Weald and Downland Museum

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MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

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‘We’re bobbin’ and bobbin’ and bobbin’ and bobbin’’ is what I like to sing to myself when cataloguing bobbins and other lacemaking equipment (much to Felicity’s annoyance, I’m sure). This weekend I went on a beginners’ bobbin lacemaking course at the Weald and Downland Museum. Lace is one of those crafts that I’ve always wanted to have a go at – it’s mesmerising to watch and fascinating to think that such beautiful things can be made by weaving some pieces of string. I also thought that having a go at making lace would help me with cataloguing, by giving me a better understanding of how the equipment is used, and hopefully giving me a personal connection to it which would make it more interesting (as with the baskets).

Lacemaking was an established craft in England by the seventeenth century, with centres of lacemaking appeareing in Devon, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire. The industrial revolution led to the creation of machine lace, which had an enormous impact on the lacemaking industry, and today lacemaking is mostly done for pleasure. There are two main types of lace – bobbin lace and needle lace – and we were learning the bobbin method on our course. The Lace Guild’s website is good if you want to find out more.

We began by making a pattern for our lace, pricking the design we were going to create into a piece of thick card. We then pinned the pattern to the pillow, a firm padded cushion on which you work. Pillows were traditionally packed with straw, and sometimes have a roller around which the lace can be wound as the length of the work increases.

Left: 51/829 Lacemaking pattern from MERL. Right: The pattern we used on our second piece on the course.

Left: 51/128 Lacemaking pillow at MERL, from Ickford, Buckinghamshire. Right: My pillow and work.

We wound the threads onto the bobbins by hand (although you can also use a machine if you need a lot of thread). Bobbins come in a variety of shapes, sizes and materials, including wood, horn and plastic, and are often decorated in various ways – with pewter bands, inscriptions, inlays etc. We used ‘spangled’ bobbins – bobbins with beads on the end to weight them and help keep the thread taut.

Left: 51/238 Assorted decorative bobbins with spangles at MERL, from Ickford, Buckinghamshire. Right: Plastic bobbins with spangles that I used.

We stuck pins into the top row of the pattern and hung the thread/bobbins on them and began to make lace. I won’t say it’s simple, but if you can get the hang of it, it’s quite rhythmic. You work four bobbins at a time, moving them over each other to the left or to the right (in combination) to create the stitches, and hold the stitches in position by pushing pins through the pricked holes in the pattern and into the pillow.

My second piece of lace under construction.

We spent six hours on the course, although probably only about 4.5 hours making lace once you take coffee breaks into account. In that time we each made two pieces of torchon lace – one about 5cm x 2cm and the other 7cm x 2cm. It certainly isn’t a ‘quick’ craft – in fact, I would think it is one of the most time intensive crafts there is.

The two pieces of lace I made.

We have quite a lot of lacemaking equipment at MERL, including bobbins, a bobbin-winding machine, pillows, patterns, a candleblock for maximising the light from the candles, and a warming pot – a pot filled with hot wood ashes from a baker and placed under the chair of the lacemaker to keep her warm (a fire would create soot and dirty the work). Have a look at our catalogue to find out more about our lacemaking objects.

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