The History of Nottingham Lace (part 1)


When I mention Nottingham England, what comes to mind? I’d hoped you’d say Robin Hood. I’d like to skip forward a few hundred years and share what I know about Nottingham Lace.
To be honest, I was not very familiar with Nottingham Lace–usually when I think of English lace, I mentally default to Battenburg. But I was at a yard sale a few weeks ago (before the craft supply diet started, I promise! I wasn’t cheating!) and I came across a rather interesting lace tablecloth with a ‘made in Great Britain’ tag. The owner told me that she’d purchased the tablecloth from the Nottingham Lace Market while on vacation several years ago. I got a pretty good deal for it, in case you were wondering.
Let’s go back to Robin Hood, since he’s from Nottingham. If we try to be historically accurate, Maid Marian would’ve knitted Robin’s green tights by hand (assuming they both existed). Everyone handmade their own hosiery until 1589 when Reverend William Lee (of Nottingham) invented a machine called the stocking-frame (legends abound as to why he invented the machine; let’s just agree he was awesome and move on). He struggled for the rest of his life to make his machine successful, but was repeatedly denied a patent because the royals were afraid it would jeopardize the hand-knitting industry. Despite his apparent failure, by the end of the century hosiery manufacturing was the primary source of revenue in the city.
As Rev. Lee’s invention spread, the new profession of frame knitting was born, and Nottingham was a central hub for the booming new hosiery industry. Framework knitters generally worked from home and sold their wares to “Bagmen” (named for the bags they used to transport the stockings), who distributed and sold the finished garments.
Handmade lace had been popular for centuries already, and as soon as Mr. Lee’s stockinette machine became popular, lots of inventors were scrambling to find some way to alter Mr. Lee’s design to produce lace. It still took nearly two centuries for any machine worth mentioning to be created.
In the late 1770s, a man named John Rodgers (of Nottingham) modified Mr. Lee’s stockinette machine to create net, which is the foundation to many lace pieces. *I will mention here, that several other men have been credited with this particular modification; but I’ve chosen to name Mr. Rodgers, because he is credited in many more publications than any other individual. My sources do agree that this modification, whoever was responsible for it, was made between 1770 and 1780.*
This modified machine created lace-like pieces, but they were still quite plain–extremely simple net (think tulle). These pieces weren’t finished the second they came off the machine’s pins. The factory machines produced ‘brown net,’ a coarse unfinished structure for lace. A piece was still in ‘raw’ form and had to be washed, bleached, and dyed before going to the consumer. Workers would take the raw net home for processing and would embroider designs by hand onto the net before passing it onto a merchant for distribution and sale.
Because it was based on the stockinette knitting machine, Mr. Rodgers’ machine produced net with open knitted loops, and so the ‘lace’ was not very durable and lost shape easily.
Bobbin lace, which is made by twisting several threads together, is sturdier and will withstand use much better. Twisting thread (bobbin-style) rather than looping it (knitting) had more possibilities for design adaptation as well. Handmade bobbin lace still won out.
John Heathcoat created the first machine capable of duplicating twisted bobbin lace in 1808. Mr. Heathcoat “bobbinet” machine, combined with other enhancements courtesy of the Industrial Revolution, caused Nottingham’s population and industry to explode. People flocked to the city to work, and as the crowds grew, factories, warehouses, and slums sprang up on top of the fleeing gentry’s homes. The lace warehouse district of Nottingham became known as the Lace Market. Oh, boy, did things get interesting fast! Even though Mr. Heathcoat had a patent on his machine until 1823, there was a rush to improve his machine and expand upon his idea.
John Leavers modified Mr. Heathcoat’s machine (but did not market his own machine, as he didn’t want to infringe on Mr. Heathcoat’s patent). For specifics on his modifications, see page 11 of this research book.
John Livesey combined all existing improvements into one super-machine, and in the mid-1800s produced a machine that could legitimately be used in factories to mass-produce lace. Mr. Livesey’s machine was able to adapt to different styles, and allowed more and more elaborate pieces.
To give you some perspective of how brilliant these machines were, the basic motions and methods from Mr. Heathcoat, Leavers, and Livesey’s machines are what we still use today in modern machines.
Well, we’re right at the peak of the Industrial Revolution, which (oddly enough, haha) coincides with the peak of Nottingham lace production, so it seems like a good place to stop for today. I’ll be back later this week with more information on the fantastic history of Nottingham lace!

A chance meeting, and a chance to provide lace for reenactment actors

Today I went to the coffee shop down the street to work on this week’s posts, and while I was waiting to order, I bumped into a woman in full 1840s costume. The Corner Perk is frequented by an eclectic mix of hipsters, retireees, and other locals, but she stood out just a little. I placed my order and sat on my usual comfy couch, but was quickly drawn in by her dress and accessories. She was obviously a novelist, as demonstrated by the table full of books and other promotional material.

I asked to examine her lace tablecloth (I always want to check whether lace is handmade), and we struck up a conversation. Her face lit up when I told her I made lace the old way, and she shared her table with me as we had coffee together. We ended up exchanging cards and talking for over two hours. Kim Poovey has been a reenactment actress for over ten years, and she specializes in the Victorian era from the 1840s to the turn of the century. She has just published her first novel, Truer Words.

To be completely honest, I’ve always been worried about how difficult it would be to make people appreciate what I do. I’ve stayed awake at night contemplating how to teach people to care that lacemaking is preserved and passed on, how to make them understand that it is important. I know it’s a niche market, but if I have a hard time starting up, is it because my products aren’t good enough, or is it because my potential customers don’t understand them? Is it because I’m not good enough?

My afternoon with Ms. Kim was so encouraging and enlightening. She tells me that reenactment enthusiasts are constantly searching for quality, authentic pieces; and that they are usually (grudgingly) forced to order from overseas suppliers. What if I made lace for reenactment actors? She suggested products that she’d love to have, gave me names of several reenactment fairs and historic preservation gilds, and suggested that I lead workshops to teach lacemaking to reenactment actors. In just a couple of hours, she opened an entire world to me, of people who already want me!

I cannot express how encouraging our conversation was. The weight of worrying how to make people appreciate my work–how to make them understand what lace is–is completely gone. I’m free now, to focus on creating! What a blessing to meet Kim! I’m just bursting with ideas now. I just had to share.

My short-term blogging goals

The best way to accomplish goals is to list them out loud and make them quantifiable, right? I mentioned in my last post that I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want this website, and my business, to be. Ironically, Cari over at The Skinny Olive is hosting a link party for girls like me, who have a website and want to do awesome things with it, but need a little accountability. So here we go, my blogging goals for the next few months:

  • Put good content on my blog: have 100 posts on the site by the end of the year (especially history lessons and tutorials!!)
  • Know that someone cares: start getting comments that aren’t spam, and be ‘pinned’ by someone other than me
  • Make a schedule: structure my posts so that we know what to look forward to each day (i.e. every Friday, we get to hear how Bethany’s doing with her website and how her own projects are going!)
  • Try selling it: start using that Etsy shop I set up a year ago
  • Participate: stop silently stalking other blogs, and start talking to people!
  • Be a good hostess: try out a guest blogger, and maybe return the favor
  • Socialize: host a link party and a giveaway, and set up a Twitter feed

That’s more than enough to get started! I’ll come back to this page as things progress, and of course you’ll be updated.

What I’ve been working on and where I’ve been

It’s been a while.

The last few weeks have been off. Things have been pretty busy at the little grey cottage; we had three houseguests back-to-back, I traveled back and forth to my hometown (four hours away) several times over the last couple of weeks as my mom had surgery, and my work schedule has been all sorts of crazy.

That said, I’ve still been working on my ‘second job’ in my time off my ‘real job.’ I promise I’m not giving up yet! I’m actually taking this venture quite seriously. Here’s what’s going on and what I’ve been up to:

  • A lot of you have been clicking over to the History section of the site, but as you may have noticed, there’s no content there yet! No worries, I’m working on a series that’ll teach you about the history of Nottingham lace during the industrial revolution.
  • You’ve also been clicking over to check out the Tutorial section of the site, but again, there’s no content there. Be patient; the site is young. And rest assured, I’m on it.
  • I’ve been reading a good bit lately. This week it’s Craft, Inc.. Last week I read The Joy of Knitting, and I’ve just purchased The $100 Startup. It’s a varied reading list, yes, but they all cover a facet of where I am right now. Craft, Inc. covers the logistics of and challenges in starting a crafting business. The Joy of Knitting is more of a knitting theory book, but it doesn’t just give guidance on choosing fibers, etc. It explains the passion within the knitting community. The $100 Startup is, I’ve heard, a great book on the lifestyle behind small business.
  • I’m still working on the craft diet. I’m trying to finish the color block blanket, and I finished putting all of my photos into albums, which accounted for a good bit of weight. I’ll post an update on the diet specifically next week.
  • I’m trying to start creating my own patterns. Or at least I’m working on that.

I’ve been thinking a lot about what I want my craft business to be. Is selling pieces that important, or am I just in love with the history side of things? Would I rather put my pieces into lots of peoples’ hands, or would I rather make a select number of custom-made pieces? Do I want to focus on teaching more people how to make lace?

I don’t know yet. I’m still working on that. I know I’ll get there, though, I still have confidence. But I’ll be a little more vocal and present here next week.

My current reading material along with my craft business planning books

An easy way to help an aspiring artist

Hi Bethany, so-and-so repinned your pin, ‘lace crochet cattail dragonfly painting :) ’ on Pinterest. Happy Pinning!

-Ben and the Pinterest Team

I was on my way home from work the first time I got an email notification that one of my lace pieces had been ‘repinned.’ It had been a pretty tiring day, but when I got the email (yes, I was driving and checking my email) I squealed and immediately went down the list of top contacts in my phone until someone answered. By the way, the person I finally reached had not yet heard of Pinterest, but was polite enough to be pleased for me.

My website wasn’t up yet, so the pin I’d posted linked to the LaceArtist Facebook page. There wasn’t any increase in my ‘likes’ or even page views. My pins definitely haven’t gone viral or anything. In fact, my pieces have been ‘repinned’ less than ten times. But I still know that someone somewhere has seen my piece, and that’s incredibly cool. Someone I don’t know has seen my piece and has liked it enough to post it on their imaginary cork board. I get an irrationally huge lift whenever I get that email–I’ve made a special folder to keep those.

It’s so easy to forget that many of the cool things you find on Pinterest have a real live person behind them, cheering them on. It’s easy to forget a lot of things while on Pinterest, actually; but I digress. I challenge you to take a few extra minutes to appreciate an aspiring artist’s pin–maybe it links to their site, gallery, Etsy page, whatever. But help spread their work and their name. I can guarantee you’ll make an impact just by clicking ‘repin.’

The first piece of my own that I posted on Pinterest