Collecting Articles and Features

Lace Bobbins – The Decorative Charm of Lace Bobbins

19th century lace bobbins
A growing interest in lace collecting has also created a renewed interest in old pillow lace bobbins. Lace bobbins have always been a decorative adjunct to lace making and although functional and fairly standard in form the bobbin flourished in its decorative charm with carving, colour, material and decoration making up for the deficiency in variety of form. Within this slender compass there was room for invention and even humour and romance in the phrasing of the inscriptions.

The art of pillow lace-making was introduced into England in the middle of the sixteenth century. At that time pillow lacemaking as an industry was well established on the Continent and in 1563 the first of a great many Protestant refugees, many of them lace-makers, fleeing from religious persecution arrived in England, persecution arrived in England, along the south coast. For various reasons many of these refugees wandered inland and settled in areas notably in Bedfordshire. The emigris taught the art to their new neighbours in England and gave to them what later became a great rural craft.

Unlike lace makers in the traditional centres of lace making in Belgium, Flanders and France who used large numbers of identical, plain bobbins, each bobbin on the pillow of an English lace maker was different. Hand carved or turned on a treadle lathe, bobbins were commonly made of wood or bone and could be intricately carved, painted, inlaid with pewter, wire-bound or inscribed with names and dates. (Lace makers’s bobbins, Mackovicky) .

Many people took to lace-making and the area of the new industry grew so that it eventually included the whole of Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire and large parts of the adjoining counties, and so became known as the Midland Lace-making Industry. The lace was a creation of great beauty. The bobbins used for making lace took on special characteristics in this area and they themselves became works of art. Their attractive design and decoration alone make them worthy of collecting and study. The inscribed bobbins give us a very clear and intimate story of the lace-makers. Little has been recorded of the lives of these cottage workers: it is through the bobbins they have left that we can build up a story of their everyday existence.

The Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford has a collection of lace bobbins, lace samples and lace pattern bought by  Henry Balfour from a Mrs. M. Butler in 1903. The collection does give an insight to the life and work of a lace maker. The feature by Nicolette Makovicky of Wolfson College is a very interesting read.

However, it is Mrs. Butler’s bobbins that allow us some insight into her work and her life. Every bobbin she used was unique; different people would have given them to her and she would have personalized them by adding her own decoration. Of the collection, five stand out. All have the typical shape for East Midlands bobbins – long (3-4 inches or 9-10 centimetres), ending in a decorative ring of beads called a ‘spangle’, or ‘jinkum’ in parts of Oxfordshire. Bobbin making was a profession and while most lace makers were female, bobbin makers were invariable male. Although it was unusual for bobbin makers to mark or sign their work, collectors have been able to identify the work of enough makers to see that the profession often ran through several generations of the same family. (Lace makers’s bobbins, Mackovicky) .

Three examples from Mrs. Butler’s collection.

The most common form of inscribed bobbins are those with just a Christian name. Sometimes a full name is given with the place of abode and the date. The bobbins inscribed to commemorate hangings are interesting. Here are three of them: ” Joseph Castle, hung 1860 “Castle murdered his wife at Luton.” William Worsley hung 1868 “” William Worsley hung 1868 “Worsley was tried with Levi Welch for the murder of William Bradbury at Luton. Worsley’s execution was the last public one in Bedford. ” William Bull hung 1871 ” — Bull murdered an old lady named Sarah Marshall at Little Staughton. Bull’s execution was the first privately carried out in Bedford.

Bereavements are recorded on bobbins inscribed like tombstones — ” William Church died April 5th, 1866, aged 63,” ” Mary Ann Betts born October 24th, died March 21st, aged 37 1873 “—” Agnes Mary Read my sister died 25th September 1870.” Romantic inscriptions are plentiful — ” Love buy the ring,” ” My love for thee no one can tell,” — ” I love my love because I know my love loves me.” True love did not always run smooth, some bobbins clearly indicate heartaches—” Tis hard to be slited by the one as I love,”” Tis hard to love and not be loved again,”—” I once loved them that never loved me.”

Bobbins are made of either wood or bone because the materials were suitable, cheap, and easy to obtain. There are some unusual bobbins made of both wood and bone jointed together. One specimen of this type inscribed—” I long to wed the lad I love ” indicates there were obstacles, either financial or parental, in the way, or perhaps it was just impatience.

Many of the bobbins that are not inscribed are of great interest.The fancy turned ones are good The fancy turned ones are good examples of turners art in miniature. A great variety of ornamentation can be found, bobbins are dyed in many different colours, carved, bound with fine brass wire, and inlayed with wood or pewter. Sometimes small coloured beads threaded on fine wire were bound round the bobbin. The most popular of the carved bobbins are those that are known as Church Window Bobbins. A Trolly bobbin is a large wood bobbin with several loose pewter rings round it, and was used to carry the thicker thread which outlines the design on a net ground. It is on the bone bobbins that most of the inscriptions are to be found, the wooden ones usually have nothing more than a Christian name inscribed on them. The Pocket Knife bobbins were shaped by hand with a knife by the local lads.

The beads attached to the The beads attached to the bottom of the bobbin are called a spangle. The spangle adds a little weight to keep the threads at a slight tension. Square beads were specially made and used for these spangles, they keep the bobbins that are not being used at the moment from rolling about on the lace pillow. A lace-maker often attached to the spangle small articles of personal or sentimental interest, such as lucky charms. I have heard of lacey pillows being put into mourning, at times of death, by having black spangles on all the bobbins.

Further Reading and Reference
A Decorative Charm – Pillow Lace Bobbins
Lace Making information at Cowper and Newton Museum
Lace maker’s bobbins – Nicolette Makovicky, Wolfson College
Lace Making in Northamptonshire