It is thought that lace making spread throughout Europe from Italy in the early 16th century and probably came to the United Kingdom in the latter part of the 16th century. There are few records of its early development and it is only in the 17th century that good documentary evidence starts to appear referring to the extensive lace industry to be found in Britain. It is likely that lace making started in all of the major lace making regions of Europe at about the same time. Strange as it may seem, a delicate and rare commodity such as this did not start life in the Far East.
The fashionable gentry of Europe who could afford the very expensive hand made lace used to adorn costume of the day. The lacemakers and locals could not afford to wear lace and most of it was sold outside the area with much of it being sent to London and abroad.
There were never any lace factories and the production of lace at this time was purely a cottage industry. These people produced the finished product; it was then bought by merchants who sometimes only paid the lace makers with tokens rather than real money. These tokens could, in turn only be spent in the stores owned by the merchants. (Now that is business!!)
Machine made lace was a 19th century innovation concentrated in the Midlands, especially in the Nottingham area and also Tiverton in Devon where some of the first machine made lace was manufactured.
Lace making is a miniature form of weaving. A pattern is drawn onto and then pricked into heavy waxed card, which is then pinned onto a tightly packed barley straw pillow. Very fine pins are inserted into the holes of this pattern or "pricking" and threads woven back and forth between the pins to build up the lace. Using a variety of different "weaving" techniques different patters are built up within the lace to give it a very intricate patterned structure. Finally the finished lace motif has its pins removed and is joined to other motifs using similar techniques to create a larger finished item such as a collar, handkerchief or wedding veil.
Lace bobbins are thin turned holders for the thread made from wood, bone or ivory. They allow the thread to be wound onto one end and area easily manipulated on the pillow without getting the thread dirty or tangled. They are not called bodkins, sticks or shuttles as many people think.
There are various types of antique lace, one of which is Honiton. This lace is one of the many varieties of hand-made bobbin lace produced commercially over the past few centuries, a lace that has become world famous for its intricate, delicate and very beautiful design. Lace has been made in the East Devon area since the late 16th century and during that time has been purchased and worn by the wealthy of the world.
It takes about 10 hours to make a square inch of very fine Honiton Lace, less if the work is coarser or not very complex. Working on these calculations, some of the finest pieces of lace on show in the Museums must have taken many thousands of hours to produce. Items from a bygone age including edgings, flouncing, collars, stoles, handkerchiefs, lappets and veils.
The raw material in the early years was derived from linen but from 1800 cotton was used.
Honiton lace takes its name from the town of Honiton but it is now a generic name for the techniques and designs involved in making this type of lace and does not necessarily have to be made in that town. There are, in fact, people making Honiton lace throughout the world as a hobby today.
Honiton lace is not made commercially any more, the industry having died out by the early part of last century. There are still a few people prepared to make Honiton lace on commission, however it takes a very long time to produce and is very expensive as a result.
Allhallows Museum in the High Street, Honiton has an outstanding collection of some of the finest Honiton Lace ever produced. The collection spans nearly 400 years of lace making in the area.
450 YEARS OF LACE - An exhibition of fine lace spanning 450 years at Allhallows Museum, Honiton, 12th August to 14th September. Bringing together the very best of 3 fine collections, lace spanning over 4 centuries and all the major lace making regions of Europe will be on display, as well as modern lace making displays by local lacemakers.
Hosted by The Allhallows Museum this will be a lace exhibition to appeal to lace makers, collectors, and historians alike. Please note the exhibition will be closed on Sundays.
Thanks to The Honiton Lace Shop for their help with information. They can be found at 44 High Street, Honiton, Devon, EX14. Full details can be found on www.honitonlace.com.
© Mike Hicks