Bucks Bobbin Lace

Nominated by: Della Fitzgerald

In the sixteenth century religious persecution in France and the Low Countries caused people to flee to England with their lace pillows and bobbins and use their skills to make a livelihood.  Many settled in Buckinghamshire, which became a centre of cottage lace industry. 

Marlow was known across Europe as an important centre for lace making.  Early entrepreneurs saw this as an opportunity to make money!  Buying lace from the worker and selling it on in London was profitable but the lace makers at the bottom of the chain received little money.  The wives and children of farm labourers earning a pittance became lace makers to augment their meagre income.  They worked long hours and remained poor. 

In 1609 John Brinkhurst established alms houses on Oxford Road in Marlow to provide accommodation for the poor.  On April 8th 1623 a petition was sent to the High Sheriff of Buckinghamshire concerning the plight of the lace makers: ‘much distressed, as bone lace making was much decayed’.  In 1624, in memory of his son Henry, Sir William Borlase founded a school in West Street “to teach twenty-four boys ‘to read and cast accounts’ and twenty-four girls to ‘knit, spin and make bone lace’”.

Bobbin lace was at a peak throughout the eighteenth century, but in the early nineteenth, machines were adapted to produced simple lace.  By 1827 girls no longer attended Sir William Borlase School, as lace was considered an inferior occupation with little return.  Girls preferred household work with a small but fixed wage.  The majority of lace makers lived on farms or in villages.  Unable to get to town to seek work, they continued making lace.  No longer able to make a worthwhile living, the dealers disappeared, but a few lace makers arranged to sell lace locally.

At the 1851 Great Exhibition Elizabeth Frewin of Dean Street Great Marlow exhibited ‘a lace collar, cuffs and lappets made by hand on the pillow, using an admixture of silk, which greatly improves the appearance of the lace’.  She was a wheelwright’s wife who became a part-time dealer to help the lace makers.  Eleanor Merchant, wife of a millwright with three children, sold lace for the people living in Dean Street.  Kezia Beaver in Gun Lane did similarly for the dwindling number of lace makers in other parts of the town. 

Eventually the cottage industry was no longer feasible, but today bobbin lace has reappeared as a leisure pastime.  No one will ever make the fine flounces and large collars worn in the past.  No longer fashionable and very time consuming, they would be the work of a lifetime!  Today coarse yarns are used in a multitude of colours; wire is used for jewellery; patterns are created to be framed as pictures – the possibilities are endless.

However, we must not forget the traditional patterns.  The movement of threads, and the many stitches to create texture and variety, are a part of bobbin lace for all time.  The old patterns are our heritage, the ability to make them must be maintained in the future.

For more information about lace making in Marlow, please see the Marlow Museum website.

Bucks Bobbin Lace was nominated by Della Fitzgerald, Secretary for Marlow Museum. This text was provided by Pamela Nottingham, lace-maker and author.