The making of an openwork fabric by the manipulation of a single thread (needlelace) or multiple threads (bobbin lace) by hand.
|Historic area of significance||East Midlands, Devon|
|Area currently practised||UK|
|Origin in the UK||16th century|
There are two main methods of making traditional lace: with a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace). Lace can also be made with a crochet hook, knitting needles or tatting or netting shuttle. It is believed that lace originated in the late fifteenth or early sixteenth century, and rapidly developed from the 1550s onwards. By 1600 high quality lace was being made in many centres across Europe including Flanders, Italy, Spain, France and England. The demand for lace continued to grow in the seventeenth through to the nineteenth centuries, with the styles changing to meet the varying demands of fashion.
The Industrial Revolution heralded profound changes for lacemaking, bringing about the mechanisation of the craft. The first machine lace was made in the late-eighteenth century, and was followed in 1809 by a machine which could produce a stable net fabric that could be used as the foundation for new, hand-worked laces including Carrickmacross, Limerick and Tambour. Technological developments continued throughout the 1800s and by 1870 almost every type of handmade lace could be copied by machine, leading to the disappearance of the handmade lace industry in England by 1900.
The twentieth century saw the revival of handmade lace as a craft undertaken for challenge and recreation.
See the Lace Guild website for a full history of the craft.
The two main forms of lace are:
Bobbin lace: worked on a firm pillow using bobbins to manipulate multiple threads with pins to hold the stitches in place. Traditional bobbin laces made in England are Honiton, Bucks Point and Bedfordshire – which all have distinctive features although all are related to lace made in other European countries – plus Torchon, a geometric lace that is made in every country where bobbin lace is made.
Needle lace: made using a needle and thread, mainly with variations of detached buttonhole stitch – Hollie Point is the only needlelace traditional to England. Stitches and techniques have been borrowed from other traditions for nineteenth century tape laces and for the needlelace, often worked in colour, that has been part of the twentieth/twentyfirst century revival.
- Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire (continuous laces) made mainly in the East Midlands.
- Honiton (a part lace) made in and around Honiton in Devon.
Bobbin lace is a discrete craft, considered not to be endangered at the current time.
Other forms of lace cannot be easily detached from their parent crafts – listed below.
Other forms of lace:
- Fabric-based lace: made by removing threads from a woven background, and working on the remaining fabric with needle and thread, e.g. cutwork, Ayreshire* and other whitework, Ruskin*
- Net-based lace: e.g. Carrickmacross*, Limerick*, Princess and Filet lace
- Tape-based lace: e.g. Branscombe Point* and Renaissance
- Knotted lace: made using macrame and tatting techniques
- Crochet lace: made using a crochet hook, Irish crochet*
- Knitted lace: made using knitting needles, Shetland knitting*
(Laces marked with a * have specific Irish or UK traditions)
Issues affecting the viability of the craft
- Market issues: It is more than a century since lacemaking was a commercial activity in the UK. Very few lacemakers sell their work (the time needed to work most pieces means that it is rarely possible to earn a reasonable rate per hour). It remains a rewarding hobby with a few lacemakers earning some income from teaching and writing.
- Ageing craftspeople: Many practitioners are elderly and many who once taught no longer do so. There are only a few very keen youngsters.
- Training issues: The imposition by the Adult Education service of repetitive testing has killed off most of the classes that once introduced newcomers to lace skills, severely limiting access for to the craft.
- Training issues: There are currently few teachers who specialise in maintaining English lace traditions and we have no scheme in the UK for training lace teachers. Many areas have no lace teachers.
- Additional issues due to the Covid-19 pandemic: The long-term effect of the pandemic is unclear. There is likely to be some benefit as more quality information and teaching is made available online; this is likely to attract the younger generation. On the other hand the teachers who have been keeping alive the traditional bobbin laces tend to be of an age where they are less comfortable with 21st century technology for online teaching, and if they have been shielding may find it difficult to return to face to face teaching when conditions improve.
- Lack of awareness: Lacemakers also struggle with a variety of outdated myths – that lace is difficult, takes a lot of patience, is only good for doilies….. none of these are true!
There are also numerous local lace groups.
Craftspeople currently known
Decline in numbers: Whilst the numbers of lace makers still makes it a viable craft, the numbers of professional practitioners has declined by around 30% since the Red List data has been collected.
- It is impossible for a lacemaker to make a living from making and selling lace. Any income usually comes from teaching with a small amount from sale of books (including self-published) and an occasional sale of lace – traditional or experimental.
- There are many books published in the past 40+ years which give high quality information about lace and lacemaking.
- It is very difficult to gauge the number of people participating in a craft such as bobbin lace. The majority of people involved are making lace for the fun of it – and the mental challenge and/or relaxation it provides. Some of these would describe themselves as ‘serious amateur makers’, others as ‘leisure makers’. For the purpose of this record the number of ‘serious amateurs’ is half the number of Lace Guild members and ‘leisure lacemakers’ is three times that number.
- Covid 19 will have a major impact on number of lace teachers (teaching being the main source of lace-related income).
Background information based on an article prepared by Gil Dye for the magazine of the Lace Guild, April 2017.