In the early 16th century Catherine of Aragon was imprisoned in Ampthill for a short time whilst divorce proceedings were being taken against her by Henry VIII. Local tradition says that she taught the villagers lacemaking.
Whether this is true or not, it’s a nice story. But it is certainly the case that from the middle ages onwards, Stony Stratford was a centre for lacemaking, and it’s also likely that the skill was introduced by the Huguenots, who settled in Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire in the 1500s after escaping religious persecution in France.
Known collectively as Bedfordshire lace, bobbin lace was also known as pillow lace, because it was worked on a pillow, and bone lace, because early bobbins were made of bone or ivory.
The pillows had to be firm, otherwise the pins wobbled. The pillows were traditionally stuffed with straw. You can see an early type of pillow in The Lace-Maker painting by Caspar Netscher. The pillow has a wooden frame and is slightly sloping. The lace-maker rests it on her lap.
Bedfordshire lace often had a plaited headside known as “nine pin”. Plaits, sometimes with picots, and tallies were common. A picot (from the French verb piquer, meaning ‘to prick’) is a loop of thread created for functional or ornamental purposes along the edge of lace, ribbon, crocheted, knitted or tatted material. These loops vary in size, according to their intended function and to their creator’s artistic intention. The Bedfordshire style used flowing lines, called cloth trails. The forms created are often organic and naturalistic, representing flowers, plants and other forms from the natural world.
In the 19th and 20th centuries lace making was a common job for working class women. Women would work for 10-12 hours a day weaving the lace on cushions they balanced on their laps.
It was exacting work – and tiring. The lace was made by braiding and twisting lengths of thread, which were wound on bobbins to manage them. As the work progressed, the weaving was held in place with pins set in a lace pillow, the placement of the pins was usually determined by a pattern or pricking pinned on the pillow.
The pins used were probably made by local pin maker Edward Lever or from Mr. Sayers’ old shop near to Bull’s Yard in Stony Stratford (close to the Butterfly Loft). Originally bobbins were made of bone but were later replaced by wooden bobbins.
The cotton used in lacemaking was bought in, but everything else was made locally, for example, the pillows, stools and bobbins to produce the delicate and beautiful lace.
Villages developed their own style and patterns. I was amazed to find that Stony Stratford’s most well-known pattern was the Butterfly. I haven’t been able to find a picture of the Butterfly, unfortunately, but here are some typical lace patterns.
It was a skill that was taught early in life. Young girls would learn to make lace at lace schools like the one in Stony Stratford, which in the 1880s was situated on the west side of the High Street, close to the site thought to be where the Queen Eleanor’s Cross stood.
Children would work six or seven hours a day and were paid just sixpence (2.5 pence!). Talking wasn’t allowed and if the children didn’t pay attention, their noses would be rubbed in on the pins or their hands would be rubbed raw. They were allowed one break of ten minutes to play and another to refill the cushions.
To pass the time, they would sing rhymes like: “Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack jump over the candlestick.”
Lace schools were unhealthy place and young women suffered the most. A comment in an official document in 1864 remarked that “the women and girls (of Olney) have a bleached appearance”.
The 1867 Sixth Report of the Medical Officer of the Children’s Employment Commission found that between 15 and 25 years of age more than double the number of females died of tuberculosis and other lung diseases than did males.
Slowly improvements in public health were implemented. In 1872 the Education Act meant school was compulsory until the age of 13 and the Workshops Act set out minimum requirements for working hours and conditions of employment.
Adults continued to make lace at home and here too there was greater representation of their interests. Movements such as the Bucks Cottage Workers’ Agency, which came into being in the early twentieth century, allowed local women to continue making lace from home where it was collected and sold around the country.
Even men became lace-makers when work was scarce after the harvests etc. Some men found lacemaking was more lucrative than working on the land and so it became a long-term job for them. The local lace became famous for its quality, so much so that in 1896 Queen Victoria ordered enough to guarantee many workers a job throughout the winter.
Bedfordshire lace can be viewed at the Higgins Art Gallery & Museum in Bedford and at the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney.
The Butterfly Loft welcomes lace makers and lace admirers alike!
Stony Stratford is a wonderful place to staycation or work! If you’re thinking of staying in Milton Keynes and you want somewhere characterful, historically fascinating and tranquil, do get in touch.