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Lace Making



Purling was a method of plaiting threads into a little looped edging, and the little loops so often to be found at the edge of lace are still called "purls". Purling is mentioned in the Canterbury Tales, and it was much used in the fifteenth century as an ornamental edging.

From: Lace-Making in the Midlands, by C.C. Channer and M.E. Roberts [1900], p3

Lace Schools

When a little child joins the school she is usually six or seven, but sometimes one is taken who is a year or two younger. If she is sharp, she will be about three weeks learning her first little edging; during that time she pays 1s. a week, and afterwards 3d. in the summer, and 4d. during the winter (this varies a little in different schools, as do the hours of working). For the first six months she generally puts in only nine hours a day, but after that at least ten, with the exception of Saturday, which is a half-holiday. The winter hours are usually from eight to eight, allowing two hours for meals, but many work an hour or so longer. Every Saturday the teacher takes the lace to the buyer, and gives the girls the exact amount they have earned, deducting only the 3d. or 4d. a week for the use of the room and lights. If they sell their work to a private customer, they are allowed to charge 1d. an hour more.

From: Lace-Making in the Midlands, by C.C. Channer and M.E. Roberts [1900], p36

Till the middle of the nineteenth century, in lace-making districts, almost the only schools were the lace schools—and there were several in most villages—where lace-making was the principal thing taught and a little reading added. I am indebted to Mrs. Roberts, formerly of Stratton, near Northampton, for the following description, which she kindly allows me to reprint.

"The following are the few particulars of the old lace school for which this village was at one time famous. Indeed, it may be borne in mind that, owing to the great interest taken in education by a former squire and a former vicar, Spratton fifty years ago was far ahead of its neighbours in the matter of education; and the Spratton school and Mr. Pridmore, the Spratton schoolmaster, with his somewhat strict discipline, were well known, not only to the children of Spratton, but to the boys and girls of most of the adjacent villages. But the lace school was, no doubt, a commercial institution, and I think it will be admitted that the hours were long and the work severe. The girls left the day school at the age of eight years, and joined the lace-school, and here the hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. in the summer, and from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the winter. Half an hour was allowed for breakfast and for tea, and one hour for dinner, so that there were ten hours for actual work. The girls had to stick ten pins a minute, or six hundred an hour; and if at the end of the day they were five pins behind, they had to work for another hour. On Saturdays, however, they had a half-holiday, working only to the dinner-hour. They counted to themselves every pin they stuck, and at every fiftieth pin they called out the time, and the girls used to race each other as to who should should call out first.

"They paid twopence a week (or threepence in winter) for lights, and in return they received the money realised from the sale of the lace they made, and they could earn about sixpence a day. Pay-day was a great event; it came once a month.

"In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the 'candle-stool' stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as the 'pole-board', with six holes in a circle and one in the centre. In the centre hole was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end and peg-holes through the sides, so that it could be raised or lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup, and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest nearest the bottle, which threw the light down upon the work like a burning-glass. In the day-time as many as thirty girls, and sometimes boys, would work in a room about twelve feet square, with two windows, and in the winter they could have no fire for lack of room." The makers of the best laces would sit nearest the light, and so on in order of merit.

From: A History of Lace, by Mrs Palliser [1902], p388-390

Female Lace Makers

A child was often introduced to her pillow at three years old by her mother, and then, when she had learnt how to handle her bobbins, she was sent off to the lace school, where she would stay until she either went into service or married; or, if she wished to save the expense of the 3d. or 4. a week, she would work in her own home. In those days, especially in one part of the Midlands, nearly every cottager, married or single, sat at her pillow; for it was usually only farmers' or tradesmen's daughters who thought of going to service.

From: Lace-Making in the Midlands, by C.C. Channer and M.E. Roberts [1900], p40-41

Male Lace Makers

At the time of the Queen's [Victoria's] accession, as has been said, the trade was very flourishing, and it was found that a man could earn more at lace-making than in the fields, where his wages would be from 7s. to 8s. a week, while at his pillow he could make 9s. or 10s. In those days, then, the workers, men and women, would sit side by side in each other's houses, in order to save firing. In the winter they had to sit very near the windows, which did not give as much light as they do now, and it was often bitterly cold.

From: Lace-Making in the Midlands, by C.C. Channer and M.E. Roberts [1900], p41


The patterns were usually designed and pricked either by lace-buyers, superior workers, or those brought up specially to that part of the trade.

From: Lace-Making in the Midlands, by C.C. Channer and M.E. Roberts [1900], p42

Pillows, bobbins, etc

A "down" in Northamptonshire is the parchment pattern, generally about twelve inches long. In Buckinghamshire they have two "eachs" ten inches long, and putting one in front of the other, so work round the pillow, which to many commends itself as a better plan than having one "down" and moving the lace back on reaching the end of the "down". The pillow is a hard round cushion, stuffed with straw and well hammered to make it hard for the bobbins to rattle on. It is then covered with the butcher-blue "pillow-cloth" all over; a "lace cloth" of the same, for the lace to lie on, goes over the top; then follows the lace-paper to pin it in as made, covered with the "lacing", which is a strip of bright print. The "hinder" of blue linen covers up all behind, the "worker" keeping the parchment clean in front where the hands rest. A bobbin bag and scissors are then tied on one side and a pin-cushion on the top; a cloth "heller" is thrown over the whole when not used.

The pins are fine brass ones made on purpose23; the bobbins are of various sizes and makes—very fine for fine lace, heavier and twisted round with strips of brass for coarser laces and gimp for the threads, which are the tracing ones, dividing the different characters of patterns; some are of bone with words tattoed round in columns. The usual bobbin is plain turned wood, with coloured beads at the end for the necessary weight. The number varies from twenty to five hundred, according to the width of the pattern24.

23 The larger pins had heads put to them with seeds of galium locally called Hariffe or goose-grass; the seeds when fingered became hard and polished.

24 Bobbins are usually made of bone, wood or ivory. English bobbins are of bone or wood, and especially in the counties of Bedford, Bucks, and Huntingdon, the set on a lace pillow formed a homely record of their owner's life. The names of her family, dates and records, births and marriages and mottoes, were carved, burnt, or stained on the bobbin, while events of general interest were often commemorated by the addition of a new bobbin. The spangles, jingles (or gingles) fastened to the end of the bobbin have a certain interest; a waistcoat button and a few coral beads brought from overseas, a family relic in the shape of an old copper seal, or as ancient and battered coin—such things as these were often attached to the ring of brass wire passed through a hole in the bobbin. The inscriptions on the bobbins are sometimes burned and afterwards stained, and sometimes "pegged" or traced in tiny leaden studs, and consist of such mottoes as "Love me Truley" (sic), "Buy the Ring", "Osborne for Ever", "Queen Caroline", "Let no false Lover win my heart", "To me, my dear, you may come near", "Lovely Betty", "Dear Mother, and so forth.—R.E. Head. "Some notes on Lace-Bobbins." The Reliquary, July, 1900.

From: A History of Lace, by Mrs Palliser [1902], p390-391

The Rise and Fall of the Lace Industry

The Exhibition of 1851 gave a sudden impulse to the traders, and from that period the lace industry rapidly developed. At this time was introduced the Maltese guipures and the "plaited" laces, a variety grafted on the old Maltese. Five years later appears the first specimen of the raised plait, now so thoroughly established in the market. At the time Queen Victoria's trousseau was made, in which only English lace was used, the prices paid were so enormous that men made lace in the fields. In those days the parchments on which the patterns were pricked were worth their weight in gold; many were extremely old and their owners were very jealous of others copying their patterns. But, of late years, we hear of so little store being set by these parchments that they were actually boiled down to make glue.

The decay which threatened almost total extinction of the industry belongs to the last twenty years. The contributory causes were several, chiefly the rapid development of machinery, which enabled large quantities to be sold at lower rates than the hand-workers could starve on, while the quality of the manufactured goods was good enough for the large public that required lace to last but a short time. Foreign competition, the higher wages required by all, and the many new employments opening to women took away the young people from the villages. In 1874 more than thirty young lace-women left a village of four hundred inhabitants to seek work elsewhere. The old workers gave up making good laces and supplied the popular demand with Maltese, which grew more and more inferior both in design and quality of thread, and gradually the old workers died out and no new ones took their places.

From: A History of Lace, by Mrs Palliser [1902], p392-393

Sources: A History of Lace is available online at

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