Patron Saints of Lacemaking
According to the legend, St Catherine of Alexandria was a virgin martyr who converted to Christianity and was imprisoned tortured, sent to be broken on the wheel (which shattered at her touch) and eventually beheaded. Because of her association with the wheel, she is the patron saint of wheelwrights and other crafts people, as well as spinners, lacemakers and spinsters, among others.
Lacemakers in the Midlands have traditionally celebrated her feast day on 25th November in rituals known as “washing the candle block”. I have done a separate post about this in a bit more detail, called “Jack be Nimble – candlesticks and cattern cakes”. Cattern cakes were sometimes made in the shape of a catherine wheel.
Over time, it seems that St Catherine has got confused with Katherine of Aragon. In her 1875 book History of Lace, Bury Palliser claims that “the art of lace-working, as it then existed, was first imparted to the peasantry of Bedfordshire, as a means of subsistence, through the charity of Queen Katherine of Aragon.” She also claims: “the lace-makers still hold “Cattern’s Day, the 25th November, as the holiday of their craft, kept, they say, “in memory of good Queen Katherine, who, when the trade was dull, burnt all her lace and ordered new to be made.”
Apparently though, there is no evidence to back up this romantic idea and it is quite unlikely according to lace historian David Hopkin, who says he feels quite certain there is no connection between this queen and the lace makers. The idea that lace originated from the upper classes or in the royal court was a popular one with writers and historians, and suggested that royals and the working classes (rich and poor, consumer and producer) are united; an idealistic idea that helped uphold the class system.
St Anne – Mother of the Virgin Mary
St Anne, the mother of the Virgin Mary, is also known as a patron saint of lacemakers, unmarried women, female labourers and seamstresses.
I discovered a blog post by historian Yvonne Seale about Saint Anne. According to Seale:
“Anne’s rise in popularity over several centuries […] depended on a number of factors. Anne’s presence helped to resolve some of the theological questions that surrounded just how a human woman could give birth to God—if Mary was conceived without original sin, what must her parents have been like? As a pious woman and doting mother and grandmother, Anne helped to humanise some of the more mysterious aspects of the Incarnation.”
She also says that Anne could have “provided lay women with a model of piety which was compatible with sexual activity within marriage”. Although medieval theologians would have felt anxious about the idea of Jesus’ grandmother enjoying sexual pleasure, and this led to a popular myth:
“This story claimed that Anne’s own paternal grandmother inhaled the perfume of a flower that had been seeded by the Tree of Life—the tree believed to stand at the centre of the Garden of Eden—and immaculately conceived a child called Fanuel. Fanuel in turn immaculately conceived Anne when he wiped the juice of an apple with healing powers onto his thigh. The limb swelled and Anne emerged from it—a fittingly mythological origin story.”
As explored in a future post, this also ties in with the idea of lace and lacemaking being seen as “immaculate” and representing purity, divinity and virtue.
A History of Lace, Bury Palliser 1875 p. 336-7