Click here to see my lace collection which has examples of lace from England, and elsewhere.
There are different styles of English lace, which are associated with particular districts in England where it was made.
However, the story is more complicated than that. Lacemakers made their lace for sale, not as a hobby, and fashion in lace fluctuated, so different styles were made in the same place at different times. However, I will start with a description of each lace, and end with a simple history.
There is a lovely painting called The Lacemaker (Mrs Newell Making Lace), by Charles Spencelayh, painted around 1920. Click here to see it. She is obviously British, but I can't see what style of lace she is making.
There are various accounts and references of English lacemaking here.
Torchon lace is now widely made in Britain, and elsewhere, of course. It is a good beginner's lace, as the threads move in predictable and easily visible ways. Click here for the stitches and elements used in Torchon, and how to make it.
Historically, Torchon is not associated with anywhere in Britain. Lace from Downton, near Salisbury, has many elements in common with Torchon. Salisbury Museum, in Salisbury, Wilts, has examples of Downton lace.
Click here for examples of Torchon lace from my lace collection.
Bucks Point is associated with the county of Buckinghamshire, and there are examples of the lace in the Bucks County Museum in Aylesbury, Bucks. ('Point' is another name for lace.) Click here for the stitches and elements used in Bucks Point, and how to make it.
There is a painting called Mrs Claridge Making Buckinghamshire Point Lace, by E. P. Robinson, painted in 1900. Click here to see it.
This style of lace was made throughout Nottinghamshire, Northamptonshire, Bedfordshire and Cambridgeshire, but it is associated strongly with the county of Bedfordshire, and so is often called Bedford or Beds lace. There is also English Maltese lace (copying Maltese lace seen in the Great Exhibition of 1851), and Cluny lace (from France). These all have elements in common, and I am not an expert, so I have called it all English Midland lace. Click here for the stitches and elements used in English Midland lace, and how to make it.
Click here for examples of Bedfordshire lace from my lace collection.
The Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, Bucks has both Bucks Point and Beds lace.
The Higgins Art Gallery and Museum in Bedford has a collection of both Bucks Point and Beds lace, but I don't know if it is on display.
The Museum of Cambridge (formerly the Folk Museum) has some lace pillows and bobbins.
Norris Museum, St Ives, Cambridgeshire has examples of local lace, mostly in the Bucks Point style.
A famous English lace is made in Honiton, Devon. This, while still being bobbin lace, is made in a different way to the other lace styles, above. Instead of hanging all bobbins at the top of the pattern, and working a strip, Honiton lace is made of motifs, or small pieces such as a single flower:
These are then joined together, in a separate process, using plaits:
I do not make Honiton lace myself so I am afraid that there is no description of how to do it on this website. The Allhallows Museum in Honiton, has a good collection of Honiton lace.
Click here for examples of Honiton lace from my lace collection.
I am not going to give any description of how lacemaking started in England, as lace history causes a certain amount of dispute! (Catharine of Aragon is sometimes hopefully mentioned....)
Lacemaking used to produce a good income for rural workers, and often lace schools were set up to help the economy of a village. I suspect that these may have led to styles 'wandering' from one place to another as a new school would introduce a style or technique from elsewhere. Downton lace, for example, proudly makes lace with its footside on the left, as in other European countries, while most English lacemakers keep it on the right. England also accepted refugees from Europe, who may have brought their own styles of lace. So origins are tricky, and probably not local.
The boom time for lace was the 18th century, when all bobbin lace was made by hand, and fashionable clothes used lace in collars and elsewhere. Delicate hand-made lace was very expensive, as it took so long to make, and this made it a symbol of luxury. Even coarser lace was popular, as people tried to copy the upper classes. The older English lace in museums seem to be Bucks Point style, and this was widely made, not just in Buckinghamshire. But perhaps it was the delicate Bucks Point lace which got preserved, rather than the coarser forms of lace! However, even in the 18th century, William Cowper describes the poverty of lacemakers, presumably as fashion fluctuated.
Two events happened around the beginning of the 19th century which affected the bobbin lacemaking industry badly. Firstly, the French Revolution in 1789 made it advisable not to flaunt your wealth in your clothes, even in Britain, so lace became unfashionable, certainly for men and even for women. Even worse, lacemaking machines in Nottingham began to reproduce bobbin lace increasingly accurately. Bucks Point was, surprisingly enough, an early lace style to get reproduced (I suspect because you can make a reasonable Bucks Point without the bobbins travelling too far to left or right). Why spend a lot of money buying expensive hand-made lace, when a few pennies would buy you something identical, or even better?
The reaction of the lacemakers was to try to make simpler lace, and hopefully in styles that the machines found harder to reproduce. Beds lace (which I call English Midland lace) had plaits, picots and tallies which I suspect was trickier for the machines to copy. Some of this lace copied Maltese lace, shown in the Great Exhibition of 1851, which caused a style called English Maltese. English Midland lace looks acceptable even if made with very thick thread (some of it looks almost like thin string!) which meant you could make something bigger, quicker. This might have slowed down the decline of the lace industry slightly, but the results are coarse lace, definitely not a premium product.
This process took some time. Flora Thompson in Larkrise to Candleford describes an old lacemaker bewailing that no-one wanted to buy hand-made lace any more. There are various British paintings of lacemakers in the early 20th century. They were obviously documenting something which they felt was disappearing. One painting dated 1900 even gives the style of lace. It is called "Mrs Claridge Making Buckinghamshire Point Lace".
Honiton lace, to a certain extent, tried to maintain their style as a fashion, helped by Royalty using them for wedding dresses. As you may have gathered, I know little about Honiton lace! Although as much an English style as any of the others, they have this distinct technique, and their location is remote from the other areas, so there is not the interchange between styles which you see elsewhere.
The above just describes bobbin lace. There are many other crafts which can be called lace. My lace collection gives some examples, as well as examples of various machine made lace. I must emphasise that this collection is nothing special - just items inherited from relatives or bought from antique shops and junk stalls, often for a few pennies. It is interesting to see that I only have one example of Bucks Point, and plenty of Beds lace, showing how Beds lace must have dominated 19th and 20th century production of hand-made bobbin lace.
A history of bobbin lace can sound depressing, as the industry declined. However, bobbin lace has now been taken up as a hobby by many people around the world. We are no longer restricted to making lace that will sell, or belongs to a particular fashion - we can just make what we want, when we want to. All we need is a lace pillow, bobbins, pins, and some patterns. And instruction, of course, which is why I set up this website! One of the popular styles of the modern lacemaker is Torchon, which brings us back to the top of this page.
© Jo Edkins 2017 - return to lace index