Lace: romantic, mysterious, alluring – cast your mind to the period costumes on BBC TV – or Kate Middleton’s wedding dress – at one time so precious and expensive that when the highwayman said “Your money or your life!” he would strip his victims of money, jewels and their lace.
The Chambers 20th Century Dictionary defines lace as “an ornamental fabric made by looping, knotting, plaiting or twisting threads into definite patterns”. Or you could think of it as ‘a pattern of holes held together by threads”. Lace can be made many ways: knitting, crochet, tatting, with a needle and thread, or with a lace pillow and bobbins. This article deals with bobbin lace: in my opinion the most beautiful of the lot.
Until the 19th century, when lace machines were invented, all lace was made by hand, and there was a thriving bobbin lace industry. Nowadays we can buy meters of machine-made lace, and many people do not realise that there are still people making it by hand, or that most hand-made lace can not be reproduced by machines.
We live in a very technological age, where handcraft and creativity are often neglected or undervalued. This is a pity. Researchers have discovered that repetitive movement of the hands and wrists (as in handcrafts) releases oxytocin in the brain, which has a calming and uplifting effect on one’s mood. Something most of us need. Of course, this comes as no surprise to us lacemakers, as we frequently experience the de-stressing effect of focusing our full concentration on our bobbins and threads.
Making bobbin lace is an immensely satisfying and therapeutic occupation, and there is a small group of people across the country who have made it their passion and joy. Once the basics are mastered, the possibilities are endless, as lace can be delicate, old-fashioned, heavy, modern, monochrome or colourful – and can be used for art as well as household or fashion applications.
Bobbin lace is made on a special very firm pillow, onto which a cardboard pricking (or pattern) is pinned. The pricking is a pattern of dots, which indicate where the pins will be placed. The threads are wound on special bobbins in pairs, and are worked together and held in place by the pins. Some types of lace use an underlying grid pattern to inform the features in the lace, while others are motif laces, where a picture or motif is used to dictate the position of the pins and threads. Ideal threads for making lace are natural fibres, particularly cotton, linen, silk and wool, but synthetic threads are sometimes used.
There are only two basic movements in lace: cross and twist; and, as in knitting, only two basic stitches. However, the different ways in which they can be combined produces an enormous variety of effects, and one pricking can be interpreted in several different ways.
Making lace is creative, rewarding and fun – the process is therapeutic and addictive, and the results are beautiful.
If you are keen to learn to make lace or to get in touch with the world of South African lacemakers, go onto Facebook, where both the Cape Lace Guild and the Witwatersrand Lace Guild have group pages, or else email Ginetta Hugill at Alan.firstname.lastname@example.org or Barbara Adams at email@example.com for the Cape Lace Guild, or Janis Savage at firstname.lastname@example.org for the Witwatersrand Lace Guild for more information.