Heritage Craft - Lace Making Information Sheet

Heritage Craft - Lace Making
Information Sheet
How lace is made
Bobbin, or pillow lace is made by using a paper or
parchment pattern laid on a pillow, stitches are then
made by twisting threads together, which are held in
place with pins. The thread, usually cotton or silk, is
twisted using onto bone or wooden bobbins to keep
the threads taught and tidy.
Here is a very clear demonstration from Youtube with
someone working on a piece of lace in the Bucks
Point style:
Bobbins could be simple, decorated or personalised
and are highly collectable.
Lace Makers Bobbins
Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire lace styles are
different. Bucks Point lace edgings clearly showing
the Point Ground i.e. the net effect around which a
more complex pattern is woven.
The lace was mainly used for edgings and in the 19th
century Bucks lace was often referred to as ‘baby
lace’ because of its use on babies’ garments. The
edgings would also be used on the cuffs and collars of
adult garments.
Bucks Point Lace
The history of lace-making in the South Midlands
Lace has been made on the continent for many
centuries and it is probable that lace-making was a
craft brought to England by Flemish migrants in the
late 16th century.
Pillow lace making was centred in Buckinghamshire,
Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire and south
Northamptonshire. Lace making was a cottage
Bedfordshire Lace
industry and generally performed by the very poor in workhouses (to earn their keep) or by the wives
and daughters of lower paid workers, especially agricultural labourers.
We have documentary evidence that in 1592 in Eaton Socome in Bedfordshire there was payment of 2d
per week ‘to the woman that teaches the poor children to work bone lace’.
Parents had to pay to send their children to lace schools but it was worth the expense once their lace was
saleable. Conditions in lace schools were hard and hours were long. Children attended from the age of 6,
and those in Hanslope were only allowed about 10 minutes a day for ‘scrambling’ and could not talk
while working.
Organisation of the lace trade
There were many roles associated with the trade including pattern maker, bobbin maker, lace buyer and
lace dealer. The lace dealer was the most powerful. He generally distributed patterns and thread to the
cottage-bound lace makers and they would have to sell their lace to him.
Newport Pagnell and Olney both became important
lace making towns from early on. Newport Pagnell
had an important lace market and in 1767 the Rev.
William Cole of Bletchley records in his diary that his
friend Mr Cartwright came in drunk from Newport
Pagnell lace market. He set off the next day to
Gloucester with £1,000 worth of lace!
George Cooke in his history of the County of
Buckingham, 1820, states, ‘according to the returns
under the population act in 1801, [Newport Pagnell]
A lace school believed to be in Stokenchurch, Bucks
then contained 541 houses and 2,048 inhabitants; the
greatest part of whom are employed in the manufacture of lace, of which a greater quantity is here made
by hand than in any other town in England’.
Many of the local villages, like Great Linford, were supplying lace that went to the Newport Pagnell
Census data on lacemakers at Great Linford
from the mid 19th century can be seen in this
0 to 10
11 to 20
21 to 30
31 to 40
41 to 50
51 to 60
61 to 70
The lace industry was already in decline at
the beginning of the 19 century although
the censuses show a peak in activity around
1861. Queen Victoria and members of the aristocracy helped bring lace back into fashion.
We know from the census that in 1871 there
was a lace makers’ school on the High St. of
Great Linford run by a Mary Mills.
Lace from the South Midlands region was always of lesser quality and therefore cheaper than the lace
made in Honiton or on the continent. Competition from machine made lace, particularly from
Nottingham, was problematic but Bucks lace continued to sell because it was inexpensive.
Social conditions for lace makers
William Cowper, the Olney poet, wrote in 1780 ‘I am an eyewitness .... and do know that hundreds of
this little town are upon the point of starving and that the most unremitting industry is but barely
sufficient to keep them from it. There are nearly one thousand and two hundred lace makers in this
beggarly town’.
Conditions for lace makers were always difficult. In the 1860s a child might earn 3s for a week working
from daylight until 9 or 10 at night. Children were working as lace-makers from infancy. Lace makers
were renowned for being unhealthy looking and they tended not be very well educated.
In the 1860s there were a number of commissioners’ reports investigating the employment of children.
In the first report, 1863, a commissioner wrote of a lace school in Newport Pagnell ‘This cottage is
reached by a narrow untidy yard, and the room crowded and hot. The girls were working on without
candle after it was so dark that I could hardly see to write. Working in such imperfect light must be
injurious to the eyes’.
The factory acts started to improve the lot of children in industry but it was not until the Education Act of
1870, after which children had to attend school, that there was any real impact on the lives of children in
cottage industries.
The poverty suffered by lace makers was witnessed by aristocratic families and towards the end of the
19th century a few of them created philanthropic lace associations. The Winslow (Bucks) Lace Industry
provided employment for about 70 local women from 1874 until
1925 and was set up by Rose and Lucy Hubbard, the daughters of
Lord Addington.
Towards the end of the pillow lace industry, in 1906, Harry
Armstrong of Stoke Goldington set up the Bucks Cottage Workers
Agency which was estimated to have employed about 600 lace
workers. He built a warehouse in Olney in 1928, which still stands.
These were the final days of the lace trade in England as the battle
with cheap imports and machine made lace was lost. However,
lace making can be enjoyed by many as a pastime and the skills are
still handed down in many of the towns and villages of
Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire.
Bucks Cottage Workers Agency Warehouse, Olney
Find out more
The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney www.cowperandnewtonmuseum.org.uk
Buckinghamshire County Museum, Aylesbury
Higgins Art Gallery and Museum, Bedford http://www.cecilhigginsartgallery.org/
With thanks for the use of images to The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney and Elizabeth Love at