Not Just A Load Of Old Bobbins!

Adventures in Time & Lace

Not Just A Load Of Old Bobbins!

Political intrigue! Murder! Hanging! That got your attention, right? I know what you’re thinking. What on earth has any of that got to do with lacemaking?! If you don’t know much about lacemaking, and if you have never really explored its history, you might be forgiven for expecting it to be pretty sedate. Until I became interested in lacemaking myself and have started to explore its history a little, this is exactly what I thought. It turns out I was so wrong!

Recently I’ve been looking into the history of lacemaking bobbins a little and have discovered that they were and are much more than just a simple tool in the lacemaking process. Lacemakers bobbins, used to hold the thread and weave the lace, are traditionally made from wood or bone. Historically English bobbins have been unlike the bobbins of lacemakers in Europe, in that instead of being plain and uniform, each bobbin on a English lace makers pillow was different & decorative. In an analysis of the lacemaking exhibits held by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, Nicolette Makovicky tells us that a lace maker’s bobbin and pillow can be seen as representative of her world. The bobbins and their decorations not only reflected her personal and family history, but all sorts of events of local and national significance.


Lace Making Bobbins Photo Credit: Tonya Harman - not just old bobbins
Lace Making Bobbins Photo Credit: Tonya Harman

English lacemakers personalised their bobbins with their own decoration seen in the design of spangles on the end of the bobbins, in little mementos or trinkets hung on the spangle and in the engraving of writing into the bobbin. Engraved bobbins were, for example, exchanged between friends and family members, inscribed with dates of births, deaths & marriages or given by a lover to their sweetheart. I like the story of the ‘Jack Alive’ bobbin. In the late nineteenth century an illiterate lacemaker received a series of bobbins from her son Jack, a sailor. Whenever Jack travelled to a new place he would send back a bobbin to his mother, inscribed with his name, to let her know he was still alive and had made it to his next destination.


'Jack Alive' Bobbin Photo Credit: Cowper & Newton Museum
‘Jack Alive’ Bobbin Photo Credit: Cowper & Newton Museum

Bobbins were also used to commemorate or promote local and national events. Makovicky says bobbins with the names of political candidates and their slogans were distributed at election time and some lace dealers gave their workers bobbins as gifts. Lace makers generally worked for more than one dealer and these gifts may have been an attempt from the dealers’ side to monopolize the services of particularly talented craftswomen.

By far the most unusual in the tradition of commemorative bobbins, in my opinion, are the “hanging bobbins”. The name has nothing to do with how the bobbins hang on the pillow! These were bobbins made to ‘commemorate’ the execution of infamous criminals, a number of which come from my home county of Bedfordshire. The commemorative bobbins would bear the condemned’s name and the date they were hung. A travelling peddler would sell the bobbins among the crowd gathered and lacemakers would often sit and get on with their work until the condemned arrived and the hanging began. Cheery huh? The bobbin below commemorates William Worsley, the last man to be hung in Bedford.


'Hung 1868' William Worsley Hanging Bobbin Photo Credit: Cowper & Newton Museum
‘Hung 1868’ William Worsley Hanging Bobbin Photo Credit: Cowper & Newton Museum

I’m just scratching the surface of lacemaking’s rich and interesting history. Who knew it would be so intriguing!

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