Lacemaking Tells (rhymes/songs sung while lacemaking)

1,2 buckle my shoe

Above: Gemma Khawaja’s version of Needlepin, a lace tell.

The Lacemaking Tells are unaccompanied counting songs and rhymes sung/chanted by young lacemakers, particularly used in the lace schools, when they are first being taught to make lace. These songs tended to be made up of fragments of ballads, nursery rhymes and sometimes even hymns, and re-hashed and appropriated to serve the lacemaking process.

According to Gerald Porter, the tells “helped them to concentrate and stopped them from going to sleep during the long night shifts…. the movement of the bobbins was timed by the modulation of the tune”.

Here are some examples of some lace tells, as found in The Romance of the Lace Pillow by Thomas Wright:

Nineteen long lines hanging over my door,
The faster I work it will shorten my score,
But when I do play it will stand at my stay
So my little finger must twink it away

For after tomorrow comes my wedding day
My shoes are to borrow, my husband to seek
For I cannot get married till after next week
And after next week it will be all my care
To pink and to curl and to do up my hair
Six pretty maidens so neat and so clean
Shall dance at my wedding next Monday morning

Down in the kitchen the cook she will run
And tell Mr Bellman to ring the ting tang
I’ll tell father when father comes home
What a day’s work my mother has done
She’s earned a penny, she’s spent a crown
She’s burnt a great hole in her holiday gown
She’s earned a penny, she’s spent a groat
She’s burnt a great hole in her holiday coat
Father came home in an angry fit
And swore a pottle loaf should last us a week
He cut himself up into wee little bits
I all the time wonder at his naughty tricks
Father whipped mother and mother whipped me
So there was such a racket you seldom do see
Then mother she sent me a long way from home
She sent me to go by the beats of the drum
The beats of the drum and sweet music did play
For that was my grandmother’s grand wedding day
The miller was driving his waggon along
The trees were in blossom, the nuts were so brown,
They hang so ripe, they won’t come down
Let’s fetch hooks and hook them down
You buy plums, I’ll buy flour
We’ll have a pudding in half an hour.

I had a little nutting tree and nothing would it bear
but little silver nutmegs for Galligolden fair

Twenty pins have I to do Let ways be ever so dirty
never a penny in my purse but farthings five and thirty

Betsy Bays and Polly Mays they are two bonny lasses
they build a bower upon the tower and cover it with rushes.

Wallflowers, wallflowers, growing up so high
all young maidens surely have to die
excepting Emma Chaudrey she’s the best of all
she can dance and she can skip
and she can jump the candlestick
Turn, turn, turn you face to the wall again.

Pardon mistress, pardon master pardon for a pin
if you don’t give us a holiday we won’t let you in.

Jack be nimble, Jack be quick
Jack jump over The candlestick

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
The grave’s the market place where all must meet
Both rich and poor, as well as small and great;
If life were merchandise, that gold could buy,
The rich would live — only the poor would die.
20 miles have I to go,
19 miles have I to go,
18 miles have I to go

Knock, knock at your door.
Who’s there?
It’s me.
Come in.
Does your dog bite?
How many teeth has it?
Six; seven next time; eight when I call again.

Tip and stitch turn over,
Let it be hay or clover.
My glum’s done!

19 miles to the Isle of Wight
Shall I get there by candle light?
Yes, if your fingers go lissom and light,
You’ll get there by candle light.

Lace tell variations of ‘The Fox’ riddle/ballad

One lonely night, as I sat high,
Instead of one there two pass’d by.
The boughs did bend, my soul did quake,
To see the hole that Fox did make
‘Nineteen miles as I sat high,
Looking for one as he passed by;
The boughs did bend, the leaves did shake,
See what a hole the fox did make!
The fox did look, the fox did see,
Digging a hole to bury me;
I saw one that ne’er saw me,
I saw a dark lantern tied to a tree.’
One moonshiny night, as I sat high,
Waiting for one to come by,
The boughs did bend; my heart did ache
To see what hole the fox did make
As I went out in a moonlight night,
To keep from harm I took the height,
I set my back against the moon,
I look’d for one and saw two come.
The boughs did bend the leaves did shake,
I saw the hole the Fox did make
19 miles as I sat high
Looking for one, and two passed by,
I saw them that never saw me –
I saw a lantern tied to a tree.

The boughs did bend, and the leaves did shake
I saw the hole the Fox did make.
The Fox did look, the Fox did see
I saw the hole to buy me.
Get to the field by one
Gather the rod by two
Tie it up by three,
Send it home by four
Make her work hard at five
Give her her supper at six
Send to her bed at seven
Cover her up at eight
Throw her down stairs at nine
Break her neck at ten
Get to the well-lid by eleven
Stamp her in at twelve.
How can I make the clock strike one,
Unless you tell me how many you’ve done?

A lad down at Olney looked over wall,
And saw nineteen little golden girls playing at the ball.
Golden girls, golden girls, will you be mine?
You shall neither wash dishes nor wait on the swine.
But sit on a cushion and sew a fine seam,
Eat white bread and butter and strawberries and cream.

Up the street and down the street
With windows made of glass;
Call at Mary Muskett’s door –
There’s a pretty las!

With a posy in her bosom,
And a dimple in her chin;
Come, all you lads and lasses,
And let this fair maid in.
Hang her up for half an hour,
Cut her down just like a flower.
I won’t be hung for half an hour,
I won’t be cut down like a flower.


The Romance of the Lace Pillow by Thomas Wright

“Work the Old Lady out of the Ditch”: Singing at Work by English Lacemakers
Author(s): Gerald Porter
Source: Journal of Folklore Research, Vol. 31, No. 1/3, Triple Issue: Ballad Redux (Jan. – Dec.,
1994), pp. 35-55

1 thought on “Lacemaking Tells (rhymes/songs sung while lacemaking)”

  1. Lace Tells were sung/chanted in order to get into a rhythm and build up speed when making lace. The number nineteen features a lot as this was often the starting number of pins required for a pattern. The tells often refer to the the act of lacemaking itself. For example And saw nineteen little golden girls playing at the ball.
    Golden girls, golden girls, will you be mine? refers to 19 brass pins.


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