Dentelle Aux Fuseaux (bobbin lace)

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Jun 4, 2010 No Comments ›› Gil Mangels
New Exhibit at the Miracle of America Museum
by Mary Stewart Sale, Autumn 2002.

The spinsters and knitters in the sun,
And the free maids that weave their threads with bones …
—Shakespeare, Twelfth Night.

Sometime in the 1600s an order of nuns set up a school in the historic town of Bayeux, France, just inland from Normandy’s Channel coast, establishing a tradition of dentelle aux fuseaux, or bobbin lace. Using bone or wooden rods wound with fine threads of silk, linen, drawn silver or gold, lace was created by weaving and twisting a dozen to more than 600 bobbins around an intricate cluster of pins, often fashioned of fish bones. The nuns’ laces clothed altars, trimmed vestments and other ecclesiastical accessories. Flanders, Italy and Spain also developed cottage industries in the art of bobbin lace about this time. In England, Queen Catherine of Aragon taught lace making while residing in Ampthill in 1531, and Flemish immigrants fleeing from persecution brought the art with them in the 1560s. Bobbin lace was passed down in a show- and- tell tradition of skill, patience and arduous toil by peasant women working late into the night after the daily chores were done, using magnifying loupes and a single candle magnified by water flasks.

Demand for handmade lace grew in the 17th century, and women and children were schooled in its making. Until the Industrial Revolution, life’s comedies and tragedies became interwoven with the history of lace. The finest, most painstaking laces assumed almost priceless value up through the 19th century, becoming one of Europe’s dearest articles of commerce. Lace was an insignia of rank and station, so highly prized that noblemen sold acres of land to buy lace made by poor women of the towns and countryside, who themselves wore ‘beggar’s lace’ made from coarser threads. The greatest period for lace making was during the Napoleonic wars when no lace was imported and exports to America resumed after the War of Independence. Women and men were paid 25 shillings per week for working lace for ruffs, cuffs, parasols, fans and other foppish fashions of the wealthy and royal. Church leaders railed against such extravagance, demanding laws to limit how much or who could wear lace, while winking at elaborate christening gowns, wedding dresses and lace for court and state occasions. Vermeer’s painting of “The Lacemaker” [Dentelliere], circa 1660 – 1670, hangs in the Louvre in Paris, and Maes’ “/old/exhibits/lacemaker” may be seen at the MOMA in New York City.

The intelligence, logic and mathematics behind the lace patterns and tools are on exhibit at the Miracle of America Museum on Highway 93, just south of Polson.

Pillow lace, bobbin lace and bone lace are all terms used for the textiles created on three kinds of bolsters on display. The ‘cookie pillow’ is a large, mounded and padded circle of velvet on which doilies, handkerchiefs and fans are worked. The continuous lace edgings are made on one of two kinds of rotating cylinders with porcupine- like bristles of tiny pins. Each pin supports a fine thread weighted by a pair of slender bobbins. The 3 to 5 inch long bobbins are a collector’s delight, made from bone, wood, pewter, glass, brass or ivory. Antique bobbins may be carved, intricately lathe- turned, or inlaid with metals or exotic woods. Some are inscribed with names, dates and messages to commemorate events such as hangings, or to share romantic thoughts. One famous bobbin is inscribed, “My mind is fex [fixed], I cannot rang[e], I love my choice too well to chang[e].” On another: “Elisha Smith Goodman, Born April 9, 1824, died May 29, 1843, aged 19 years.” English bobbins have a loop at the end for “spangling,” a loop of beads, old coins or buttons to weight the bobbin and keep it from rolling around on a round surface. One imagines the clicking, tinkling sound of the bobbins being worked into yards of lace in the twilight in the Old World.

The lace patterns themselves are ‘prickings,’ or parchment perforated like a tiny stencil with the outline and inner shapes of the lace. A pin is strategically inserted in each hole of the pattern so that threads are woven and twisted in picots, spiders, braids, ground and filling designs for the most gossamer and delicate of laces.

Yet for all its intricacy and mystery, all bobbin lace consists of two basic stitches, the twist and the cross. Combinations of these two simple movements form the basis of all bobbin lace, and can be done with old- fashioned clothespins, string and a small pillowcase made into a stiff bolster that will support multiple pins. Pillows were traditionally stuffed with sawdust or straw. The small stands to support the pillows are called horses, maids or ladies. Some cylinder pillows were simply rotated in one’s lap, with a pincushion hanging near, frequently shaped like a heart.

Hardly a lost art, bobbin lace is demonstrated every summer at the Living History event at the Miracle of America Museum. The museum is open all winter 8 – 5 Monday through Saturday and 1:30 – 5 Sunday. Rates are $2 for children and $5 for those over 12 (AAA & seniors over 65 – 50¢ discount to $4.50).

The Great Falls Weavers and Spinners and Lacers Guild meets to make bobbin lace, and supplies and books are available from Sweden through Unicorn Books, 1338 Ross Street, Petaluma CA 94954, (707) 762-3362.

Mary Stewart Sale, Blue Elephant Studio,
819 Bayview Drive, Polson MT 59860,
406-883-2953, fax 406-883-1153,

NEWS RELEASE, Autumn 2002, Polson Montana.