My interest in and love of fashion and textiles has long been practical as well as academic. From a young age I’ve engaged in various forms of craft, including knitting, making clothes and jewellery, embroidery, sewing tapestries, and I even have a half-finished rag rug sitting in my room. I studied textiles throughout secondary school, including at GCSE and A Level, and my original plan was to become a fashion designer, until I realised that my skill set was better suited to the academic study of fashion than its creation.
The one textile technique which I have always longed to learn is bobbin lacemaking. Having failed over the last few years in my quest to find local classes, I was bought a lacemaking starter kit and a couple of books on making Torchon lace for my most recent birthday (because who doesn’t celebrate turning 25 by starting to make lace?). Consequently, much of my free time over the last few months has been spent huddled over my lace pillow learning new stitches and tackling various patterns.
The first point of note is that lacemaking isn’t as difficult as I thought it might be. That’s not to say that it’s easy, but when you see elderly women who’ve been making lace most of their lives and whose fingers fly across a pillow containing hundreds of bobbins, it can seem incredibly daunting. But essentially, regardless of how many bobbins are in use in total for a pattern, only two pairs of bobbins (so four actual bobbins) are in play at once. There are two basic movements (twist and cross), and it is the different combinations of these movements which produce different stitches.
I’ve learnt the beginnings of lacemaking through books and practice, following visual and textual instructions and trying different exercises. Whilst a book can illustrate what a particular stitch should look like or guide you through a pattern, lacking a proper teacher I’m sure there are some elements of technique that I’m getting wrong, and some things have had to be learnt through trial and error. This has particularly been the case in relation to tensioning; there is one “bookmark” hidden away in my lace box which is far from straight due to a severe failure to properly tension the threads throughout the piece. But that abject failure taught me a lot about what I was doing wrong, and over the next few pieces my tensioning has (I think) been gradually improving.
Whilst knitting is something I can happily do in front of the television, only occasionally checking what my hands are doing, lacemaking requires my full visual attention. And it is a time consuming hobby. I have whiled away a lot of evenings and weekends sitting cross-legged on my bed with my lace pillow on my knees (which if nothing else has ensured I’m taking time off from the PhD), and have consequently worked my way through an awful lot of Radio 4 podcasts. Even the preparatory work involved in lacemaking, such as making prickings (marking the pattern out on card), spangling bobbins (attaching beads to the bottom of them), and winding thread onto bobbins, takes a lot of time.
Patience is required not just in the time taken for a piece to unfold, but also in learning new skills. I keep gazing wistfully at the more advanced patterns in the back of the book, and have to remind myself that I’ll get there, but it will take time and effort to learn new stitches and improve my skills. But already I’m finding that I’m developing a certain amount of intuition in relation to lace, learning how to read the markings on a pattern, which order to complete the segments of a pattern in, how much thread a pattern might require, and so on, so that often, apart from being used to reference certain features, the book is sitting closed besides me. The lack of information provided on more advanced lace patterns about the number of bobbins to use, the thread to use, or how to complete the pattern, would suggest that these are useful skills to have. But they are still very much in development. And having made a number of bookmarks and mats and tackled various ground stitches, diamonds, spiders, footside sequences and fans, the next step is to increase my repertoire of stitches and gain enough confidence in my work that everyone can get lace bookmarks for Christmas.
In the meantime, if anyone has a good method for finishing off the ends of lace mats, please let me know.
[This post was originally published on my website, 18 October 2015]