Welcome To The Lace maker's Cottage

"Lace - The Elegant Web" is the apt title of a beautiful book about the world's great laces by Janine Montupet and Ghislaine Schoeller.

For hundreds of years lace was the premier fashion accessory, the single most prestigious luxury a person could own. Required for Court Wear, lace was so necessary to advancement, place at court, and recognition as a person of taste and culture, that aristocrats and nobility were known to mortgage or sell estates to obtain it. This elegant whisper of fabric characterized by its design of ornamental stitches and open spaces - fragile, perishable and phenomenally labor intensive - was very costly.

Only the very wealthy could afford to own or wear lace. At times the amounts of money expended on lace, most of which was imported from Italy, Flanders and France, became a matter of serious concern to countries whose wealth poured into the coffers of the major lace making centers. In an effort to stem the outflow, Sumptuary laws were passed. These regulated who could wear lace, what kind, how much and even where it could be placed on garments. Although the stated purpose was protection of the financial status of a country or state, such laws also had a less lofty aim - to maintain the distinction between the classes. Merchants and others who had wealth, but lacked titles of nobility were forbidden all but the simplest and narrowest of laces. It is worth noting that Sumptuary laws were more observed in the ignoring of than the obedience to them.

Yon cottager who weaves at her own door, Pillow and bobbins all her little store; content, though mean, and cheerful if not gay, Shuffling her threads about the livelong day: Just earns a scanty pittance, and at night, Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light

From Truth by William Cowper

Beds Lace Maker Original in the Luton Museum
This photo is of a print in my collection

Light pocket, indeed! By contrast with the people who wore lace, those who produced it were among the poorest and most deprived members of society.
When lace first came into fashion, demand began to far outstrip supply for it is extremely time-consuming to produce. However, the basic tools are cheap and easy to obtain. As a result, in many regions it became customary to require inmates of alms houses, orphanages and other charitable institutions - especially women and children - learn to make lace. The sale of their output could be used to defray the cost of their care. Additionally, once skilled enough to earn their living as lace makers they could leave and no longer be dependent upon charity. Many did so. Another development which added to the available pool of lacemakers was the rise of lace schools. These were known in most of the major lacemaking regions, but were particularly popular in England where children were often apprenticed to lace at the age of five or six. Historical documents show that child labor was crucial to the survival of poor families in the centuries when lace was a luxury commodity.

Most lacemakers were women and children. Although adult men were known to make lace, boys tended to abandon lace making for other occupations when they could be apprenticed to other trades or once they approached adulthood. Some reverted to lace making when their primary work was not available or when ill health or injury prevented them from continuing whatever occupation they normally followed.

Boys, not conditioned to accept the sort of discipline to which lace schools subjected their apprentices, often rebelled. This illustration from Thomas Wright's "Romance of the Lace Pillow", 1924 edition, depicts a story popular in the English Midlands lace making region. Angered at being struck by the lace mistress the boy took his pillow - lace, bobbins and all - and threw it into a pond.

Come with us and learn more about this beautiful fabric and the history that surrounds it.

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