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Aragon Lacemakers

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 recurrent theme.

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 popular market.

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.

Traditional Laces of the Bedford Area

Equipment Used for Lacemaking

Thomas Lester Lacemaker

The Lace Guild and Lacemaking Revival.

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