From the 16th to 19th century, the East Midlands was an important area for bobbin lacemaking. Men, women, and children made lace, either full-time or to supplement the family income. However, the trade declined with industrialisation. While it was once very important for the local economy, there is little left of the lacemaking industry to show today.
As in Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire, lacemaking was introduced to Northamptonshire by European immigrants in the 16th century. Flemish and French Protestants fleeing persecution settled in the East Midlands. They brought regional traditions, such as bobbin lacemaking, with them and taught their skills to local people.
Bobbin lace is also known as pillow lace and bone lace. All these names refer to how it is made. Bobbin lace is made on pillows stuffed with straw. Lace patterns are marked and pinned on a long strip of parchment. Then thread wound on bobbins is shaped around the pins to create strips of lace.
Lacemaking quickly became an important cottage industry. In 1777, there were eleven full-time lacemakers and one lace dealer in the small village of Bozeat. Many others worked part-time to boost their low wages. The inscription on one bobbin shows that its owner, Thomas Barker from Brafield-on-the-Green, was a chimney sweep as well as a lacemaker.
Both men and women made lace. Often, women worked to supplement the family income while looking after infants. In summer, most lacemakers worked outside. To keep their children from escaping the house, they would use an ‘imprisoning board’ to cover the door. In winter, lacemakers worked by dim candlelight, far from the heat of fire to avoid getting the lace dirtied by soot.
Poor or orphaned children were also taught lacemaking. For example, the image below shows the indenture for Elizabeth Glover from Wellingborough. In 1681, after her father had died, she was sent by the parish to learn lacemaking from Susannah and Elizabeth Curtis. The money from selling her lace went towards her care.
Click on the image below to view it in more detail.
In the 19th century, lace schools replaced apprenticeships. The schools taught children aged five to fifteen in the homes of their teachers. Children were there for up to twelve hours a day and had strict targets to meet. At the Spratton lace school, for example, students were expected to place 600 pins on patterns per hour. In order to help them count, children recited ‘tells’ or rhymes. Tells could also tell stories, which varied by region. This is the beginning of a Northamptonshire tell called 'Wedding Song':
Nineteen long lines hanging over my door,
The faster I work it’ll shorten my score.
But if I do play it’ll stick to a stay;
So ho! little fingers, and twink it away,
For after to-morrow comes my wedding day.
Children in the lace schools sold their work. In the early 19th century, lacemakers could earn twenty-five shillings a week (worth around £96 today). However, by the 1860s, this was down to a shilling (only £4).
Industrialisation and the introduction of machine-made lace forced down wages. With changes in fashion and competition from foreign imports, this led to the decline of the industry. While lacemaking was once very important for the local economy, there is little left to show today.