Bicester was the centre of lace making in Oxfordshire. Until the mid-nineteenth century, lace making provided occupation for thousands of women in the East Midlands (Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, Northamptonshire and the borders of Berkshire and Oxfordshire), as well as in Devon, Somerset and Wiltshire. Pillow lace is made with linen threads that are wound onto wooden or bone bobbins. The bobbins are hung by pins fixed through a pre-punched parchment into the pillow, which guide the lace maker while she plaits the threads together to make the lace.
Today, lace making appears to be a very genteel craft, the pictures of young girls and women sitting outside their cottages in the sun with their pillows conform to our romantic of a peaceful, rural English past. The reality of a lace maker's life in the 19th century, however, could be harsh. Lace makers worked at home, getting in as much as ten hours of lace making in, as well as running the household. Lace was made through a so-called 'putting-out system', meaning that lace dealers would supply lace makers with patterns and thread and then come back to buy the finished lace off the women, deducting the price of the thread. Lace makers often worked for more than one dealer, but ultimately dealers had the upper hand in deciding how much a lace maker could get for her efforts. The existence of a lace maker and her family was often hand-to-mouth and many young women preferred to go into service, rather than make lace.
Children of labourers were taught to make lace from an early age and many attended 'lace schools': workshops, often overcrowded and badly ventilated, where children as young as six were expected to work for as much as eight hours a day. By the age of fifteen, girls were expected to spend at least twelve hours of their day at the pillow. Children were urged on to compete amongst each other and were taught 'tells' - chants that were meant to keep up the momentum of the work:
Needlepin, needlepin, stitch upon stitch,
Work the old lady out of the ditch,
If she is not out as soon as I,
A rap on the knuckles will come by and by,
A horse to carry my lady about,
Must not look off till twenty are out.
A 'lady' was the lace pillow, the 'horse' the stand in which it sat. The 'rap on the knuckles' gives some idea of the discipline that ruled in these schools.
Although children in some schools were taught to read and received religious instruction, the primary objective of these schools was to provide the children's families with an income. The amount a child could earn depended on their age and skill. In the 1860s, a fairly skilled eight-year-old working nine hours a day in Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, could earn up to 2s 6d a week, while a thirteen-year-old could earn up to 3s a week. However, the long hours of work took a toll not only on children's general education, but also on their health. Aching backs, headaches and failing eyesight were all side effects of spending too long making lace in dark, crowded cottages.
Lace making, however, could at times be a very lucrative profession. Lace was an essential component of fashion costume until the 20th, even for men who until the early 19th century wore lace caps, cravats, cuffs and collars. Fine lace extremely expensive and was seen as a form of transferable wealth, just like gold or precious gems. Indeed, lace was very much an international trade. Since the beginnings of the industry in England, lace dealers were competing with fine lace made in France, Belgium and Italy for customers. Heavy import duties were imposed on foreign made lace in the 17th century and only lifted in 1860. Indeed, at times during the 18th century, French and other foreign laces were banned outright. The ban did not deter royalty, nobility and wealthy merchants from flaunting the law and wearing continental laces that had been smuggled into the country. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: Lace makers in the East Midlands enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
By the early 19th century, however, lace makers had a new enemy -machine-made lace. In 1809, John Heathcoat of Nottingham invented a machine that could replicate bobbin net, to which decorative elements could be added by hand. At a glance, this kind of net looked very similar to the point lace then being made throughout the Midlands. Machine made lace was a cheap alternative for those who could not afford the real thing. However, as the lace being made by these machines became increasingly harder to distinguish from hand-made point laces, wages began to fall for lace makers, as the dealers they worked for had to lower their asking price. By the 1840s, the production of hand-made point lace was in decline. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, lace makers all over the Midlands were beginning to look for a new product to turn their hands, in order to compete with the machines.
The Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace, London, in 1851, sparked a short revival in the production of lace. Not only were lace makers all over England were commissioned to make works for the exhibit, but it is known that several lace makers from the East Midlands were invited to demonstrate their skill at the exhibition. Their pillows were covered in blue velvet edged with a rose colour and with rose-coloured bobbin bags for the occasion. It was at the Great Exhibition that both lace makers and the general public became familiar with Maltese lace. Guipure laces had become fashionable already a decade before and suited the dark, heavy fabrics of Victorian fashions well by standing out more boldly than delicate point laces.
In fact, at the time of the Great Exhibition, this form of lace was a relatively recent innovation amongst Maltese lace makers themselves. Venetian style needle lace had been made on the island until Genoese lace makers introduced lace making using a pillow and bobbins in 1833. Traditionally worked in creamy, honey coloured Spanish silk, Maltese lace has a subtly shiny finish and its main decorative feature is a large number of plump leaf-like stitches called 'wheat ears' or 'oats'. Following the Great Exhibition and the popularity of the lace with the visitors, English lace makers started to imitate the Maltese style. However, while they adopted certain aspects of Maltese lace, lace makers blended with local touches, creating a hybrid style. Like the lace made by Mrs. Campbell in Bicester, Beds Maltese was worked in linen thread, rather than silk. The 'wheat ears' found in Beds Maltese are longer, slimmer and have a square finish comparing to their rounded Maltese antecedents. Mrs. Campbell's lace also incorporated Bucks Point net ground into the motif, using it as a decorative element rather than as a background for the design.
Lace makers in Bedfordshire were quick to take up the production of Maltese styles of guipure and the production of Beds Maltese soon superseded that of the older point laces, hence the name 'Bedfordshire Maltese'. For about a decade, Beds Maltese revived the lace trade in the East Midlands. Aimed at the middle classes, Beds Maltese was quicker and easier to make than Bucks Point, thus ensuring lace makers a good income even though it remained fairly affordable. At London's International Exhibition in 1862, nearly all the lace exhibited by Bedfordshire dealers was in the Beds Maltese style. The heyday of Beds Maltese, however, was short: by 1865 a machine had been developed which could produce Maltese style guipure. Lace makers once again found themselves competing with cheaper, factory-produced laces and losing.
In Webster's Revised Unabridged Dictionary (1913), 'yak' lace is defined as 'a coarse pillow lace made from the silky hair of the yak'. The length made by Mrs. Campbell, however, was made from worsted sheep's wool and was probably representative of the general quality of the lace. Like other types of Torchon laces, this sample of 'yak' lace has a geometric pattern and has a very wide mesh, making it quick and easy to make, even for a beginner. The main decorative feature of the 'head' (the fan shaped edging) of the lace is a simple, almost heart-shaped block of 'half-stitch' weave. Wool, however, is not an ideal fibre from which to make lace. Unlike linen, wool has a natural elasticity that means that when the pins are removed from between the stitches the lace shrinks to only two-thirds of the size.
Laces made of wool were known from the 17th century, but they did not become popular until the mid to late 19th century. 'Yak' lace was a cheap and popular trimming for underwear, christening dresses, children's winter dresses and outerwear. Coarser forms of 'yak' lace were used to trim curtains. In Victorian England, there was a strict etiquette of mourning, requiring men, women and children to wear black or dark shades for up to two years after the death of a relative. This meant that there was a constant need for simple, black laces of modest materials, such as 'yak' lace. The trade in this form of lace was also helped along by a craze for wool garments, particularly undergarments. In the 1880s. wool began to be promoted as a 'healthy' and 'sanitary' fabric for all kinds of garments by Dr. Gustav Jaeger, a zoologist from Stuttgart, Germany. Developing 'Dr. Jaeger's Sanitary Woollen System', Dr. Jaeger sold his products at a London store and through catalogues. Later, he sold the brand name to the Englishman Lewis Tomalin, who went on to develop Jaeger into one of the best known British fashion houses.
Even though Mrs. Campbell's samples are relatively modest in terms of their decorative and material expression, they are thick with history. Purchased in 1900 and donated to the museum in 1917 by Henry Balfour, they were made at a time when the local lace making industry was in its final throes. They are representative of two types of lace that were made to compete with the machine made point laces which had slowly eroded the production of hand-made Bucks Point by the middle of the 19th century. What makes them really interesting, however, is the way that they show how creative traditions diffuse from one area from the other, as in the case of 'Beds Maltese'. Through lace, one can connect not only the poorest and the wealthiest of English society, but local craft production with international trade, politics and fashions.
Find out more about lace techniques here.
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Hopewell, J. (1999) Pillow Lace and Bobbins. Princes Risborough: Shire Publications Ltd.
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Aragon Lacemakers www.bedford.gov.uk/Default.aspx/Web/AragonLacemakers
Oxfordshire Country Council www.oxfordshire.gov.uk/heritagesearch
The Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney