‘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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m glad you enjoyed the course so much – you can catalogue all the bobbins from now on then!
This sounds like you are developing an excellent approach to the division of the labour of cataloguing. Fascinating stuff Greta. I think the notion of getting a real hands-on sense of how things are (or were) made can really enhance the quality of any museum catalogue or database. Sometimes this comes via a course and sometimes through conversation and through the docuemntation of people’s memories about objects.
I’ve just been chatting to Colin Smith, a former farrier who worked out of Barkham, Berkshire. Interestingly, his reminiscences about the artefacts he was donating – pincers and hammers or various sorts and a bill hook – largely stemmed from or began with mention of the places that the blacksmiths who made them worked and lived.
The connection back to the importance of place that our project centres on is continually being cemented and emphasised in these subtle ways, much as I am sure it has been and will continue to be in relation to these lace objects, nomatter which one of you catalogues them!
I’ve found the same when cataloguing other sub-sets of the collection recently. Talking to Jonathan Brown about the ploughs was incredibly useful, and gave me a far greater understanding of different types of ploughs, and the innumerable differences between them. Following on from Greta’s approach, I think I might follow Jonathan’s advice and attend a ploughing match to really cement my understanding!
This is fascinating Greta! I’ve never noticed the lace making objects in the Museum but I will now go and have a look see – already your description of the objects is taking me to a small room in a cottage where the lace maker is sat with a pillow on her lap, candle beside her, bobbin in hand…
How many bobbins do you have to catalogue?!
I don’t know how many we have to catalogue – they tend to come in groups, so you’ll get 20-40 bobbins on one record. Sometimes you know enough to describe each one, sometimes you know nothing about them. They can be very confusing to catalogue, especially as we tend to just work from the accession files and not from the objects themselves, which is a shame – we should make more of an effort to go and see the objects, even just for interest’s sake.