One of the techniques on the very long list of things I want to try has been bobbin lace for a long time. I’ve tried tatting, hairpin lace, needlelace and generally enjoy fine ‘lace’ crochet, but having seen the magical creations people can make with just some wooden sticks and a stupendous number of pins, bobbin lace has always had a great appeal. Plus, this is a technique with real historical richness, with so many books having been written on different styles and the evolution and social role of lace in society.
I always have a bit of a debate with myself whether it’s really a good idea to take on yet another technique, given how much I already do, as it usually means more equipment, the initial outlay that comes with that, and more flailing around being a totally useless beginner. I think though that the only thing I have tried and not really carried on with is needle felting. I like wet felting, even though I rarely do it, but for some reason I never took to needle felting the same way. Maybe I should try a class for it or something one day and I’ll find some inspiration there.
So, one trip to AtelierMB and their wonderful online store and I found myself the proud owner of some thread, pins, a block lace pillow and an assortment of bobbins. I actually had quite a few bobbin pairs that I’d picked up, entirely at random as far as I can recall, on a trip with my grandmother to Brussels. I’m very happy they are now being put to use!
At this stage, I’m usually pretty good at self-teaching so I thought the best thing I could do was to just have a go… I had bought an English book that the internet suggested would be suitable for beginners and there are lots of great online resources for lace too (perhaps surprising for a technique that has a reputation for being old-fashioned!) However, try as I might, I just couldn’t really get started and wasn’t having much fun.
Fortunately, my embroidery teacher is not just fabulously talented with a needle, but also an incredible lace maker as well and so I asked if she would be able to give me a few lessons to get me started. I am very glad I did do this because sudden lace went from being an impenetrable sea of vocabulary to something fun and highly logical.
For me, bobbin lace is a technique which doesn’t have so much a learning curve as a learning cliff. Even to understand a simple pattern, you have to know so many details and little things which are not at all obvious from what is written. It’s like learning to knit as a beginner from the most monstrously complicated lace charts with no translations available as to what any of the stitches are!
However, the three basic stitches are very simple movements, and once you understand that bobbins always come in pairs, and are wound together and attached, and all the stitches you do reflect that, then it becomes much simpler. At the moment, I’m learning all the terms in French, so it’s all about finding the right combination of croiser, tourner, croiser… and so forth, for the magic to happen.
For now, it has been a case of learning to prick patterns, figuring out the movements for the most basic stitches, la passée tordue, la demie-passée and la passée, and all the set-up, bobbin winding, hanging and everything else. I’m pleased to say that, despite its intimidating appearance, bobbin lace really isn’t so bad in terms of the constituent parts. What makes it tricky is there is quite so much to learn at once. If you can’t prepare the bobbins and pattern, then there’s not much opportunity to practice the stitches, but to understand the stitches you need to understand something about the patterns and instructions and so forth…
There are also many, many different styles of lacemaking, with small regional differences in working styles and names. Apparently, the definition of open and closed pairs (where two bobbins are crossed or not) also varies somewhat by region and working style. In Switzerland, lace pillows tend to be flat boards, whereas in Spain the bobbins are left to dangle. Of course, with this there are exceptions to every rule.
I remember once someone saying on a course how they loved doing embroidery because it made them feel connected to previous generations, for whom the handicrafts we tend to take as leisure activities had been an essential part of survival. Lacemaking for me is a strange activity in that sense because, especially after reading The Golden Thread, it’s hard to ignore the historical richness of the technique or the political and economic power that this simple twisting of threads once had. I wish I could get the same sense of awe from knitting…
I am really very excited to learn more and start understanding a bit more about bobbin lace, especially finding a way to actually be independent with understanding and doing patterns, something that seems like a distant goal at the moment. But for now, more stitch practice!