The Manor and The Bishop/Bobbin Lace gives way to The Mill

Chapter IV: Bobbin Lace gives way to The Mill

The dilettanti years of the Restoration saw the highest point of English lace making not just for the number of people employed but the delicacy of the quality and design. The trade had many unproductive setbacks caused by trying to maintain a production line during times of war and public unrest; later, having to pander to high fashion and more prosperous times. In 1698, Chard had 156 lace makers whilst Honiton had 1341, which shows how lace production contributed greatly to the wreaths of towns. It was recorded in this period that there was not a cottage in all Somerset, where white lace is not made – to supply the whole kingdom and to export. There is recorded, young children earning 1s .8d per week.

People from France and the Netherlands seeking refuge from religious and political persecution brought skills and new methods of manufacture that were greater than our own. They introduced different designs entailing complicated patterns and finishing. The immigrants, worked in a close-knit communities - lodging where there were already fellow compatriots living – making ghettos in mainly town and city locations. They gradually took delicate work away from outlying centres leaving the simpler work to country locations. However, Honiton retained its position for lace making as the main centre for the upper end of the market sending the bulk of the production to London. In the early 1700s, there was a decline in the output caused by the importation of cheap, intricate lace forms from Flanders…

Later, that century there was a decline in the death rate – people lived longer, and an increase in the birth rate – more children survived. In the first forty years of the new century, the population doubled… by the end of that period, the rural numbers were at their highest. From that, time on there was a migration, particularly for the young, away from the village to the town.

Lace making was a cottage industry, an expression used to describe a woman’s earned income. It was paid at piecework rates – so much for a number of items produced. The work was taken on whilst their husbands were at work to augment their husbands poor wages. The women’s fingers - so much more delicate and nimble, enabled them to work faster than men, although there were some men who made lace, either because there was no work on the land or house bound through circumstance.

Lace buyers would come round the villages every month to buy up and to exchange lace for thread and pins. They had their own districts and routes - looking on their contacts as members of their team. In the sixteenth century, the pins needed to pattern the thread had no heads, which caused sore fingers. This was corrected by dipping the pins in sealing wax – to give a head.

Still, the call for lace was strong enough to entice inventors to create mechanical processes. In 1768, hand lace making began to give way to these mechanical innovations, which understandably, produced less complicated designs. This mechanisation lowered the cost per item that promoted greater interest in the uses of lace. It was an adaptation of a stocking frame, which made a net of not very wide proportions… it, helped save the industry and gave additional work for women to link those strips together… However, for detailed, complicated designs, necessary for high fashion of the period, hand lace making continued….

When it was warm enough, women sat outside their cottages, with their pillows or bolsters, using the strong daylight to follow the pattern. This may strike one as being quaint, even attractive – certainly following one’s idea of a true Victorian watercolour, but in fact, it was essential - necessary to make ends meet! While the very young children had an afternoon sleep, the wife spent an active hour at her pillow. It was to earn a little extra for the children’s clothes. Babies were not as a rule weaned until they were over a year old. It was cheaper, healthier, and more convenient to breast feed. It was thought fitting that they should sleep most of the time and not be mentally or physically stimulated. They were not allowed to sit up until they were six months old and not allowed to walk until they were two.

Lace makers produce both individual and repetitive patterns in the form of a netted tracery, which can be sewn together, or in sequence; the same operation used whether making a continuous tape, fringe, border, or circular design. It relies upon a pin-threaded sequence using pairs of cotton-wound bobbins… at their head the cotton – using the bobbin as a reel and at the bottom - seven beads linked to form a ring – prevents the bobbin twisting on the pillow… Twenty-four bobbins, a common number, to form a doily.

The pillow, is mainly for small circular and floral work, is fourteen inches in diameter and four inches deep - at the sides, a further inch thicker towards the middle. The term pillow applied to both the round and the square, bolster type. The former, more suitable for Honiton type sprigs, and the square - the Bruges, better for lengths. Pillows, as described, were pads -rather like a round kneeler, with a raised centre and held on the lace-maker’s knees.

The bolster, made-up with exactly the same material, used for plain straight-edged, scalloped, or diamond-patterned borders: for cuffs, collars, table cloths etc. In size, were two-foot six inches in circumference by two-foot long, resting on the crossbars of a wooden horse. These workings, both patterned and straight-laced, sometimes joined to make-up the whole or part garment.

The pillow fabric was made of strong cotton or linen cut into two circles joined by a strip with an opening. The pillow was turned inside out, with the seams inside, stuffed with chopped barley or oat straw; evenly packed, pummelled, beaten and shaped into a very hard dome, left to ‘settle’ to allow more space to be filled. When finished the pillow sealed - by stitching. It is important not to include in the stuffing the nodes of the straw - too hard for the pins to penetrate.

The pillow then covered with one or two linen cases -the upper is the surface worked on. This is pinned by each corner under the pillow. This operation became known as ‘dressing the pillow’.

The original draft - a design on graph paper, called ‘the pricking’, consisting of fine holes. This pattern was again pricked through with a needle, onto a sheet of parchment or good quality writing paper - about fourteen inches long by eight inches wide. The transferred copy had linen loops or tabs attached to the ends… so that it could be tacked to the pillow – kept taut on the case.

As the work progresses, covering cloths, folded in half – [folds facing], are pinned at the side of the pillow - to expose the area to be completed. These cloths kept the finished work clean allowing the weaving thread easy passage over the imbedded pins of finished work. Horn ‘sliders’, today stiff plastic, half-slid under the covering cloth - allowing new work threads easy passage over the pinheads.

The lace thread is carried on bobbins, the size of 3-4 inch pencils with tapered necks, of which, there maybe thirty-six. The bobbins, each pre-wound - by hand, or using a bobbin winder, wound onto the second neck of the bobbin, called the long neck. The skein of thread was wound round pegs placed in crossed arms, of the blades, or ‘yarningles’– the blades had a number of peg holes to carry a larger size of skein. The free end of the thread is given a couple of turns round the long neck, which is about three-quarters of an inch long… then the bobbin placed in the spool. Turning the handle of the winder operated the belt linked to the spool… when spun, pulls the thread off the crossed arms... The wound bobbin, with its two to three inches of thread, is now ready to take the place of an empty one… meanwhile, kept looped in pairs, in a bobbin-case suspended from the pillow.

The turned bobbins, generally made of fruitwood, are light in weight, with small heads. Below the head is the short-neck - which is just a notch, or turn, made when the bobbin is manufactured… the thread is unwound slightly off the long-neck and a couple of turns wound onto the short neck ending with a turned-over loop, to stop the bobbin unwinding. The remainder of the bobbin is called the shank. The bobbins, sometimes referred to as lace-sticks, laid flat upon the pillow whilst not in use. Below the shank – the body of the bobbin are threaded beads –carrying perhaps seven, looped in a ring; this extra weight gives tension to the thread and prevents the bobbin slipping and twisting on the pillow.

The results of the lace maker, was very much like plaiting or crochet - where one twisted thread is laid over another - in sequence. In this instance pins one-inch high form the pattern - these, the thread wound round. As the pattern progresses the last pin worked round is pressed into the pillow... successive pins inserted along the pattern. It is the number of twists made using a pair of bobbins which maintains the pattern – stops the whole from unravelling, and the different gauges of thread [‘gimp’ is course] multiplies the opportunities for outlining and strengthening.

Much of the work from Chard was ‘trolly lace’ which refers to the single neck of a rather shorter, heavier bobbins called ‘a trolly’ - for gimp thread – a thicker thread, used for outlining the design. The young girls of six or seven would use fewer bobbins, probably no more than eleven pairs, to make a simple fan, or shell shaped strip or fringe. The older girls would make point, honeycomb and Kat stitch, with picots loops on the scallop fringe. As most of the lace ended up in Honiton most of the workers were familiar with the Honiton flower motif which was sewn onto dress collars or a wedding veil, a number could be linked together to form a complete item. Hanging from the lace maker’s pillow was a pincushion made of bran sewn into a heart shaped pad. A bobbin bag, with two pockets, one holding re-wound bobbins and the other empty, is hung over the pillow.

Girls, of sometimes five, others perhaps older, worked at the ends of their mothers pillow practicing their stitches. It was believed that this habit laid down a good basis for a future life of work – made the child control their, ‘more casual demands.’ Much lace work was still done outdoors at the turn of the century but it was soon to be phased out by cheaper production methods. Using daylight, rather than sitting indoors using candles, was better for the eyes and allowed finer work to be made. Later, special rooms were built into the upper floors of outworkers houses – a cottage industry flourished; in some cases, two or three cottages were linked together - walls could be knocked through to form one large room. Special candle lit light globes and mirrors used to illuminate the workers lace. Extra wide windows - a number of windows linked together, were a feature of these building and still are seen today.

Girls sat round a table, in groups of two or three, so that each worker received the maximum light available from the candles and their light-reflecting globes. Quite often work continued right through the night leaving the girls exhausted. The lace makers who worked together in these large rooms did so under a Head Lace Hand. The workrooms were heated by earthenware pots of hot ashes and charcoal, known as ‘dickey pots’, giving off fumes and smoke which clung to the ceiling between the beams. ‘Outworking’ still went on, but the whole industry became more organised; ‘the gentry’ who wanted particular intricate designs dictated the fashions of the day. Lace makers children were expected to contribute to the family’s income by working at every spare moment - they had to sit down each night and do a certain amount of work – complete so many heads of lace, before ‘play’ was allowed.

In 1800, machine net making began to be discussed by the workers and trades people. Gradually mechanical innovations to the existing looms crept in - making inroads into traditional work - producing a cheaper product. In lace-making areas, it was then very usual to find a mother and two daughters all making lace together. Their combined work brought in about a third less than that of a father and son. Whereas the men were out all day, at least until six or seven, the women were doing household chores – combining earning with building a home. This was for a five-day working week, the money earned allowed one-third to be saved for dressmaking and the remainder ‘put by’ for a rainy day.

Lace continued to be made in many counties but the greatest being Honiton and the East Midlands. Most of the lace made in Chard found its way to Honiton where it was made up and sold on. Three years later, cotton had overtaken wool as Britain’s leading export. The first mechanical means of increasing production was the mill driven by natural forces. Wool, in its natural state could be used as a covering – woven, made it versatile. The development of the loom increased production and quality. Using steam, as a driving force, gave the industrialist a choice where to set up his factory – close to both labour and customer. This was the history of Chard, and other fortunate towns, initially made possible by its rivers and trading position.