Pillow Lace Making
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Pillow Lace Bobbins

Lacemaking Bobbins

Have you noticed that inspiration sometimes comes from the most unlikely of quarters? My intention in this article is to chronicle one such event that lead to most fruitful areas of research in a Northampton branch of my tree.

Bobbin lace making was a cottage industry probably introduced into England by Flemish refugees in the sixteenth century. They were Protestants escaping from the Inquisition. Many drifted to the Midlands, particularly Olney, Newport Pagnell. and Buckingham, and on into Northamptonshire. The Huguenots, lace makers from Lille in France, soon joined them. These refugees brought with them the tools of their trade and their expertise. Thus pillow lace making was established in the Midlands.

Women and children made most of the lace but many men also made lace to supplement agricultural wages. By 1841, machines had been, developed which truly imitated the hand made pillow lace and the cottage industry began to die. The pillows used in the Midlands were usually round or square, made of canvas and stuffed with straw. Bobbins were spools to hold the thread. They were usually made of wood or bone. Up to 1000 could be needed for an elaborate piece of lace.

Eight such bobbins have been handed down through the female line of my family, having passed through at least four generations of ownership so far.

Bobbin making was a trade in its own right. The bobbin maker would travel around the lace villages selling his stock of bobbins inscribed with popular Christian names, romantic messages and simple decorations. Personal bobbins were made to order and delivered on the next visit. Bone bobbins took colour very well and the natural colour of the bone enhanced them. Every bobbin maker had his own method of making coloured dyes and of applying them. One method was to first drill or cut the patterns, dye the whole bobbin, then turn it on the lathe again to remove the surface colour, leaving the dye in the spots or bands. Another method was to mix the dye with gum arabic and twirl it into the dots with a crow quill. Five of our eight bobbins carry inscriptions. The bobbins with inscriptions read: MARIA, SOPHIA, BETSY, WILLIAM and WILLIAM HOLD MY LOVE YOUR LIKE A ROS•.

Now the point of this story is that I thought it very odd for our Elizabeth JONES to describe her Ag Lab spouse, William HOLD, as being like a rose. A "pillar of strength" or "light of my life" perhaps, but "like a rose"?

A novel found in a holiday cottage in the Brecon Beacons afforded inspiration. Many such a holiday cottage contain a collection of books with varying quality. This particular book concerned the fate of a recruit from a well-to-do family in the trenches in World War I. At one point a cook reminisces on her girlhood and talking about the local militia says, "we called them blood red roses", because of course the British Redcoat was known the world over. Could our William have been a military man?

To the census and other sightings for William, but alas, disappointment. William was born in 1824-25 in Northamptonshire. He married Elizabeth JONES in 1844 and began his married life in Floore, Northamptonshire, moving to London some time in the 1860’s. There is no evidence whatsoever that he may have been in the army.

The next stop was the Public Record Office at Kew. The class WO97 covers military discharge papers and this class has been surname indexed by the Friends of the Public Record Office. Sure enough, there was a William HOLD from Northamptonshire listed (WO97/624/93). Unfortunately it seems to be the wrong William: Enlisted 20 June 1815 Age 18; Discharged 1837 Age 39; 48th Regiment of His Majesty's Foot No 115 William Hold - Corporal, Wooton, Northants, Labourer. An enlistment date ten years before our William was born.

So what did this odd inscription on the bobbin mean? The Family Historian’s Enquire Within under "Lacemaking" lists the address of Mrs Jennifer Hanney who is compiling an index of lacemakers. She kindly suggested a number of contacts including Christine Springett of the British College of Lace, and a small booklet "Pillow Lace in the East Midlands" by the Luton Museum and Art Gallery. These sources have proved invaluable in providing much background information and even specific details on the likely makers of our bobbins. Christine Springett says:

"The inscribed bobbin ’WILLIAM MY LOVE YOU ARE LIKE A ROS’ was, we think, made by one of the Haskins family. There were three generations who made bobbins for almost the entire span of the 19th Century. Because their style of making bobbins was very similar it is not easy to tell one’s work from another."

Two things strike me as likely to be significant about these bobbins. Firstly none of the names presented on them has any apparent link with Elizabeth JONES apart from the two bearing references to William. Secondly, we have linked the bobbins with Elizabeth because we know she was a lace-maker (from the census) and my mother and grandmother both confirmed their source. There is nothing to say that Elizabeth herself may not have been bequeathed these bobbins from an even older generation. Local girls have been falling for soldiers for many a year, the consequences of which folk songs frequently chronicle. What if Elizabeth’s mother, or one of her aunts passed these bobbins on to a girl who was actively involved in the lace-making trade? My only regret in all this is that her maiden name wasn’t something like GRINT or PICKLETHWAIT, there are quite a few JONES’ in Northampton to search through for further inspiration.

The Family Historian’s Enquire Within. Fifth Edition. Pauline Saul. Federation of Family History Societies, 1995. ISBN: 1 872094 83 X

Pillow Lace in the East Midlands. Charles E Freeman Luton Museum and Art Gallery. 1980

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