Lacemakers of Malmesbury

The Last of the Malmesbury Lacemakers

by J.E. Manners

About a hundred years ago lacemaking in Malmesbury in Wiltshire was quite a considerable cottage industry. The lace that was made was of a fine texture after the style of that of Valenciennes and was possibly brought over by Huguenot refugees.

In a rural district where wages were low, being largely agricultural, every penny counted and the women spent as much time as possible making the lace to help the family budget. The work of lacemaking was slow and laborious apart from the skill required with the labour being very poorly rewarded, in fact it was sweated labour with all the work being done in homes and never in a factory.

At the beginning of the century lacemaking was dying out and an effort to revive it was made by Lady Suffolk of Charlton Park, a few miles outside Malmesbury. She organised classes in the Kings Arms hotel for one hour a week. Her star pupil was Annie Bishop who twice won the county cup for the best lacemaker of her age. She came from a family of lacemakers and used her Grandmothers equipment consisting of a pillow which was like an oversized football stuffed with hay and covered with a suitable material. Across this pillow the parchment pattern was pinned tightly. The best of these patterns was made out of pig skin parchment and Annie, now Mrs Goodfield 76 years of age, has several examples including a beautiful one dated 1798. The pattern is pricked out in hundreds of holes about a sixteenth of an inch apart and into these are placed a dense forest of pins outlining the part of the pattern that is being worked.

Mrs Goodfield is now crippled with arthritis and has not been able to leave her house for the last two years but her fingers are still nimble as she weaves the intricate patterns. Here is how a stitch is made… First take two pairs of bobbins and a. Take the two middle bobbins and put left over right. b. Cross the two middle ones. d. Twist the two outside ones over three times. This operation makes one complete stitch.

The pattern that I saw being worked was about one inch wide and thirty four bobbins were being used but sometimes there are as many as a hundred if the pattern is a broad one. She was able to make about three quarters of an inch an hour.

The bobbins are like thin pencils of wood which the linen thread for lacemaking is wound. Any type of hardwood can be used and there are samples in beech, mahogany, oak and maple whilst attractive ones inlaid with pewter were sometimes given by young men to their girlfriends. There must be enough weight in the bobbin to give the required amount of tension to the thread.

Linen thread or occasionally silk was used for all the lacemaking but it is some years since it has been supplied by the local shop.

Annie’s lacemaking ceased abruptly at the age of thirteen as she was one of a family of ten children and was packed off to domestic service as lacemaking did not make a living. After a gap of sixty years she was persuaded to come out of retirement and give a demonstration at the Malmesbury Festival of Flowers in 1968. All her Grandmothers apparatus was resurrected, after narrowly escaping being consigned to the dustbin, and Annie set to work soon recapturing her early skill inherited from her mother and Grandmother who had spent as much time as possible on lacemaking doing a lot of work by candlelight with a mirror so placed to concentrate the light on the pattern. Mistakes show up badly so the work always has to be perfect. If a thread breaks or comes to an end a new one is joined by running it and never knotting. A lacemaker can become so adept that a conversation can be carried on whilst the work proceeds.

Lace was used for trimming bonnets, underwear, jabots, handkerchiefs etc. and the demand always seems to have exceeded supply which makes it all the more surprising that this did not lead to a more realistic price being paid for it.

In 1912 Mrs Goodfield made twelve yards of lace which was used in the Princess Royals trousseau for which she received sixpence a yard.

Mrs Goodfield is the last surviving lacemaker in the district and when she finally ceased to make it the once famous Malmesbury lace will be no more.