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20th Century Lace

By Ann Day

We believe that our Lace Guild Museum has the best collection of 20th century lace in the United Kingdom...

This is because much of our lace has been given to us. Some was bought, but most has come to us from members or their families, not only donating antique lace they have collected, but also lace they have made.

At the beginning of the 20th Century women wore lace when they could, and a lot of it was machine-made; some of it incredibly beautiful. The Nottingham machine lace industry is said to have produced the best lace curtains in the world. Making handmade lace is so much slower, and it was so much more expensive that lace makers were unable to earn enough to live. Much of what they produced was of inferior quality, using as few bobbins as possible, with thicker, poorer quality threads and motifs widely spaced.

Several lace industries were set up to help the lacemakers, the best known probably the Bucks Cottage Workers Industry based in Olney. We have several pieces of lace from there, plus bills, and even a label from tinned vegetables that accompanied an unsolicited parcel sent in around 1941!

Early 20C Bucks Cottage Workers Industry Collar

Handmade lacemaking had virtually disappeared as a commercial industry although it had become an elegant hobby for ladies. Famous teachers included the Tebbs sisters who had premises in Baker Street in London. In the provinces, teachers boasted that they had been taught by the Tebbs. Miss Channer, having worked in missions abroad, came home and wrote a book for Dryad on how to make Buckinghamshire point ground lace.

In the 1930s Miss Maidment, who taught at the Royal School of Needlework, was also an important author whose book was published in 1931 and republished in 1971!

There were lace designers too, the most remarkable being Ethel Nettleship who wanted to bring lace design into the 20th Century. Ethel worked in bright colours and was well-known among the arts and crafts community. Miss Pope and Miss Sievwright designed and sold lace from Oxford, and then Torquay. Their lace was vastly different to Ethel's, being mainly Bucks point and including reworking and traditional patterns. We have lace and prickings from all these ladies, some worked after their deaths.

Pages from an Ethel Nettleship book

As the 20th Century progressed, a few people continued making lace, much of it for table linen on a larger scale than before. By the end of the1970s there were enough lacemakers still for gatherings to happen, and in 1976 The Lace Guild was formed with Doreen Wright as founding member, along with Margaret Hamer. Pamela Nottingham's book was published in 1976 followed by many more, including Elsie Luxton's book on Honiton lace and Nenia Lovesey's book on Needlelace.

During the 1980s bobbin lace was the most popular hobby, with classes everywhere. Marjorie Carter taught ten classes a week around the outskirts of Birmingham and transformed The Lace Society of Wales into the Lace Society, before The Lace Guild was formed. The Lace Society catered for bobbin lacemakers only. Nenia Lovesey started the Guild of Needle Laces, and The Lace Circle was a breakaway from The Guild.

Many of these amateur lacekmakers worked lace of an extremely high standard, and we are lucky to have so many examples in our Collection. Kate Riley, who taught in London and Surrey, redrafted patterns from a sample book in Luton Museum, and we have examples of her lace. We also hold Pauline Knight's filet lace and tatting, and crochet from Sheila York, author of Projects in Tatting.

With help from The Lace Guild, a City and Guilds Creative Studies lace course was started. This ran for about twenty years leading to many more lacemakers being able to design and draft new designs and to more people learning needlelace, including Carrkickmacross, tatting, tambouring, and filet.

Lace and lacemaking changed during the 20th Century from a mainly professional occupation to one carried out by very skilled amateurs. The styles also changed; from modesty vests to stretchy lace knickers (we have a collection of these, too!).

Carrickmacross Guipure-type modesty vest c1900

20th Century Lace

until 23 July

The Hollies

Come and see our exhibition! We intend to show off some of our treasures, from Art Deco machine lace to lace-trimmed clothing including a wedding dress. To visit the exhibition, see our dedicated page on how to book your trip, and how we are making sure we keep all our staff, volunteers and visitors safe as we take the first bold steps towards a return to 'normal'...

This article was first published in Lace Magazine, Issue 181.

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