Heartland Lace Guild exhibit at the Encampment, Fort Massac, Illinois, October, 2009
At the Fort Massac Encampment last fall, Keely and I enjoyed visiting the Heartland Lace Guild's demonstration of bobbin lace-making.
In bobbin lace, a number of threads are used. To keep the threads from tangling, each thread is wound around its own small wooden bobbin. A wide lace requires many threads and many bobbins, and a narrow lace requires just a few. The thread may be linen, silk, or cotton, and the lace will be stout or delicate, depending on the thickness of the thread.
In the photo above, the bobbins are arranged at the far end of the padded cushion. A paper pattern called a "pricking" is placed under the thread as a guide. The lace is held in place with pins as it is made. The pattern is created by crossing and twisting the threads. The bobbins act as handles for crossing and twisting the threads, as well as storage for the long threads that are needed.
As each new row of the lace is created, it is spiked by pins to the pricking on a padded form to keep the lace straight and even. This pattern has 28 bobbins, and the lace is about 1-1/2 inches wide.
The ladies had a simple 4-bobbin lace set up on a bolster, and they invited Keely to sit down and give it a try. After some observation and instruction, she was able to follow the cross and twist pattern. It was a chilly autumn day, so the ladies were wearing fingerless gloves. Keely also was wearing a pair of fingerless gloves that she had knit!
The photo above shows a bobbin lace collar, partly made. The blue semi-circle is the pricking (paper pattern). A cloth with a cutout center is laid over the completed lace to keep it clean while work progresses.
According to the handouts that we picked up at the exhibit, bobbin lace-making dates back to medieval times. History records bobbin lace-making in both Italy and Flanders before 1500. It was introduced to Germany around 1526. Starch was invented around 1560 for the bobbin-lace collars that were popular in Queen Elizabeth I's court.
Some of the ruff (ruffled) collars worn by royalty took amazing lengths of lace. King James I of England had a ruff made of 38 yards of lace. On one important state occasion, Henry III's robes were trimmed with 4000 yards of handmade, pure gold lace. (It's surprising that he could even walk under all that weight.)
Bobbin lace-making was a cottage industry, done mostly by women and children, but the men might also join in when they were not busy. Convents also produced a lot of lace. The patterns (prickings and their instructions) were closely guarded secrets, and various regions were known for the style of lace that was produced there.
One other interesting bit of trivia from the Heartland Lace Guild's handouts -- the rhyme, "Jack, be nimble, Jack, be quick, Jack, jump over the candlestick," is a chant ("tell") that bobbin lace-makers used. Tells, sung or chanted, helped lace-makers work quickly and repeat the pattern without error.
Complex patterns had longer tells. For example, the tell for one 20-bobbin pattern had 35 lines. At the end of each line, a pin was stuck. The tell was repeated 20 times for each repetition of the pattern, for a total of 700 pins! Then the tell was begun again.
Here are some other lace exhibits that were on display in the Heartland Lace Guild's tent. There are other ways of making lace -- on looms, by tatting, knitting, crocheting, and more. The Heartland Lace Guild website has more examples of handmade lace.
You can read more about the Encampment in the Prairie Bluestem post, "The Encampment at Fort Massac, Illinois (2009)".