Lace by Alison Lewis

Lacemaking In Malmesbury

Yon cottager, who weaves at her own door,
Pillow and bobbins all her little store;
Content, though mean; and cheerful, if not gay;
Shuffling her threads about the live-long day,
Just earns a pittance; and at night
Lies down secure, her heart and pocket light.

William Cowper 1731-1800,
from his poem ‘Truth’


When I offered to write a leaflet on lace in general and Malmesbury lace in particular, I had no idea how complex the whole subject was. There is an enormous amount of information existing about lace and its history, both written and on the Internet, but there is very little specifically about Malmesbury Lace. However, in 1990, Joan Blanchard who is an experienced lacemaker and teacher living in Wiltshire, wrote a book entitled ‘Malmesbury Lace’. She traces the history of the lace from its beginnings through its gradual decline after the industrial revolution to its resurgence today. It is encouraging to hear that another lace expert is planning to do more research into our local lacemaking cottage industry.

I can now really understand why those of you who make lace are completely absorbed in the skill and find it so fascinating. This is an attempt to pass on some of the history and excitement that I have picked up from enthusiastic lacemakers along the way.

In the Athelstan Museum you will find examples of lace and lace equipment, photographs and documents, many of which have a local history. Of course, we would be delighted to hear from anyone with any information or artefacts relating to the subject to contribute to further knowledge of our heritage.

What is Lace?

The modern definition of lace is ‘a delicate decorative fabric made from cotton, silk or linen woven in an open web of different symmetrical patterns and figures’.

Garments were held together with ‘laces’ before the invention of buttons and other fastenings. Early lace was classed with gimps and braids.

Lace can be divided into four main groups: needlepoint, bobbin, hand-made laces and machine-made lace. It is firmly established that both needle and bobbin lace were being made in Italy quite early in the C15th. Probably, it was at least a hundred years earlier when these two forms of lace were first made. Many countries were making lace in one form or another, especially drawn thread work, before the development of needle-made and bobbin lace.

Needlepoint Lace

Needle-made lace originated in Italy and was developed from cut work. This early lace was made by cutting spaces into the material and filling these with geometric designs in buttonhole and knotted stitches. This lace is made with an ordinary sewing needle and a single thread and until the C16th it was referred to as needlework lace.

Bobbin Lace

This is also called pillow lace, bone lace or bonework. It is made by twisting and plaiting large numbers of threads together. The threads are wound onto bobbins and the lace is worked over a parchment pattern on a hard pillow. The threads are held in place by pins.

A piece of lace has two edges. The one which is sewn onto other material is called the ‘footside’ and the fancy, free edge is called the ‘headside’.

Handmade Lace

Examples of handmade lace are Crochet, Knotting, Tatting, Knitted lace and Macramé.

Crochet work, made entirely in the hands, was called ‘poor man’s lace’. It was made with fine metal hooks and very fine thread, the interlinked chain stitches produced a lace-like fabric. Crochet hooks of bone, tortoiseshell, ivory and wood were used but only for wool or thick thread.

In Italy in the C16th Crochet was worked by nuns in the religious houses, but by the mid C19th an industry producing beautiful handmade crochet lace was already established in several areas of Ireland. Fine crochet was introduced into England in 1820.

Knotting was introduced into Britain towards the end of the C17th. The technique involved using a shuttle and thread where a series of knots produced a decorative cord resembling a string of beads. This was then couched on to fabric as a surface embroidery or fringe. It was considered a ladylike occupation and popular at court while waiting to see a member of the royal family. Many of the shuttles were elaborately decorated and made of many different materials including ivory, mother-of-pearl, silver, gold, amber and horn.

Although the art of Tatting was practised in Italy in the C16th, it did not reach Britain until the early C19th. It may have developed from netting and decorative ropework and produces a particularly durable lace. It is constructed by a series of knots and loops forming a pattern of rings and chains over a core thread. Tatting with a shuttle is the earliest and most popular method of creating tatted lace. The tatting shuttle is usually a metal or plastic pointed oval shape less than 3 inches long and facilitates tatting by guiding thread through loops to make the requisite knots. The tatter wraps the thread around one hand and manipulates the shuttle with the other hand. Tatting can be used to make lace edging as well as d’oylies, collars and other decorative pieces.

Knitting is one of the oldest known crafts and knitted lace was made in homes for hundreds of years. During the late C18th and early C19th, knitted lace became extremely fashionable, which created a demand for dainty white accessories. The finest white cotton was knitted into lace to make gloves, collars and cuffs, bonnets, doyleys and table centres.

The finest gauge steel needles were necessary as the work was so intricate and the thread so fine. This fashion lasted until the late 1820’s when the demand for the fine white knitting faded out.

Macramé is derived from an Arabic word which means ‘ornamental fringe’. It is one of the oldest types of lace known and evolved from the arts of netting and knotting. It is based on two knots; a clove hitch and a reef knot. It was very popular in Victorian times and was used for fringing shawls and trimming Anti-macassars, lamp shades and table covers.

Machine Made Lace

By 1770 the first lace-making machine was already in use, which meant that for the first time lace was available to the poor as well as to the rich. By 1830 machines had become so sophisticated that they were able to produce all types of patterned lace. Eventually machine-made lace was of such a high quality that it was hardly distinguishable from the hand-made variety. The lace workers struggled on during the introduction of this machinery, but as the machines became more advanced the hand-made lace workers were put out of business.

By 1860 the market was flooded with lace, as there were so many lace manufacturers, but fortunately for the British lace industry there was great demand for machine-made net in France. Nottingham became, and still remains, the centre of English lace making.

Today, machine-made lace is cheap and easily available, but the skill of the hand–made lace makers continues in many parts of Britain.

Lace Making Accessories


Whether plain or elaborately decorated, bobbins serve the same functional purpose. Each bobbin acts as a spool on which to wind the thread and is a means of working the thread while maintaining the necessary tension.

Early bobbins were made of small animal bones, so in early documents, bobbin or pillow lace was referred to as bone lace. Later, many different materials were used but bone and wood were the most popular as they were cheap and easily available. Silver, gold, pewter, brass, ebony, ivory and glass have all been used to make bobbins, although some of these were only used for presentation purposes as they were too expensive and fragile for practical use.

The bobbin maker would travel from village to village carrying a stock of bobbins inscribed with names, decorations and texts. To mark special events, more personal and elaborate bobbins could be ordered to keep or to give as a gift.

Bone bobbins carried the most interesting inscriptions as these lasted longer than those on wooden ones, which easily rubbed off. Tiny holes were drilled into the bobbins and filled with colouring, either horizontally along the length of the bobbin or spirally around it.

These bobbins can tell us much of the everyday lives of the lace-makers and their families.

The inscriptions on the bobbins record births, deaths, hopes and fears, historical events, religious texts and also love and romance. The most common were Christian names, which were often given away as presents.

The size and shape of bobbins varied depending on the area where the lace was made and the lace pillows that were used.

A spangle, or circle of beads, was attached to the bottom of the bobbin to add a little weight giving the thread tension. There were usually six or eight square beads, with three or four on either side of a central large round bead at the bottom. These square beads were specially designed and only used for lace making. They were attached by brass wire threaded through a hole drilled in the bobbin shank. Sometimes small personal objects such as buttons, coins, crucifixes or lucky charms would replace the bottom bead. The square beads prevented the bobbin rolling about on the pillow when not in use and the larger, heavier bead added the necessary weight.

These decorated bobbins are beautiful and varied and have wonderful names such as Leopard, Butterfly, Tiger, Old maid, Tinsel, Bird cage, Cow in calf, Mother in babe and many more.

Wooden bobbins were turned on a lathe and sometimes the larger ones would be hand whittled.

The traditional Malmesbury bobbins were made of wood and were straight and plain with a flat end. They were unspangled because the thread used was very fine and the weight of the spangles would have snapped the thread.

Lace was sometimes made of wool and larger wooden bobbins called Yaks were used to take woollen thread to make this ‘Worsted’ lace.

Lace-makers and collectors of bobbins are easily able to recognise the individual bobbins and from where they come.


In England pure linen thread imported from the Continent was used for lace. Although other types of threads were used, for example wool, silk, gold and silver, linen was the best and most durable. The flax was expensive and 450g cost £200, but this amount could be used to produce lace worth £600. During the C18th an ounce of lace was worth approximately ten times more than an ounce of gold. Many thousands of pounds were made from lace smuggled into this country, often in coffins and even in a loaf of bread.

Until the end of the C18th thread was spun by hand and then gradually with the development of technology, machine-spun thread took over. The thread was sold in skeins which were numbered to record its fineness – the higher the number the finer the thread. To ensure that it would remain white and fine this thread was hand spun in dark damp cellars – a most unpleasant job.

By the early C19th cotton was widely used in England. It was called gassed thread as it was passed through a gas flame to remove loose fluff. It had the advantage of being cheaper and more elastic than linen thread but was of inferior quality.

Woollen thread was also used to make lace and was made in the Midlands from about 1870.

‘Blonde lace’ was made of natural silk and was made in this country from the mid C18th.

On state occasions gold and silver laces were popular with the rich. Gold thread was imported from Cyprus until the C16th and after this time from Venice, this was called Cyprus gold and Venice gold. At this time it was necessary to send the gold and silver to Germany to be made into thread, as this process was unknown in England. But in 1565 an English craftsman developed the art of manufacturing metal threads, called Sewing gold, so after this date the thread was made here.

Bobbin Winders

Every lace-maker wanted to have their own bobbin winder. This saved a considerable amount of time, rather than winding the bobbin by hand. They were made of wood and occupied pride of place in the owner’s home.


Until C17th pins were imported from France. As these were very expensive many of the early lace-makers improvised by using long thorns. The pins were made of brass, which did not rust, and were of prime importance to the lace-maker. They were longer than ordinary pins and came in different thicknesses and were sometimes decorated with coloured beads. Once pins were produced commercially the head, which had a hole in it, and shaft were made separately. This meant that the head could be slipped off and small glass beads could be pushed onto the shaft and secured. These specially decorated pins were called ‘strivers’. ‘Corking‘pins, which were extra long, were used to attach the parchment pincushion or bobbin bag to the pillow.

Lighting Equipment

Natural light was used during the summer months when the lacemakers would sit outside or in the doorway of their cottage. In the winter they worked by light from a candle or an oil lamp. A lace-maker’s lamp resembled an ordinary candle stick but had a glass sphere instead of a candle holder. The sphere had a small hole in the top so that it could be filled with water and, when the lit candle was placed behind it, the sphere magnified the candlelight. In the lace schools children sat around a candle stool which is mentioned in that section of this leaflet?


The old design and patterns of the lace were pricked onto parchment made of animal skins. They were 14 inches in length and the width would depend on the width of the lace being made. The people who created these complex designs must have been expert lace-makers as well as gifted artists. Linen was attached at the ends of the parchments, called ‘eches’, to hold the pins. The workers usually pricked their own parchment but sometimes parchment ‘prickers’ were employed especially for this purpose. It was a very precise skill as the whole pattern could be thrown out of line if it was even a little out of position. Usually the lace-makers had about six patterns on which they worked, perfected and made their own. Great care was taken to copy the pattern, before the tiny holes close together became worn and merged into each other. In more recent times thin waxed cardboard was used instead of parchment but was found to be very inferior.

Lace Pillows

The pillows on which the lace was worked varied in shape and size, according to the size of the lace to be made and to the tradition of the area. Some were square, mushroom shaped, bolster shaped and some looked like a huge football as Malmesbury pillows did.

They were made of canvas or a similar strong material and stuffed with wheat straw. The straw was first cut into short lengths and hammered down firmly into the pillow, as it was important that it remained hard. A piece of material covered the pillow called a ‘pillow cloth’ and the parchment was then attached to it.

As the pillows were quite awkward and heavy they were often supported on a special stand called a ‘pillow horse’ or ‘maid’. They were made of wood and often produced by local craftsmen.


Lace-making as we know it today, has evolved over many centuries and in many countries. In the Old Testament in Isaiah ch.19, v 9 says ’Moreover, they that work in fine flax, and they that weave networks, shall be confounded’. The Victoria and Albert museum has samples of ‘Mummy’ lace, from several centuries BC, which was found in ancient tombs in Egypt. Fragments of gold lace were found in a Scandinavian burial ground at Wareham in Dorset and in the coffin of St Cuthbert in Durham Cathedral, who died in AD 685. It is thought that this ‘network lace’ was made by the plaiting of threads held on a wooden frame and was made of fine linen darned with gold thread or with gold thread alone. In many of William Shakespeare’s plays lace is mentioned, for example in Twelfth Night – ‘The spinners and knitters in the sun, and the free maids, that weave their thread with bones’.

Because lace is such a fragile fabric most early examples have perished with age, but those that do survive were found preserved in churches and convents. Before it came into general use, most of the early lace was made by nuns for Church vestments and Altar cloths. This very early lace is called lacis or filet lace and is darned netting which shows geometric patterns, as the work was on a square mesh. It eventually developed into needle or bobbin lace as the techniques were altered and improved over the years.

Both Italy and Flanders claim to have invented lace and both countries can produce some evidence from the C15th to support their claims but it is not until the C16th that accurate information can be provided. It was in Italy that the art of lace-making was taken most seriously and where a great industry grew up.

In 1493 the records of an Italian family, the Sforzas from Milan, included an inventory with descriptions of items trimmed with point and bone lace and mentions spindles, an old name for bobbins. From Ferrara Cathedral in 1500, there is a document with details of the price of mending and ironing lace, on the vestments of a priest. A picture painted by Raphael in 1519 of Pope Leo X, shows layers of lace on the sleeves of his robes. It is obvious from early records of the C15th that lace had been in use for some time before this date.

In the 1550 accounts of Henry VIII there was an entry of five shillings and eight pence for a piece of ‘yelowe lace’. Although he wore very little lace he had his handkerchiefs and shaving cloths trimmed with ‘Flandres work’.

The Painters of Europe left pictorial evidence in the C16th and C17th, of the wealthy members of the community wearing their finest lace. In England, it was during the reign of Elizabeth 1 (1558- 1603) that lace became popular for decorating personal clothing. The neck ruffs were particularly spectacular, especially those of the Queen herself. They were made of cutwork, silver lace, gold lace, needlepoint and bone lace and were made in several layers covered in jewels, beads and pearls. Starch was introduced into England from Flanders in 1564 and ruffs became larger and larger.

By the mid C17th, lace was not only prized for its beauty but it was also extremely valuable and special caskets were made in which to keep the lace clean. Throughout this century lace retained its popularity and was worn by men and women, it was used to decorate shoes, boot trims, garters, for collars and cuffs and for household purposes. There was no item of personal clothing or household linen that was too insignificant to be trimmed with it. Although English lace was not only plentiful but very beautiful, large amounts of foreign lace were being imported. Charles 1 became worried when the home industry began to fail and prohibited the import of ‘purles, cut-works and bone laces’. This encouraged the smuggling of lace into the country, which was a problem for nearly all the lace producing countries and continued until the free-trading policies of the C19th. Lace was often smuggled into the country in coffins, with or without a corpse, and after burial the relatives would return to the grave at night and remove the lace.

The diarists of the C17th were very informative on the fashions of the period. In 1662 Samuel Pepys recorded in his diary that he was delighted with his new lace scallop (collar), even though it cost him £3. At the end of the century William and Mary were probably the most extravagant spenders on lace and in 1690 records show their bills of £2,000 each. The new high head-dress called a ‘fontage’ became popular, which consisted of frill upon frill of lace and ribbon built up on a wire support attached to a close fitting linen cap. Women also wore lace ruffles on their sleeves and aprons of richly coloured material with lace frills. Men wore long and loose cravats and their hats and summer gloves were all lace trimmed and even soldiers wore elaborate lace cravats as part of their uniform.

In the early C18th huge amounts of gold and silver lace were used and women’s clothes remained extravagant for most of the century. Hooped gowns and petticoats were lavishly trimmed with lace flounces, frills and ribbon bows. From the 1730’s women wore small frilled lace coifs or caps, often given the name of the lace from which they were made, for example ‘blonde’ caps, but larger lace caps were required to cover the more elaborate hair styles of the 1770’s. After the French Revolution there was a dramatic change in both men and women’s fashions and clothes became much simpler. More attention was paid to the cut of men’s clothes and the quality of the material. Women’s clothes were designed on Grecian lines and made of much softer materials. Demand for the heavy laces declined rapidly and very light and machine-spun net was preferred.

Although both George 11 and George 111 did their best to encourage the home lace industry, by the end of the century the English hand-made lace industry had suffered a further decline. The main cause was the invention of the twist net machine by Heathcoat, which revolutionised the industry in Britain.

By the 1860’s the narrow muslin dresses of the early C19th gradually developed into the crinoline. Laces made a come back from the 1830’s and were used for wide dress flounces, bonnet veils, lace scarves and Perelines (wide collars). Black Chantilly lace was fashionable for edgings and for huge shawls which draped over the wide crinolines. Also in fashion were lace fans, folding carriage parasols and large handkerchiefs decorated with lace. Valenciennes lace was used to trim nightwear and underwear including pantaloons and long white drawers. Machine made Valenciennes and Chantilly lace came onto the market in 1840.

Queen Victoria was a great collector of lace and when she died her collection was valued at £76,000. Some of the collection is in the V & A. By the end of the C19th machine made lace had virtually replaced hand-made lace. This real lace ceased to be produced on a commercial scale though it survived as a hobby and hand made clothes were still decorated with expensive hand–made lace. The sewing machine was invented by the end of her reign and machine-made garments were decorated with cheaper machine-made lace.

Twentieth Century

For those in high society, the Edwardian era was one of extravagance. Dresses were elaborate creations lavishly trimmed with lace. In the daytime, the gowns had high, boned collars reaching up to the ears and falling over the shoulders, with long sleeves decorated at the wrists and lace cuffs or frills draping over the hand. The evening gowns had a collar of wide lace at the neck and on the sleeves. Hems of both day and evening gowns were trimmed with lace or braid as were blouses, petticoats, night wear and baby wear. Lace gradually went out of fashion as tailor-made clothes became more fashionable and especially during the 1914-1918 war it became less popular. After the war, synthetic threads came on to the market and were used to make nets and laces. These materials washed better and needed less care, though the rich continued to prefer the real hand made lace.

Cottage Industry

Women and children made the bulk of the lace in the second of the C17th and most of the C18th. To supplement their meagre wages, men sometimes also made lace in the evenings after coming home from a day’s work in the fields. It was common to see the lacemakers sitting in the doorways of their cottages making the most of the light.

Once the lace had been made, dealers provided the link between the workers and their customers and provided the threads and patterns. Lace markets were held in London and in all the lace making counties. Dealers visited the markets and also fairs around the country to sell the lace, taking orders for lace and returning with stocks of thread and silk for the lace workers to use.

When the bobbin-lace industry was at the height of its prosperity in the early C18th, the lace dealers provided work for over 100,000 lace makers. Many lace dealers became very wealthy men and were often hard taskmasters. They would pay their workers a pittance and charge their customers an extremely high price. Lace sales, which were called ‘Exhibitions’, were often held in the big houses of the villages.

In all of the lace villages there was a ‘cutting-off day’ every four to five weeks when the workers cut the lace off their pillows and took it to the dealers.

By the end of the C18th the number of lace dealers had fallen which meant that those still in business dealt with more workers. Although they supplied all the materials, they did not always buy back the finished lace so to combat this, independent lace collectors, some of them women, set up in business. They collected lace from the workers and resold it to the dealers.

Towards the end of this century, the lace workers were living at near starvation level as they were earning very little and the cost of living had risen. As the industry started to revive in the early C19th the situation improved, as the workers average earnings went up.

The introduction of machine-made lace virtually brought an end to the cottage lace industry.

Children & Lace

In Bedfordshire in 1596 there is an early mention of paying someone to teach children to make lace and in 1618 records of teaching the ‘poore children’ to make bone lace. Workhouse accounts show regular payments made to teaching the poor children of the parish to make lace and for providing the equipment.

Lace Schools

The most reliable information we have of children making lace comes from the lace schools which seem to have started in the late C18th.The children were taught to make lace and to read and write. Both boys and girls were sent to the school between the ages of 5-15, but the boys left to work in the fields as soon as they were old enough.

The school was run by the lace mistress usually in the sitting room of a small cottage with poor heating, lighting and ventilation. It must have also been quite noisy with the clicking of the bobbins.

In winter, the room was very cold as they were not allowed to light a fire in case the smoke soiled the lace and the light poor with only candle light to help them see the intricate work. They sat in a circle around a candle block or candle stool, which was a method of helping to focus the light onto their work. Inverted glass flasks filled with water were placed around a central candle, set into a wooden stool, which magnified the light. Between November and February the children worked for ten hours a day, starting at 6 o’clock in the morning. In summer time their working day was even longer and lasted for twelve hours. When it got very hot, the children often worked outside where it was cooler and the light brighter.

The girls wore dresses with short sleeves and had their hair pulled back and tied at the neck to avoid getting hair in the lace.

For the first year, the lace mistress would keep the child’s earnings as payment and then they would only earn a few pence a week. The children had to make a certain amount of lace each day and as the girls became more experienced they were able to work more quickly at familiar designs. The lace mistress was very strict with the children and they would be punished if they misbehaved or made the lace dirty. If there was a smudge on the lace they tried to cover it up with powered starch, because soiled lace was of inferior quality. A bag of starch was kept handy to keep the children’s hands and fingers clean and dry.

As the work was monotonous and repetitive the children used to chant certain types of songs called ‘lace tells’. Many of these ‘lace tells’ mention numbers which helped them with their counting.

There were two very important feasts which all lace-makers, both young and old celebrated. These were St Catherine’s day (Catterns) on November 25th and St Andrews Day (Tanders) on November 30th. St Catherine was the patron saint of spinners, weavers and lace-makers. Each village had its own way of celebrating with traditional food and drink, games and dancing.

Lace making was also taught to children in workhouses and the money from the lace sold went to help offset the cost of their keep and sometimes to the parish. Having been taught this skill when young, this was a way of earning a living later on.

The lace buyer would call regularly at the schools and cottages to buy the lace which had been made. Local lace makers from the surrounding district would come to meet the buyer at the village Inn small I for inn? to sell their lace.

From the mid C19th many health, welfare and education acts were passed which put pressure on the lace schools. Many had to close, but lace making continued to be taught in the state schools and at evening classes in the lace making districts.

How Lace Came To England

Some very good needlepoint lace was made here in the C16th and C17th mostly produced for the home market, rather than on an industrial scale. This lace was mostly ‘Reticella’ cutwork and compared very favourably with French and Italian imports. All classes of English women were taught sewing and embroidery from an early age and some of the early samplers, sewn by young girls incorporated cutwork stitches. There are some pieces of domestic linen in existence decorated with English cutwork. The best known of the English needlepoint laces is ‘Hollie point’.

There is a theory that the art of making bobbin lace was probably introduced into this country by refugees from Flanders, who arrived here in the mid C16th. Many skilled lace-makers among them brought just enough of their lacemaking equipment to start their trade in a new country.

The refugees brought their lace with them which was greatly admired by the English and soon they were learning the art themselves. Some of these Flemish lacemakers settled in small villages in Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire and from these areas bobbin lace making spread to other parts including Wiltshire, Dorset, Somerset and Devon.

Another wave of refugees arrived in this country in 1572. Among these French Huguenots were many lacemakers, who joined forces with the Flemish lace makers, and their influence was seen in the old English laces. In the late C17th more refugees came from the lacemaking areas of Burgundy and Normandy who brought their skills to the established lace industry in this country. A National Fund was administered from London to provide money for the refugees for shoes, clothing, bedding and food and among those given help were several lacemakers.

There are other theories about the introduction of bobbin lace into this country.

One is that bobbin lace making was already carried on in England as a domestic craft and that the refugees merely developed it into an industry.

Another thought is that in 1531, during the time that Queen Catherine of Aragon spent in the village of Ampthill in Bedfordshire, she instructed the villagers in lace making. She was staying there whilst awaiting her divorce from Henry VIII. There is a lace stitch called ‘kat’ stitch and a ‘St Catherine’s’ pattern that supports this theory.

Lace In Malmesbury


A flourishing pillow lace industry was carried on in this county and the lace was of a very high quality. Lacemaking was already a thriving industry at the end of the C17th so it is safe to assume that it started early in that century. The main centres of lacemaking in Wiltshire were Downton, Malmesbury, Marlborough and Salisbury. The industry gradually declined in spite of repeated efforts to revive it and by the beginning of the C19th it had died out.

The earliest record of lace in this area is found in Mrs Bury Palliser’s A History of Lace, and in James Waylen’s History of Marlborough (1853). During the Civil War (1642-1648) Sir Edward Hungerford’s soldiers attacked Wardour Castle, near Shaftesbury. Lady Arundel who lived there, described the destruction and stated that the soldiers cut up lead pipe and sold it, ‘as these men’s wives, in North Wiltshire, do bone lace and sell it at six pence a yard’.

Mrs Bury Palliser also mentions seaming and spacing lace being used in the C17th to join widths of fabric instead of just sewing a seam. Typical Malmesbury patterns were used in this way.

Waylen also made reference to the Great Plague in 1665 of one person who had died of the plague in Marlborough and others who had been in contact with her. Parents and masters were told to’ be cautious in sending their children and servants to school, in making bonelace or otherwise’. So there must have been at least one lace school in existence in Marlborough at that time. In the Parish Register of 1671, two orphaned sisters Joanne and Mary Hurl were apprenticed to a farmer and butcher to be instructed and employed in the art of bonelace making. It may seem curious that the girls were not apprenticed to actual lacemakers to learn to make lace, but it is possible that the wives were lacemakers, or that the children were sent to a lace school. At the lace schools the children were also taught to read and write.

When the Dutch weavers came into the country in the mid C17th, some settled in Wiltshire and many Dutch names appear in the Malmesbury register at this time. Their wives may well have been lacemakers and although they had an influence on English bonelace, it was unlikely that they introduced the skill of lacemaking to Wiltshire. In the Bristol record office there is a letter dated 1671 sent by a local clergyman to the Bishop of Bristol. On a corner of this letter is a pricking of a lace pattern, which is of Flemish design. 1793, when the Huguenots came over to this country, many of them settled in Bristol and shared their skills with the local lace makers.

Malmesbury Lace

Malmesbury lace has been made for at least three centuries in the town, but no very early samples survive so it is impossible to tell exactly what it was like at its beginnings.

The lace seems to have been used mainly for cuffs and edgings and is a geometric lace using a fine thread, 140-180 in Brok cotton. The narrowest lace is only a quarter of an inch (7mm) wide, and may have been used to join wider pieces of lace together or for joining two pieces of fabric. In the early C19th thread was bought in hanks from Hodders in the High Street and wound onto the bobbins using a bobbin winder.

Today, Malmesbury lace is similar to Downton lace, although the pillows and bobbins are different, Downton’s being roller pillows and Malmesbury’s very round. The Downton bobbins are tapered and some have pictures of birds on them, while the Malmesbury bobbins are straight and plain with a flat end. Communications between Downton and Malmesbury became possible with the introduction of the Penny Post, and so perhaps the similarities between their laces began to be reinforced at that time.

According to a legend, Malmesbury and Downton lacemakers met in Malmesbury in 1841 to make lace for the layette of Queen Victoria’s second child. It is said that some of the Downton lacemakers married Malmesbury men and stayed in the town.

Although many patterns were exchanged between the two towns there are a few patterns which are not found out of Malmesbury, such as Flemish Centre Braid, Ladder Braid, Little Diamond and Clover Leaf. Also exclusive to Malmesbury are the irregular chevron on Chain and Whole stitch Chevron and the fan found on ‘Annie’s Pattern’ and Fan and Chain.

Lacemakers In Malmesbury

Pillows & Bobbins

In the Malmesbury Parish Register there are various records of lacemakers in the town. In 1698 there is that of the burial of a child, Mary Punter, bonelace maker. There is a record of the burial of Elizabeth Jones in 1700, lacemaker at Malmesbury, and in the same register there is an entry in 1701 of the burial of Thomas Hestour, laceman.

In 1793 Cannop’s Mill, by St John’s Bridge, was opened as a cloth factory. At that time, the local inhabitants found that they could earn more by lacemaking than in the factory. The best lacemakers were getting 8 to 10 shillings a week (40p-50p).

After 1763, people began to invent and adapt lace machines and in 1808 Heathcoat patented a machine that made lace 2.5cm (1 inch) wide. A year later he invented a second machine which made lace of any width. By 1826 the hand lace industry was declining and a report stated that even he best lacemakers in Malmesbury could earn no more than 2 to 3 shillings a week (12p to 15p).

The 1851 census showed that there were 150 adult and 46 child lacemakers in the town and the cottage industry was flourishing.

But, in 1852 Cannop’s Mill became a Silk Mill and many women and girls gave up lacemaking to work in silk, where they could earn more.

Comparison Of The Censuses 1841-1900

YearWomen LacemakersChild Lacemakers

By contrast, research by Malmesbury school children shows that by 1862 there were 280 workers at the silk mill, although some of these were children who worked half a day in the mill and went to school for half a day.

Even though lacemaking was declining in the area, it was still going on in the schools. In the 1859 Census for Wiltshire schools, The Abbey School in the parish is recorded as having an assistant mistress teaching lacemaking. There was a ‘Ragged School’ in Burnivale, which eventually closed in 1886, but there is no mention of lacemaking being taught. A newspaper item from 1908, states that ‘Seventy years ago, (1838) lacemaking was taught in the Dame School. Boys and girls alike had to take a turn at the bobbins and pillow. The children commenced at five years’.

Twentieth Century & Twenty First Century Lacemaking In Malmesbury

A Mrs Woodward who was Malmesbury born and bred, was interviewed in 1964 and said that ‘she often used to watch an old lady who lived in Milk street (now West street) put her peel in the window to get all the light she could and work there most of the day’. She knew a man who lived in St Mary’s Lane who used to sell this Lace, his name was James Halloway although he was known locally as ‘Teftum Pudding’. Dr Bernulf Hodge also mentions this gentleman in his book ‘History of Malmesbury’, who acted as Agent for the lacemakers. He was described as ‘well dressed in a grey silk hat and morning coat’ and he toured the local area for orders.

In 1904, Lady Suffolk, the wife of the Earl of Suffolk who lived in Charlton Park, became concerned that the craft of lacemaking might die out. She organised a lace school in 1907 held in the Market Room of the Kings Arms Hotel in Malmesbury High Street.

The class was held for one hour once a week and children and young women came from a wide area. Names of lacemakers from Hankerton, Corston, Crudwell, Lea and Brokenborough, all villages surrounding the town, were mentioned in the censuses taken at the time.

There is a newspaper report stating that the Countess also had a stall at the Daily Mail ‘Exhibition of British Lace’ in 1908. At that time there were thirty pupils, with more waiting to join, and two teachers, one old and one young, but it does not give their names. An article dated January 27th 1912, from the Wiltshire Times, gives a report about the lace school, some names of patterns and states that orders had come from as far away as America, Germany, Egypt and India.

Lady Suffolk provided the pillows and bobbins for the school, but one of the first pupils, Annie Goodfield, found the pillows too soft and took her grandmothers pillow to class instead. Her grandmother urged her not to let lacemaking die out in Malmesbury and Annie became an excellent lacemaker. In 1912 she helped to make lace for the trousseau of Princess Alexandra, daughter of the Princess Royal.

At the age of 13, Annie went into service and there was no time for lacemaking. Many years later, in 1968, she demonstrated the craft at a ‘Festival of Flowers’ held in the town. She died in 1981.

Lizzie Barnes also attended the lace school in 1909. Among the Malmesbury patterns there is one called the ‘Allotment’. It is thought to represent the allotments of land which each of the commoners held – in AD 939 King Athelstan had given the Common of Malmesbury to the descendants of the men who fought for him in the battle.

The date when the lace school closed is unsure, but it may have been early in World War 1. Sometime in the 1920’s the King’s Arms changed hands and the remaining patterns were sold, some of which were bought by Mrs Barnes. Twelve of these Malmesbury lace patterns were entered in the Downton Record Books which are now held at the Trowbridge Record Office.

In the early 1930’s, Lizzie Barnes taught her seven year old daughter, Dorothy, to make lace. Over the years she has taught this skill to several local people and has written down some instructions for patterns. In 1987 Doreen Campbell, a lace tutor in Malmesbury, Rosie Exton a student of hers, and Joan Blanchard spent a day in the Malmesbury museum making lace and had many interested visitors.

Eventually, after many years of being interested in lace, Doreen attended courses in lacemaking which were held in Devon. That was thirty years ago and during the following years she has continued to enhance not only her lacemaking skills but also those of other creative handwork skills. She recently made a new Jabot for the Mayor of Malmesbury, which was of Malmesbury Lace and took her over two hundred hours.

Rosie is also Malmesbury born and bred and has been making lace for ? years almost always Malmesbury patterns. Some of her lace was for the Civic ? of the town. She worked four yards of lace for the Mayorial Jabot, three yards for the Town Crier and for the Mace-bearer. For ? several years Rosie taught the children at Malmesbury primary school, so those children were fortunate to have a taste of the creative art of making lace.

Today lacemaking lives on in Malmesbury. There are two thriving groups in the town, where Doreen has been sharing her lacemaking skills. She has been leading these groups for fifteen years. Some of the members are now very experienced and others are new to the art, so the tradition continues.

There is a separate booklet showing more recent photographs of the Malmesbury Lace Groups and their work. Do ask the museum staff if you would like to see the beautiful and varied work they are doing.

Further Information

The Lace Society –


Blanchard, J. – Malmesbury Lace. Batsford 1990
Bullock, A.M. – Lace and Lacemaking. Batsford 1981
Hodge, B. – History of Malmesbury.
Huetson, T.L. – Lace and Bobbins. David & Charles 1983
Toomer, H. – European Laces – An Introduction. The Riverside Press 2002