The local group known as 'Aragon Lacemakers'
(after Queen Catherine, of course) was established in 1977. Since
then, other lace groups have been formed in the county. The Aragon
Lacemakers hold regular meetings for members, and visitors are
welcome. Provision is made for sharing expertise and learning new
techniques. Amongst the members are lace teachers taking classes
for various evening institutes, as well as those 'spreading the
word' by giving talks to other non-lace groups.
Lacemaking in Bedfordshire - Introduction
The East Midlands traditional craft of
lacemaking was centred in Bedfordshire, together with
Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. 'Point Ground' lace was
produced in the Lille style, pattern and ground being worked
together. Honiton, in Devon, followed the Brussels and Italian
traditions of working the decorative elements first and then
'grounding' them with connecting bars and mesh.
In the early years of the 16th century
Catherine of Aragon was imprisoned in Ampthill for a short time
whilst divorce proceedings were being taken against her by Henry
VIII. It is believed she taught the villagers lacemaking.
From the 16th century there are frequent
references to the working of 'bone lace' being taught to the
children of poor people in workhouses in order that they might earn
something towards the cost of their keep. Even in the relatively
buoyant period for lacemaking, from the late 17th century and
through the 18th century, the association with poor people was a
Lace Schools developed from this practice of
the Overseers of the Poor paying an experienced lacemaker to teach
the children of the poor. The system continued through the 18th and
19th centuries, although some charitable organisations eventually
ceased their support because the schools were seen as injurious to
the health, general education and moral discipline of the children.
The Bedford Charity also suggested that girls who had attended lace
schools were 'generally unfit for household work'. There is little
doubt that the system exploited children; as soon as they were
reasonably proficient they were expected to help fulfil orders from
the lace dealers and in some cases were beaten if their work was
not up to standard. Their earnings were low because of their age
and their general education neglected in favour of lacemaking.
Lace 'tells' were used to help relieve the
monotony of the long hours the children were expected to work at
their lace. Lace 'tells' were a form of chant which kept up the
momentum of the work. They were also a form of counting either from
1 to 19 or 19 to 1.
Obtained from a Cranfield source by Fred and
Margaret Hamer, collectors of folk songs - the following example
begins at No. 1 :-
The 'tell' was repeated, changing the number
of pins at each repetition until the 19th pin was reached. So far
no-one knows why the number 19 was significant.
Lace 'tells' should not be confused with
nursery rhymes which the children might well have known.
The lace 'tell' could well be the only known
work-song other than sea shanties.
English lace in the 17th century was not of
such high quality as the best Continental lace and various
protection measures, mainly import duties, were introduced. The
main result was that lace joined the list of commodities of
interest to smugglers. When these duties were removed towards the
end of the century, fears for the future of the industry proved to
be unfounded. The less expensive home product had found a secure
popular market. Bedfordshire workers made the 'Old Point' lace in
their cottages throughout this period, working to orders via the
lace dealers whose role was to link the products of the cottage
industry to the requirements of fashion.
The real blow to the hand made lace trade came
when, in 1809, John Heathcoat of Nottingham and later Tiverton,
successfully developed a machine to make 'bobbin net', a ground
material to which decorative elements could be applied by hand.
Later inventions allowed the complete machine production of lace
which, though not of the highest quality, was acceptable to the
Throughout the 19th century the earnings of
Bedfordshire lacemakers fell. The response was to compete with the
machine lace by making Maltese lace, a coarser lace than point
ground and, for a while, incapable of being copied by machines.
Torchon lace, another coarse variety, was also introduced but only
served to delay briefly the demise of the handmade lace trade.
Maltese and Torchon lace had an adverse effect on the lacemakers'
technique and the number of workers had fallen dramatically by the
time of the 1891 census.
Attempts were made, first by county gentry and
later by Lace Associations and Co-operatives, to revive the old
point ground tradition and to find markets for it. They had limited
success, finding regular work for a few hundred lacemakers rather
than the thousands previously employed. Further problems came at
the outbreak of the First World War when refugees from Belgium
included many accomplished lacemakers who competed for the limited
work available to the handmade trade. By the end of the Second
World War, Bedfordshire Pillow Lace had become a recreation for
people who could take pride in their ability to produce fine work
without the pressure of needing to earn their living by it.
Laces of the Bedford Area
The Lace Guild
and Lacemaking Revival.