Today we think of lace making as a genteel craft, however, in the 19th century a lacemaker’s life could be harsh. Besides working as much as ten hours a day the women still had to run their household and care for the family.
Lace was made through a “putting-out system”, where lace dealers would supply lace makers with patterns and thread and then come back to buy the finished lace off the women, deducting the price of the thread. Lace makers often worked for more than one dealer, but ultimately dealers had the upper hand in deciding how much a lace maker could get for her efforts. The existence of a lace maker and her family was often hand-to-mouth and many young women preferred to go into service, rather than make lace.
Children of labourers were taught to make lace from an early age and many attended “lace schools”. The schools were often the living rooms of small cottages and were known for being overcrowded, badly lit and unsanitary. Girls and some boys were put to work at the age of six or seven and spent long hours bent over their pillows, learning the craft, until they could produce a marketable product. Some of the children were also taught elementary reading, but there was little other general education. Children as young as six were expected to work for as much as eight hours a day. By the age of fifteen, girls were expected to spend at least twelve hours of their day at the pillow.
They were not allowed to talk and had infrequent breaks. Those children who were slow to learn had their noses rubbed on their pins and those who were inattentive had their hands rapped raw for “looking off the pillow”.
Children were urged on to compete amongst each other and were taught ‘lace tells’ – chants that were meant to keep their attention on the pillow and achieve some sort of rhythm in their movements.:
Needlepin, needlepin, stitch upon stitch, Work the old lady out of the ditch, If she is not out as soon as I, A rap on the knuckles will come by and by, A horse to carry my lady about, Must not look off till twenty are out.
“Needlepin” was a tool and “stitch upon stitch” sewing. “Work an old lady out of the ditch” pull your sewing loop through. “If she is not out as soon as I” if you are not as deft as I am. A ‘lady’ was the lace pillow, the ‘horse’ the stand in which it sat. The ‘rap on the knuckles’ gives some idea of the discipline that ruled in these schools. “Must not look off till twenty are out” do not look off your pillow till you have set twenty pins.
A tell would be recited at a steady pace and as the appropriate number (19 or 20) was called a silence known as a “glum” would fall over the children as they would rush to be the first to set the number of pins. The first child to complete the set would call out.
Although children in some schools were taught to read and received religious instruction, the primary objective of these schools was to provide the children’s families with an income. The amount a child could earn depended on their age and skill. In the 1860s, a skilled eight-year-old working nine hours a day in Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, could earn up to 2s 6d a week, while a thirteen-year-old could earn up to 3s a week. However, the long hours of work took a toll not only on children’s general education, but also on their health. Aching backs, headaches and failing eyesight were all side effects of spending too long making lace in dark, crowded cottages.
Lace making, however, could at times be a very lucrative profession. Lace was an essential component of fashion costume until the 20th, even for men who until the early 19th century wore lace caps, cravats, cuffs and collars. Fine lace extremely expensive and was seen as a form of transferable wealth, just like gold or precious gems. Indeed, lace was very much an international trade. Since the beginnings of the industry in England, lace dealers were competing with fine lace made in France, Belgium and Italy for customers. Heavy import duties were imposed on foreign made lace in the 17th century and only lifted in 1860. Indeed, at times during the 18th century, French and other foreign laces were banned outright. The ban did not deter royalty, nobility and wealthy merchants from flaunting the law and wearing continental laces that had been smuggled into the country. Characteristically, lace makers in England saw their wages rise when the French went to war: Lace makers in the East Midlands enjoyed relative prosperity during and after the Napoleonic Wars (1803-1815) and the Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871).
By the early 19th century, lace makers had a new enemy -machine-made lace. In 1809, John Heathcoat of Nottingham invented a machine that could replicate bobbin net, to which decorative elements could be added by hand. At a glance, this kind of net looked very similar to the point lace then being made throughout the Midlands. Machine made lace was a cheap alternative for those who could not afford the real thing. However, as the lace being made by these machines became increasingly harder to distinguish from hand-made point laces, wages began to fall for lace makers, as the dealers they worked for had to lower their asking price. By the 1840s, the production of hand-made point lace was in decline. By the time of the Great Exhibition in 1851, lace makers all over the Midlands were beginning to look for a new product to turn their hands, in order to compete with the machines.
We would like to thank Barbara Hudson of QUEENSTOWN SAMPLERS for her collaboration on this blog post. You will enjoy a visit to Barbara’s website, she has some special charts that will delight our needleworkers and sampler enthusiasts.
If you have enjoyed today’s blog post you might like to sign up for our newsletter and receive future posts via email.
Subscribing is easy just fill in your email address in the box at the top right hand side of this page. Don’t forget to add us to your contact list so the newsletters go into your inbox rather than spam.
We will never share your details.
- See more at: https://hands-across-the-sea-samplers.com/?page_id=53#sthash.B7BWM8YH.dpuf