Lace Makers’ Bobbins
Bobbin Lace is a type of lace made by twisting and plaiting threads using bobbins – small sticks usually made from wood – which are used to weave them together. This weaving is held in place by pins, the position of which is usually determined by a pattern or pricking, onto a pillow. The pillow was traditionally stuffed with straw, though nowadays polystyrene is more often used.
Bobbin lace is also known as bone lace. This is, as far as I know, because early bobbins were usually made from bone or ivory. Although bone bobbins are still used, it seems far more common for lace-makers to use wooden bobbins. This may be because they are heavier, and so better for keeping tension on the thread.
I have been exploring lace bobbins and their bead spangles, mostly by reading articles by Nicolette Makovicky and The Romance of the Lace Pillow” by Thomas Wright among others. I have listed all my references at the bottom of this post! I have discovered through my reading that different geographical areas appear to have their own particular style of bobbins. Continental bobbins tend to have a larger bulbous handle which weighs them down, putting tension on the thread and making them easier to manipulate.
Whereas, it seems, lacemakers in continental lace making areas such as Flanders, Belgium and France used matching identical bobbins on plain wood, it appears that English lace-makers used a wide variety of mismatched bobbins on their pillows.
(Above: photo showing two continental bobbins (left) and two English bobbins with spangles (right). Photo by Ulysses Black
Honiton bobbins from Devon are straight and finish in a point. Bobbins from the East Midlands were traditionally very slender, light and straight, and needed to be “spangled” to weigh them down. Spangles are a ring of beads at the bottom of the bobbin. They add a decorative element to the bobbin, add weight to create tension and also keep the bobbins in the right place on the pillow, to stop them rolling off and getting tangled. The beads were specially made for spangles – often with a rough texture and with a scored finish to create grip. However, these beads were expensive, so lacemakers would sometimes buy penny necklaces from fairs to make their own spangles. They would also thread charms, buttons, shells and coins onto their spangles, which often had sentimental or superstitious value. More about the superstitions and beliefs about spangles in a later post!
Inscribed bobbins – morbid mementoes
Bobbins made of bone were sometimes inscribed. Many of the inscriptions found on the bone bobbins commemorate births, marriages and deaths. Inscribed bobbins were also popular love tokens from young men to their sweethearts.
Inscriptions also include marriage proposals, quotes from scripture, or significant birthdays. The penchant for inscribed bobbins was also exploited for political and commercial gain: Bobbins bearing the names of political candidates were given out at election time and some lace dealers were also known to gift lace makers with bobbins in order to secure their loyalty. One of the most fascinatingly dark things I have heard about commemorative bobbins is that they were also sold at executions: “hanging bobbins” were inscribed with the name of the criminal and the year of the execution, and were extremely popular souvenirs!
I have also read that girls would have also been told that if she worked hard at her lace pillow, she would be allowed to go and watch the hanging as a treat.
(Left: two inscribed bobbins, one of bone and one of wood)
I read in Fanny Bury Palliser’s 1865 book, A History of Lace, that lead bobbins were used in Italy. I spoke to Professor David Hopkin (Professor of European Social History at the University of Oxford) who backed this up, saying that the first known bobbin lace was made using lead bobbins; one of the earliest references to bobbin lace (very lace fifteenth century) mentions the “piombini” (piombo meaning “lead” in Italian) bobbin.
I’ve noticed that, in some of the legends and folklore about lace (more on that later!), there are a few references to the sea, and to fishermen. The lead bobbins could potentially be another link to fishing.
Beginner’s Guide to Bobbin Lace, Gillian Dye and Adrienne Thunder, Search Press 2007
See article about English Bobbins Article by Nicolette Makovicky
The Romance of the Lace Pillow, Thomas Wright, 1930
The History of Lace, Mrs B. Palliser, Third Edition, 1975
Professor David Hopkin – interview 24/5/2021