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About Bobbin Lacemaking

Bobbin lacemaking is a very old textile craft in which threads wound on small handles or bobbins are twisted and crossed to construct an open and decorative fabric. It can be described as a very free form of weaving in which the warp and weft threads are constantly changing place, a loom of sorts being formed by pins which are pushed into the working surface as the work proceeds -- to hold the threads in place and assist in tensioning them. Bobbin lace first appeared in Europe early in the sixteenth century and probably reached its peak of excellence in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. For three hundred years it was a thriving industry, of considerable importance to the economies of many European countries.

The first machine-made laces became available at the end of the eighteenth century. It is popularly supposed that this on its own was responsible for the demise of the hand-made lace industry, but the truth of the matter is far more complicated. For one thing it was only possible to make an acceptable copy of hand-made lace because by this time the artistic merit of such lace had so declined that it was no more than a net with rather insignificant border motifs and 'spots' dotted over the ground. This in turn was the result of the changes in fashion and the demand for very soft trimmings for the simple muslin dresses which were then in vogue. Such simple lace designs were easily embroidered onto the net which was produced by the earliest machines. Although much exquisite bobbin lace was hand-made for the luxury market during the nineteenth century the industry never again reached the level of demand of earlier centuries. Today some lacemakers in France, Italy, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Russia and China are able to earn a living from their work but the industry is not a commercial proposition of any significance in any of these regions.

Despite its decline as an industry, bobbin lacemaking survives as an art or leisure activity in many countries due largely to new developments this century, especially during the last two decades. In the best contemporary work the maker is also the designer (this was never the case in earlier times) and although much new work is still designed within the traditional framework, a strong group of lacemakers is emerging whose work is regarded more as art in that it goes beyond technique; technique is pushed to its limits in the service of the idea. Whatever their particular interest the possibilities for today's lacemakers are far more exciting and satisfying than they ever were for the professional lacemakers of pre-industrial Europe.

Because it requires considerable application, bobbin lacemaking is a wonderfully effective relaxation. The basic movements and stitches are few and quickly learned, but their application could fill a lifetime of happy hours and still leave many ways of working unexplored. Many lacemakers today are happy mastering the skills of traditional lacemaking, and working only on the designs they find in the excellent books now available. For all lacemakers this must be the starting point, but the future strength of the craft depends on those who accept the challenge of applying the traditional techniques to their own designs, and of finding new ways of working, as well as new uses for the work, which might be more appropriate for our time.

© Rosemary Shepherd; 1980, 2000