Category: Lacemakers’ tools

The lacemaker and the household in Canaan, Brazil

Guest post by Júlia Brussi, Federal University of Western Pará, Brasil

In late afternoons, when the sun has already “cooled down” and most of the daily domestic activities have been completed, the lacemakers of Canaan, a district of a small town Trairi, in the state of Ceará in the Brazilian Northeast, put their cylindrical pillows in front of their houses. Alone or in small groups, they handle their bobbins and make their laces while appreciating the refreshing breeze coming from the sea. However, that is not the only time of the day that they dedicate themselves to lacemaking. In fact, they use every single break between their many domestic activities to ‘knock’ their bobbins and make progress their lace (BRUSSI, 2015). During the hottest moments of the day, they search for more ventilated and well illuminated spaces in their house to work in, which usually ends up being the backyard or near the main door.

Lacemakers in the afternoon, while they make lace and chat in front of their houses.

The fact that the production of bobbin lace is mainly a domestic activity is evident to every visitor. However, there are less noticeable aspects that reinforce this relation between the domestic space and lacemaking. They range from the reproduction of the knowledge, the access, or the making of the tools involved in lace making to the commercialization of what has been produced.

A preliminary observation in this regard concerns the spatial distribution of the district of Canaan, which is divided in sectors that could be described as family-based, considering the high concentration of a given family relatives within the same neighborhood. Some of these locations are even named after the local family name, as in the “Ally of the Martins”. Such proximity ensures that a support and mutual help network is maintained between the residents of these places, aspects of which are revealed in the management of daily life, in the raising of children, in the production of lace, and in the reproduction of these skills. The relative isolation of some neighborhoods associated with kinship and gift relations that connect their inhabitants, is even reflected in the quality of the lace produced in each location. There is a family, for example, which lacemakers are known for been experts in doing the lace with a finer thread, that involves a more laborious process. Some families distinguish themselves for producing the lace with ‘half stitch’, which makes the process faster, saves thread, and results in a less firm lace. Others worry about doing the lace with the ‘cloth stitch’ considered by them as more well done lace, even considering that it wastes more thread, that it takes longer, and that these two kind of laces will be sold for same amount of money.

The house, besides being the locus of lace production, is also the main socialization space for children. The constant presence of the pillow in the environment and the daily use that lacemakers make of these objects, associated with the rhythmic movement of lacing, the colors of the threads, and the sound of the beat between the bobbins, raises the children’s interest and curiosity. By playing with bobbins, threads and pillows they learn how to handle the tools and, slowly, they incorporate the necessary skills to make lace. The playing and its daily repetition make them develop the ability to perform all gesture and elementary actions ((ROUX & BRIL, 2002) involved in the production of lace. As they grow up and become interested in the activity, girls are slowly introduced to the different processes that involve the production of a piece of lace. Although the bobbin lace can be learned by children of either sexes (and sometimes it is actually learned by boys), in Canaan, it is eminently a feminine activity.

Aunt and niece making lace on the veranda of a house.

Among the skills that must be learnt and trained by the apprentices, in addition to making the actual lace, there are a series of essential activities, such as the collection, production, or maintenance of the instruments necessary for working on the pillow and the commercialization of the finished work. The cotton thread is the only material that the lacemakers buy in the market, whereas bobbins are usually purchased from residents of the district who specialize in this production selling them from door to door. The bobbins are made from the seed of the tucum palm (Bactris setosa), which must be collected, cleaned, sanded, perforated, and affixed to a previously sculpted wooden spindle. The biggest difficulty is being able to access the palm tree, which is increasingly rare to be found around the district. Lace pillows are usually made by the lacemakers themselves, out of the fabrics of old hammocks, as well as the prickings, although there are also people on the district who offer these products. The banana straw, used to fill the pillow, and the thorns, used as pins, are collected in the vicinity of the district, amid native vegetation. These thorns, originating from a characteristic cactus (Cereus jamacaru) from the native vegetation, are collected once a year, during the dry season. The thorns are more advantageous than the pins, as in addition to leaving the household budget untouched, they don’t rust in the salty air of Trairi and thus, they do not run the risk of staining the lace.

Lacemaker in activity, producing one of the eight strips of lace that composes one shirt.

The sale of the finished laces can also be carried out without leaving the domestic space. It is important to highlight that most of the local production of lace is destined for middlemen, who resell it to market traders on the beaches and in the capital of the state, Fortaleza. Many of these middlemen are local residents, most are women, many of whom are lacemakers (active or inactive), whose economic condition allows them to buy laces to be stored and later resold. It is common for them to visit the lacemakers’ house, or to send their emissaries (daughters, cousins, sister-in-law), to find out if there are finished laces or to place specific orders. Each lacemaker maintains contact with a few of these intermediaries and, if necessary, they can use them even to anticipate small amounts of money.

The household therefore occupies a central place in relation to the bobbin lace activity. There, lace and lacemakers grow and constitute themselves mutually. It is worth remembering at this point about the relation Lave and Wengler (1999) established between apprenticeship, social participation and identity. As the authors point out, the learning process does not only involve the development of certain skills, but implies the formation of a “full participant”, a member of the group, a type of person (LAVE & WENGER, 1999, p. 53). As they are trained in the pillow work, the girls also learn lessons about everything that involves being a good lacemaker, in other words, a “good woman” according to the local conception.

Part of this ethics, this way of being in the world specific to lacemakers, is an aspect that is specifically related to the house. The ideal lacemaker is a woman who keeps herself constantly busy, whether with domestic care or with the lace pillow. The sphere of circulation of that woman should primarily be limited to the domestic space and its surroundings. Her time and body should be, for the most part, occupied and limited. In this perspective, lace is a very effective form of social control over women in Canaan. By remaining active on their lace pillows, the girls are under the supervision and control of their relatives and neighbors. They learn that ‘knocking’ their bobbins, and staying productively busy, is better than watching time going by or wandering in the streets. In contrast to home as known and safe place, the street represents a series of dangers from which mainly young women must be kept at distance.

This does not mean, of course, that there isn’t space for individual choices and actions or that every women conform themselves to these perspectives. The foundation of an Association, the Canaan Lacemakers and Farmers Association, focused on the interests of the lacemakers, in 2005, presents two interesting points in this sense. In the first place, it reflects the mobilization of a group of women whose principal aim was to increase the range of their consumers and the value of their sales. With that goal in mind they expanded their area of circulation, took courses, took part in expositions, and traveled to fairs. Many of them had to face the resistance of their families, who took a negative view of their dedication to the Association and the corresponding reduction of their time home. One lacemaker even separated from her husband since he did not accept her participation in the Association. If we look more closely to the group that takes part of this venture, however, we will see how the pressures of the household and gendered ideals are still effective. Most of those lacemakers who play active role in the Association are separated or widowed, and, thus, do not face the greatest source of resistance faced by the others, a husband. Many don’t have little children anymore, which is also a factor that maintains women at home.

Finally, it is important to highlight that every lacemaker, no matter the scope of their daily circulation or their attachment to the house, seeks though lacemaking a moment of distraction, entertainment, pleasure that, at the same time, allows them financial gain and a greater autonomy. We can suppose that lace constitutes both a form of social control and a potential of liberation, which in addition to contributing to the domestic budget, makes them forget their problems and everyday pressures for a while.

References

BRUSSI, Júlia Dias Escobar. “Batendo bilros”: rendeiras e renda em Canaan (Trairi – CE). Tese de Doutorado, Programa de Pós-Graduação em Antropologia Social da Universidade de Brasilia. Brasília, 2015.

LAVE, Jean; WENGER, Etienne. Situated learning: legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999. (Learning in doing).

ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine. Observation et expérimentation de terrain : des collaborations fructueuses pour l’analyse de l’expertise technique. Le cas de la taille de pierre en Inde. In: ROUX, Valentine; BRIL, Blandine (Ed.). Le geste technique: réflexions méthodologiques et anthropologiques. Ramonville Saint-Agne: Editions Erès, 2002. p. 29–48.

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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