes of Early Modern Europe, and quickly differentiated into local variants, such as Honiton or Bucks Point, shifting and changing with both domestic and international fashions. However, using the Pitt River’s collection to study traditions of English lace and lace making also reveals the contours of Britain’s own expansionist dreams: Silk lace from in South East Asia and palm needles from Amazonia are just a few of the objects in the Pitt-Rivers collection which serve to remind us that everywhere the technique traveled it became part of local practices and identities.

English lace maker’s ‘horse’ and pillow on exhibit in the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford.

Interest in lace and making lace was spread across the globe together with the imperial ambitions of the major European powers. The technique was carried to North America, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa by emigrants, while Spanish, French, and British educationalists and missionaries taught Native Americans, Amazonians, Indians, and Sri Lankans the technique as part and parcel of their proselytizing efforts. Some of the geographic connections are exotic and reveal the way in which the technique and its instruments were taken up and adjusted to local conditions. In the Museum collection, for example, we find a pottery figure of a woman making pillow lace from Bello Jardem, Pernambuco State, Brazil (1945.2.16 – given by Dr Martins Gonçalves, British Council student, Slade School, Ashmolean Museum). From a similar area are eight bobbins(‘birros’) made of the fruit of the Tucuma palm, Amazonia used for making pillow lace (1961.7.56.1) given to the museum by Dr F. N. Howes, Director of the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew.

By a complex set of connections, the Pitt Rivers Museum acquired lace from in and around Galle on the south coast of what was then Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The lace was collected by Mrs Bland at the beginning of the twentieth century, it then came into the possession of Flora Shelford who lived in Old Headington and who donated it to the Pitt Rivers Museum in August 1919 (Accession number 1919.27.89). In a letter to Mrs Bland, Marion Evans of the Government Training College in Galle wrote ‘Fifty years ago, Honiton was made in Colombo … You will find good quality typical (i.e. Torchon) Ceylon lace in Galle Convent Industrial School, where they are also making a beginning with fine laces; in Moratuwa we have duchess and Valenciennes laces – in Kurunegola good Torchon and a little finer pillow lace – Spanish designs. In Kandy you will find bold pillow lace in the Convent School: but the Church Missionary Society has lace of a better quality…’ (letter from Marion Evans to Mrs Bland 19th April 1908 in Related Documents file linked to Accession Number 1919.27.89). In the same letter Marion Evans speculates as to whether local objects have inspired designs, such as mangoes and whether influences from Eastern Art (capitalized in the original) might eventually extend the range of lace styles.

Lace maker, Sri Lanka

 

As we see from the letter, the names of different styles and qualities of bobbin lace were common knowledge amongst most middle-class women in Britain, but lace itself had already become a global fashion item and a global commodity. Elsewhere in its collections, the Pitt Rivers has bobbins and samples of lace, sometimes done in silk, from Malacca in Malaysia. This was again through Mrs Bland, of whom Flora Shelford wrote ‘My brother-in-law and I have been winding up the house in Letchworth and came across a collection of lace specimens …  My sister did a great deal, as you may know, to revive the native industries in Malacca, and lace was one of these…’ (Flora Shelford letter to Balfour August 1919, Related documents File connected to accession book entry 1919.27.68). As in the case of Mrs. Bland’s efforts in Malacca, the formation of such ‘native  industries’ were often sparked by efforts of female missionaries and colonial officer’s wives to supply local women with a small income. A similar story is found in Travancore, South India. Here, the missionary Mrs Mault established the Nagercoil boarding school for the daughters of Christian converts in 1898 (Haggis 2000). Although the school prepared young women for the university entrance exams, lace-making was an obligatory part of the curriculum. Marketing the lace through throughout British cantonments in Southern India, it not only supplied the pupils with a small income, but eventually came to provide ‘the major financial underpinning of women’s work in the mission’ (2000:115). In Travancore, Christian philanthropy and bourgeois ideals of gendered behaviour become inextricably linked through the medium of lace making. As historian Jane Haggis notes, ‘the missionary wives saw the lace industry as another opportunity to instil those ‘habits of order, cleanliness, industry’ seen to be at the heart of a good Christian home’ (2000:116). Lace making supplied women with an income, and young women with the means to stave off marriage and continue their educations, and kept them from the ‘influence of wicked associates and sinful examples’ (2000:113) while supporting the Christian cause. More importantly, they could do this while staying at home: ‘Sewing and lace making fitted the missionary wives’ idea of ‘respectable’ and ‘useful’ skills for Christian housewives (2000:116). It appears, then, that the ‘utopian commodity consumption’ had been exported to the colonies. Along the way, however, it had garnered the additional virtue of becoming a tool of social and spiritual emancipation. Indeed, in one story recounted by a Travancore missionary, the skills and income of a native ‘lace lady’ (lace maker) enabled her to educated her daughter into a ‘Native Lady dressed in the costume of a Hospital Nurse – with polished, ladylike manners, speaking English with perfect ease and correctness’ (2000:117). Thus, the craft was construed as an instrument of enlightenment in the colonial setting: here, lace making was ‘English’, and ‘Englishness’ was marked out not by the presence of ancient cultural ‘survivals’, but the abandonment of indigenous ways of life in favour of civilized modernity.

While bobbin lace making was a European tradition, the Pitt River’s collection sheds light on how the craft was also a mobile technology which travelled across the entire globe with changing flows of people, materials, and ideas. Lace could therefore be made in an ‘English’ style (or ‘Flemish’ or ‘French’ style), but was also global, taking on and forming local identities as it moved across the world, local variants such as Honiton or Beds Maltese being made using silk in South East Asia and palm needles in Amazonia.

Sources:

Haggis, J. 2000. Ironies of
Emancipation: Changing configurations of ‘Women’s work’ on the ‘mission of
sisterhood’ to Indian women. Feminist Review, 65(3):108-126.

Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?

How do you understand the life of lace makers in the 19th and early 20th century, when they left very few records? Reading newspapers from the time can give us some clues to the thoughts and feelings of craftswomen, but surprisingly the tools of the trade also ‘speak’ to us across the decades.

The overwhelming fact of lace makers’ lives during the 19th century was poverty. Their fortunes were not only determined by changing fashions and the fluctuating trade policies of the Parliament, but also larger questions of foreign policy and power-shifts on the Continent. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: lace makers in the East Midlands, for example, enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Even in such periods of commercial success, however, only a minute portion of the overall profits of the trade ever made it into the hands of the lace makers themselves. From 19th century sources, we know that the reality of a lace maker’s life was often harsh: Working from home, women were often forced to work for 8 to 10 hours daily, as well as running the household.

Despite a growing number of reports detailing the dire working conditions of lace makers and the adverse effects these had on women’s health, lace making was often publicly extolled as offering women a virtuous way out of poverty. Thus, in 1780, a parliamentary white paper considering a reinstatement of a previous ban on French laces remarked that lace making ‘only kept those Hands employed that would otherwise have been mischievous or idle’ and ‘while the Male Part of the Family were employed in Agriculture abroad, the Wife and Daughters were equally assiduous in their gainful Occupations at home’ (1780:2). The considerable gains from the industry, the author continued, ‘might be considered as a voluntary Tribute paid by the Rich to the industrious Poor’ (1780:2). Historian Elaine Freedgood has described this self-imposed patronage of working class lace makers by a nobility relieved from labour, and by the philanthropy of bourgeois housewives, as a mode of ‘utopian commodity consumption’ in which the supply and demand of the market was replaced by a language of ‘need and duty as affluent women are enjoined to support the efforts of labouring women’ (2003:628). Lacemaking, in short, was presented as a charitable means of preserving the moral virtue of labouring women by those who had no need to work themselves.

Northampton Mercury and Herald, Friday January 19th, 1934.

Lace makers themselves experienced craftwork as both a compulsive, almost pleasurable obsession, and straightforward drudgery. In 1933, the elderly Mrs Johnson told the Northampton Mercury that the life of a lace maker was one of ‘unremitting toil’; and yet she missed her work. Once, she reminisced, she had ‘sat from four o’clock in the morning to eight o’clock at night working on a cuff, and the pillow had to be dragged away from me. I wanted nothing more than to sit in my room with the door shut and the work in front of me’. Others, however, had much less sympathetic memories of the trade. In an interview in 1979, a Mrs Swain from Greens Norton, remembered how she was forced to make lace as a child: “I should say you’d find a piller [pillow] in everybody’s house that were poor people. All the women in the town [village] had to do it, and all the girls had to learn. I detested it. My mother used to say, when I come from school, “Now sit down and do your piller-work. The sooner you do it, the sooner you’ll get out to play.” She goes on to account how she later burned the lace making pillow, her mother’s bobbin winder, and the pillow stand – even though it had been made by her brother and was apparently ‘a beauty’. For Mrs Swain, the pillow, its stand, and the winding wheel had become symbols of the drudgery of the trade, and her enforced labour as a child.

Mrs Swain, however, did not mention burning her mother’s bobbins. Indeed, if one looks at both contemporary newspaper material and later accounts, lace makers’ bobbins are often spoken about in far warmer terms than other tools of the trade. This is partly due to the fact that they were a collection of tools unique to each lace maker. Hand carved or turned on a treadle lathe, bobbins were commonly made of wood or bone and could be intricately carved, painted, inlaid with pewter, wire-bound or inscribed with names and dates. Lace makers would sometimes thread charms and mementos onto their spangles, such as buttons, shells or coins. Bobbins inscribed with names were extremely common. They were often made to commemorate births and deaths, and many bobbins carried blessings and religious messages (‘Seek Salvation’). Bobbins carrying messages of love were also common gifts given from young men to their sweethearts. The power of a gift of a bobbin to create bonds between persons was exploited by people from beyond a lace maker’s immediate circle of friends and family. Bobbins with the names of political candidates and their slogans were distributed at election time and some lace dealers gave their workers bobbins as gifts. Lace makers generally worked for more than one dealer and these gifts may have been an attempt from the dealers’ side to monopolize the services of particularly talented craftswomen. Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘William’. From the collection of the Museum of Rural English Life, Reading

Bone bobbin decorated with the name ‘Fox’. From the collection of the Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford.

 

A lace maker’s collection of bobbins, then, was like a very personal, material record of her family relations, friendships, and love life. Indeed, in families where lace making had been a tradition, but was no longer practiced, it was often the bobbins which were kept for posterity long after pillows, pillow stands and other paraphernalia had been given or thrown away. Reporting on the revival of lace making lessons at St Mary’s School in Stony Stratford, the Northampton Mercury reported that two students arrived with such heirloom bobbins, enthusiastically claiming that they were 200 and 400 years old, respectively. While it is unlikely, although not impossible, that these bobbins had actually survived several centuries of pillow-work, the claims that they were extremely old seemed to be about presenting tangible evidence of these local families’ long involvement in the industry. Similarly, the aforementioned Mrs Johnson claimed that one of her bobbins had belonged to her great-grandmother and was 200 years old. Made of bone, it bore the inscription ‘I like my choice too well to change’. Bobbins, however, were also commodities – like lace-making, bobbin-making was a profession which ran in families – and as such, they were liable to be not only bought and gifted, but also stolen. In 1860, for example, the Bucks Herald reported that a certain Mary Dormer of Milton Keynes stole 12 bobbins from Hannah Robinson, and was imprisoned for 6 weeks for her crime.

 

 

Notification from the Bucks Herald reporting Mary Dormer’s theft of twelve bobbins, Saturday July 14th, 1860.

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