Category: Lacemakers’ tools

The lace industry = a cottage industry. A representation of a lacemaker’s work environment

For several centuries the Flemish lace industry was a cottage industry. Different generations worked together in their home. In this way, girls got an early grasp of the craft. They could also learn it in the numerous lace schools. After their training, they could choose to work in lace workshops rather than at home, but that was rare. Most girls, now adolescents, returned home to produce lace in the companionship of their female relatives.

In an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919, a photograph depicts three generations of Belgian lacemakers working together at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it might also be a staged montage. Belgium, Brussels, Art & History Museum. Photo: author.

During a visit to the Art & History Museum in Brussels, I was shown an album containing a black-and-white photograph. The photograph depicts three generations of lacemakers working indoors at the beginning of the twentieth century: an elderly woman and two girls are sitting in the front, while two young women have taken their place behind the girls. All except the youngest girl produce bobbin lace. They do so by sitting behind a lacemaker’s ‘horse’ (‘chevalet’ in French, ‘staantje’ in Dutch, though for all lace equipment there are a variety of local names), a specially constructed wooden stand, that is adjustable in height and contains a drawer. On top of this horse, the lacemakers have placed a lace pillow or cushion (‘carreau’ in French or ‘kussen’ in Dutch), to which they have attached a ‘pricking’ (‘patron’ or ‘piqué’ in French, ‘perkament’ in Dutch), a pattern drawn on parchment or card. The women replicate the pricking through the use of an even number of threads ranging from eight to more than a thousand. These threads are looped over pins arranged at the top of the pricking and wound at its lower end around a bobbin (‘fuseau’ in French, ‘klosje’ or ’boutje’ in Dutch). The elderly woman and the oldest child use a limited number of bobbins, while the two young women each seem to use around a hundred bobbins as is visible from the stacked bobbins on one or both sides of their cushions. All four of them cross over or twist the threads to produce lace. Thin strips of the textile are indeed visible on the cushions of the elderly woman and the eldest child. The work of the two young women cannot be seen as they sit behind the two girls. The youngest of the two girls doesn’t make lace, but ensures all the bobbins are full of thread. She takes care of this task with the help of a spinning wheel and a bobbin winder (a ‘dévidoir or ‘bobinoir’, or ‘kloswinder’ in Dutch). After the spools are wound with thread, she puts them in a box at her feet.

The five women work indoors, where on dark days a lit candle is placed behind a spherical water carafe or ‘flash’ (seen on the left, known as an ‘ordinaal’ in Dutch) to provide concentrated light. During the summer, the lacemakers work outside in the bright sunlight. At the end of the working day, they carefully wrap their product in blue paper – or in a white cloth as in this case – and put it in the drawer under their lace pillow. In this way, the textile remains snow-white, which is extremely important if it is to receive a good price. The use of bobbins also contributes to the whiteness of the lace as the lacemakers can manipulate the thread without touching it. The lacemakers even take additional measures to prevent any discolouration of the thread: they regularly wash their hands, put an apron over their clothes and keep their surroundings spotless in order to secure their payment in money or kind.

A closer look to the interior not only reveals the lacemakers’ commitment to their craft. It also proves their dedication to such virtues as ‘cleanliness, industry, family responsibility and domestic stability’.[i] At the left, the unlit hearth – complete with a decorated cast-iron fire back, trammel hook, typical blue-and-white Delft tiles and a curtain – functions as the traditional association between women and domesticity. The old grandfather clock registers the many hours the lacemakers industriously devote to their craft, while Christ casts a divine eye over their labours from his wall pedestal above the women and their work. A linen cupboard is placed against the right wall, storing the housewares and leaving no clutter. In short, the whole interior, including the white-chalked walls and the scrubbed terracotta floor, is presented as an examplar of cleanliness – the pride of every housewife.

At first sight, the photograph seems a snapshot from reality, yet it might also be a staged montage. There are a few clues to support that idea. First of all, the women sit in such a way that each nicely dressed individual is clearly visible for viewers. In addition, they have displayed all tools necessary for lacemaking. Even the water carafe and footwarmer are allocated a place, although they are not required in the clearly lit and seemingly warm room. A closer examination of the fireplace, the terracotta floor and white-chalked walls shows that they are without a sign of usage, suggesting a newly-built or reconstructed interior.

The homes of lacemakers were regularly reconstructed in the context of exhibitions focusing on home industries, including the lace industry. These exhibitions flourished in Europe during the first decade of the twentieth century. The first exhibition on home industries opened its doors in Berlin in March 1904, followed by further iterations in cities including London, Frankfurt-am-Main, Zurich and Amsterdam. Belgium followed and mounted three similar exhibitions before the First World War: Brussels and Ghent both organised one during the World Exhibitions in 1910 and 1913. Antwerp held one in 1913.[ii]

Just like those held abroad, the Belgian exhibitions both advertised the produced goods while simultaneously highlighting the labour conditions endured by home workers. These conditions were clarified through information on the number of workers in these industries, the hours they worked and the income they received, while workers practised their profession in the reconstructed homes, demonstrating to visitors the production process. Even though the workers put on their best clothes and the reconstructed buildings were in a much better state than the original ones, the visitors realised how precarious were the labour conditions in the home industries. The 1906 exhibition in London was even called the ‘The Sweated Industries Exhibition.’[iii] Everywhere, the initiators of such exhibitions were opposed to ‘the sweating system’ and strongly desired to ameliorate the workers’ conditions. But on the whole they were not opposed to the home industries as such. Especially for women and girls, the home was depicted as a safe, moral and desirable workplace. This idea is also propagated in the photograph of the three generations of lacemakers. Together they represent the past, present and future of the craft practised in domestic surroundings.

Even though, we cannot be completely certain if the photograph depicting three generations of lacemakers was staged or not, its current location does hint that it did serve both economic and ideological purposes. The image was inserted in an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919. The Baroness was an amateur artist, wife of the banker Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), and most importantly one of the core members of the Comité de la Dentelle [Lace Committee].[iv] The committee had been founded in Antwerp in 1909 as the Kantbloemen [Lace flowers]. Less than a year later, it moved to Brussels and changed its name to the Amies de la Dentelle [The Friends of Lace], before becoming the Comité de la Dentelle during the first months of the First World War.[v]

Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) with umbrella, her husband Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), their five children and their dogs. Photo: Wikiwand.

During the war years, the Lace Committee was primarily concerned about the survival of the Belgian handmade lace industry.[vi] Originally, the association, like its equivalents in other countries founded around the turn of the century, had aimed to revive the Belgian lace industry and to improve the fate of the overwhelmingly female workers. Its members were all philanthropists, predominantly women from nobility and the bourgeoisie like the aforementioned Baroness Josse Allard. Benefactors in other countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland took similar actions in order to preserve their local production of handmade lace.[vii]

In Belgium and elsewhere, the production of handmade lace suffered from the ever-growing menace of the machine-made lace industry. In just a few decades after its invention in the early-nineteenth century, machine-made lace looked just as attractive as ‘true lace’. Additionally, it was considerably cheaper, because it could be produced much faster. In order to compete, the already low wages of handmade lacemakers were cut. Many women subsequently left their bobbins and cushions in order to work in the newly built factories. In half a century, the number of Belgian lacemakers diminished from 150,000 in 1850 to just 50,000 in 1900.[viii] Those who continued to make lace, were compelled to produce more for the same price. The lacemakers became impoverished, while the laces’ quality deteriorated.[ix]

In the years following their foundation, the members of the Lace Committee, then still called the Amies de la Dentelle, developed plans to revive the Belgian handmade lace industry while also working to improve the lacemakers’ situation. They mainly sought to increase the quality of lace and the attractiveness of lace designs, thus creating demand for lacemakers’ produce. These goals were to be obtained by improving the training in lace schools and by commissioning new drawings, preferably by artists.[x] (An earlier post concerning The Irish Homestead’s ‘Lace Designs’ Series (1900-1902) focuses on the newly designed patterns aimed to revive the Irish handmade lace industry in the early years of the twentieth century, a comparable enterprise.) The members of the Lace Committee did not focus on the commercial aspects of the enterprise, such as demanding a higher and fairer price from the consumer, organising trade unions or negotiating with lace dealers and factories. Marguerite Coppens, the former curator of the Art & History Museum textile collection in Brussels, somewhat ironically stated: ‘The importance of sales was not denied, but deliberately obscured so as not to provoke manufacturers. Moreover, the ladies patronesses did not like to get involved in “the sale”.’[xi]

However, the existence of the album in which the photograph is inserted, proves these ladies patronesses did get involved in ‘the sale’, that is the commercial aspects of production. The album consists of photographs and drawings of lace samples accompanied by a short description and the price. The album thus functioned as a portfolio that was shown to potential buyers who could choose from a wide range of products and designs. The former included bedcovers, tablecloths, fans, umbrellas, doilies, handkerchiefs and lace by the yard. Most designs depicted characters from fairy tales, bucolic scenes, animals, mythical figures and, above all, flowers. Today, the wartime-produced lace is especially remembered for a much smaller, though highly publicised, number of designs that referred directly to the conflict. These were called ‘war lace’ and included names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces and the martyred cities of Belgium. (The blog post war lace recounts how a luxury fabric as lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.)

The black-and-white photograph of the three generations of lacemakers working indoors in the early twentieth century was meant to convince potential buyers of the importance – moral as much as economic – of their purchase. Every franc they spent would contribute to the revival of the Belgian lace industry and improve the lacemakers’ situation. But, at the same time, the photograph, and the album as a whole, demonstrate the Lace Committee’s nostalgia for an imagined past. A past in which they believed lacemaking had been economically viable and permitted women to work in their homes, where they committed themselves to their craft, their family and their household.

The Belgian lace industry continued to decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Many lacemakers were compelled to leave their bobbins and their homes for opportunities elsewhere. Since then, the album and the photograph serve as witness to the last generation of commercial lacemakers, and as a testimony to the efforts undertaken by the Baroness Allard, the Lace Committee and other philanthropists to revive the Belgian lace industry as a thriving cottage industry.

Wendy Wiertz, research fellow KU Leuven
wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be

 

[i] David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 215.

[ii] Anne Askenasi-Neuckens and Hubert Galle, Les derniers ouvriers libres : Le travail à domicile en Belgique (Brussels: Tournesol Conseils sa/ Éditions Luc Pire, 2000), 43-69.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020), pp. 2-3.

[v] The Lace Committee executed their plans during the First World War. Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace: Lace Designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943),’ Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989), pp. 73-90; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exh. cat. Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussels: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 109-16; Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff,’ Revue belge d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75; Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), p. 87.

[vi] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph, 4th ed. (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917), pp. 158-66; Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium. A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920); Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit België van de zestiende eeuw tot heden. Een keuze van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis te Brussel, exh. cat., Antwerp, Volkskundemuseum (Brussels: Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, 1981), p. 119, cat. nrs. 85-88; Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 116-32, cat. nrs. 62-76, 77a, 79-82; Martine Bruggeman, L’Europe de la dentelle. Un aperçu historique depuis les originaires de la dentelle jusqu’à l’entre-deux-guerre, exh. cat., Bruges, Arenthuis/ Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Bruges: Stichting Kunstboek, 1997), pp. 140-43; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 22-3, 87-97; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle (Paris: Racine, 2018), pp. 577-79.

[vii] Geoff Spenceley, ‘The Lace Associations: Philanthropic Movements to Preserve the Production of Hand-Made Lace in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,’ Victorian Studies 16, 4 (1973): pp. 433-52.

[viii] These numbers are estimates. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry,’ Textile 18:1 (2020), p. 55.

[ix] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 11-5; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 68-9.

[x] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 16-8, 109-13; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 87f.

[xi] The original text in Dutch is: ‘Het belang van de verkoop wordt niet ontkend, maar bewust verdoezeld om de fabrikanten niet te provoceren. Bovendien laten de dames patronessen zich niet graag in met “de verkoop”.’ Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, p. 112.

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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