Friday, 27 July 2007

On the lace trail

Fate found us in Devon for a few days last week and while we were there, dodging the storms that put parts of the county under water, we spent a few happy hours in Honiton, home of lace-making.

As luck would have it, there was a textiles fair in progress in one of the public halls -- a sort of flea market for anything involving fashion, sewing and of course fancy lace -- so you can guess where we spent most time ... and money!

Honiton lace achieved a national reputation for quality in the late 18th century and in the 19th century, it became a fashion item with mass appeal.

It was a cottage industry, allowing members of rural households who were not directly employed in farming or fishing, to contribute to the family income.

This tended to be women and girls, but there were men lace-makers, and boys were taught the skills alongside their sisters.

However, not all Devon lace was made in Honiton. It was called Honiton lace because it arrived in London, the main market, by the Honiton coach, later the Honiton train. In fact, lace was made in a wide area around the town.

Nevertheless, Honiton had a large population of lace-makers and for hundreds of years it was the main industry of the town.

Today, the only lace made in Honiton is worked by hobbyists and a handful of old faithfuls who supply pieces for the strong tourist trade.

How the industry started there is open to debate. There are those who believe it was introduced by Flemish refugees fleeing from the cruelty of the Iron Duke of Alva in 1568.

Others reckon the business was already established in the bustling textile town, although everyone agrees that Honiton lace enjoys strong similarities with that from Antwerp and Flanders.

How ever it started, lace-making brought wealth to a chosen few merchants who each employed hundreds of homeworkers -- often entire families -- to weave for them exclusively.

The work was extremely labour-intensive with even the smallest piece taking hours to complete. It was woven with bobbins on a lace pillow -- a circular pad made of cotton and stuffed with straw or bran.

Designs are composed of intricate groups of motifs, called "sprigs", usually sprays of flowers, birds, animals, figures, crests, or other stylised shapes, which were sewn together in a pre-arranged format and mounted on to a net which was itself pillow-made lace.

Lace collars, handkerchiefs, bonnets and shawls were among most popular Honiton products, which were snapped up by the wealthy as well as being exported to Europe throughout the 17th and 18th centuries.

By the early 18th century, more than 5,000 lace-makers were working in East Devon, more than 1,500 of them in Honiton alone.

Children learned the skill from their parents but soon, schools were established in the main centres where pupils aged between five and seven were apprenticed to a lace teacher for a period of two years.

During this time, the teacher kept and sold the lace the pupils made and also charged a fee of a penny a week per child.

After completing their apprenticeship, the children were allowed to keep what they made but the charge for attending school rose first to sixpence and then threepence, depending on how much tuition they still needed.

The Royal family were great fans of Honiton lace. Queen Victoria wore a wedding dress and train made from white Spitalfields satin and trimmed with lace which alone cost £1,000 in 1840.

She was so impressed with the quality of the work that she commissioned a christening robe for her eldest son, later King Edward VII.

Court ladies followed the fashion and placed similar orders, while the Princess Royal, Princess Alice and the Princess of Wales all wore Honiton lace on their wedding dresses. The tradition continues today.

Royal patronage gave the industry a boost to the industry during difficult times.

In 1816, entrepreneur John Heathcote established a factory at nearby Tiverton and despite protests from the Luddites, installed machines he had invented that could each do the work of a dozen lace-makers.

The quality of the lace produced by machines was much lower than the genuine handmade product, but the speed with which it could be made caused prices to plummet.

The effect was disastrous. Homeworkers tried to compete with the machines, using fewer and fewer bobbins, the simplest of patterns and the coarsest threads, with the result that what they made went by the derogatory name of "rag-lace".

Today's collectors have little trouble in spotting genuine handmade Honiton lace. The textile fair we attended was replete with the stuff and it was changing hands for reasonable money.

A 19th century collar could be had for around £50, while 18th century lengths with the most charming designs were still under £100.

Advice to the newcomer is to buy from reputable sources and dealers. Honiton has more antique shops per square mile than you can shake a stick at and I thoroughly recommend a visit.

Bob, bob, bobbin along

The complexity of handmade lace is mind boggling. The method goes something like this: first, as many bobbins as are required for the pattern - 50 or more for some complex designs - are loaded with thread.
Once the pattern template is attached to the lace-maker’s pillow, the first of dozens of pins are pushed through the holes in it and into the straw of the pillow and a bobbin attached to them in turn.
When the pillow is fully "dressed", the lace-maker then starts to cross one group of bobbins with another in the rotation required by the pattern, building up the thickness of the thread as necessary and progressively inserting more pins as the lace grows in size.
The fact that so many bobbins were required for a pattern means collectors of the things probably have more success than those searching for the lace produced by them!
Prices start from the proverbial fiver but multiply rapidly for rarities.
In simple terms, bobbins are slender pieces of turned wood or bone of about four inches in length.
One end is usually fitted with weights to keep the thread taught, while the other has a narrower section to hold the thread.
It terminates in a small turned head or knop around which the thread can temporarily fastened while the bobbin is in use.
Best are those with pretty glass beads of different colours strung on brass or copper wire to act as the weight - known as spangles - and naive carvings or inscriptions along the length of the shank.
Most have spangles comprising a single large bead with smaller ones either side, but others are found with a "bird cage" spangle. This has a single large bead surrounded by four strands of smaller ones.
"Square cut spangles" are beads that were impressed with a file when hot during their manufacture, while some turn up occasionally with good luck charms such as army buttons, shells and coins in place of the beads.
Those with a heart-shaped large bead were intended as Valentines and usually have a suitable motto inscribed on the shank.
Inscriptions are many and varied, although few are found on wooden bobbins, perhaps because they were quickest to wear away.
Most common are those with christian names, prefixed with the words "Dear …", "Sweet …" or "Bless My …".
Rarest inscriptions are those that are dated or that bear both a name and a place name.
Some commemorate deaths and others are marked "A gift from ...", often indicating they were gifts from lace-making teachers to reward pupils for good attendance or good work.
Pious messages were also popular, as were saucy entreaties such as "Squeeze me tight".
Bone bobbins are also commonly found with carved decoration highlighted by coloured dyes, while others, particularly wooden examples, are adorned with wire banding and metal inlays.
Rare oddities are finely carved bobbins with hinged spangles and others made of glass or expensive ivory, while those with loose dotted rings are a particularly clever feat of carving.

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