Lace Making – machine & hand lace

Lace is an open-work textile material which has been formed by twisting, looping, interlacing or plaiting yarn to produce a decorative holed fabric. It can be produced using virtually any material that can be spun into thread and fashioned into an intricate pattern.


Hand-made lace like many forms of textile has its origins in the mists of time. It became popular in the 16th century and was at the peak of its production in the 17th century. It falls into two categories, the first made entirely with the needle is a development of embroidery and the second known as pillow, bobbin or bone lace is made by twisting and plaiting threads with the fingers. 

Needlepoint lace was produced all over Europe in addition to the wider world. Styles developed regionally and areas became famous for a particular type of lace usually known by the name of the country or town with which it was connected. 

Pillow, bobbin or bone lace as its name suggests was made using a pillow as a base on which to work. The pillow could be large or small, mushroom-shaped or cylindrical depending on the type of lace to be made. The mushroom shape was used for motifs which could be joined to fashion collars, cuffs and more elaborate laces and flounces. The cylindrical pillow was used for edgings and insertions. Pillows were made from pieces of textile stuffed with straw, compressed down and covered with strong smooth material. Thread could be fine or coarse. The pattern to be produced was pricked out onto parchment; this was secured to the pillow and pins inserted into each hole. Early pins were made from bone, wood, bronze and silver. Trimmed thorns and fish bones were also used as was brass, which was expensive but would not rust. Lacemakers sometimes decorated the heads of some pins to help 'pinpoint' the work in progress. 

Bobbins were the next requirement, and lots of them. A narrow strip of lace might need around twenty-five bobbins. The earliest ones were made from bone (i.e. bone lace), ivory, silver and even precious metals. Pillow and bobbin styles developed differently throughout Europe. Continental bobbins tend to be bulbous while British ones are slim and straight with little slightly rounded heads, the neck under this area was where the thread was wound. There are named varieties, for example, leopards - inlaid with pewter spots, tigers - with metal rings, old maids - slim and unadorned. Some have sunken holes spotted with bright colours. The tail ends were decorated with little bunches of 'jingles' or 'spangles' - beads, buttons or rings to add decoration and weight. Most were made at home and handed down as heirlooms. Many were made to be given as love tokens marked with the initials of the girl and/or her lover. To make the lace the threads were attached at the top of the pillow. The bobbins carrying the yarn were twisted over, under, back and forth around the inserted pins to create the patterned fabric. 


Originally machine lace net did not develop from hand-made lace but from the knitting or STOCKING FRAME invented by William Lee in 1589. This machine produced solid material by looping one row horizontally on top of another using a continuous thread known as 'stocking' stitch. A similar basic process will be familiar to all hand knitters of today. It was not until the late 18th century that a material with a 'lacey' pattern was produced using the WARP KNITTING FRAME, a development of the stocking frame. This machine still looped yarn but employed a single length of thread which ran vertically along each row and caught up the loops in a zig-zag fashion. This had the effect of making an open-work fabric by creating 'holes' and this produced the first machine 'lace'. 

The next important development in the journey of machine lace production was the BOBBIN NET MACHINE. This produced a fabric similar to hand-made bobbin or pillow lace. It produced a net of hexagonal, twisted mesh rather than the looped material of the knitting frames. Patterned decoration was still at this time added by hand with many variations in style and technique. This machine was similar to weaving inasmuch as there were warp threads attached to beams. What would have been the weft threads, did not cross and interlace with the warp but were carried on flat circular bobbins, which move in, round and out giving a twist around the warp threads. John Heathcoat first patented this machine in 1808, in Nottingham, with an upgraded version in 1809. 

The  LEVERS  single tier net machine of 1813 was an advance on the Heathcoat machine. Between this time and the mid 19th century, this machine was developed until it produced a patterned lace with or without a net ground. The whole fabric was produced in one complicated operation involving the inclusion of additional vertical threads alongside the warp threads. These vertical threads move in a sideways motion and are caught by the bobbins which move in a backwards and forwards motion providing the pattern - all controlled by jacquard cards installed at the top of the loom. 

In the late 19th century in the Irvine Valley, Ayrshire in Central Scotland an industry of machine lace developed due to the enterprise of one individual in particular, Alexander Morton. This area has been a centre for clothmaking since at least the 16th century when French and Flemish Huguenots refugees brought their skills to the area. In 1566 Mary, Queen of Scots, extended the Newmilns Burgh Charter of 1491 to state that the burgesses had 'full power and fair liberty of buying and selling wines, wax, woollen and linen cloths, broad and narrow, and other lawful merchandise'. 

Alexander Morton realised that the traditional business of hand weaving was on the wain and that a new industry was needed to sustain the 'Valley' towns of Darvel, Newmilns and Galston. The main product of the mid 19th century in this area was decorated gauze or 'madras', derived from an Indian fabric as the name suggests. This was a form of gauze produced by a modified cross-weaving process that allowed a pattern to be woven into the material. This created a light and delicate fabric with an open and transparent quality. However, the valley, being a rural area had little local demand. The material that was produced was sent to Glasgow for distribution. 

Alexander Morton had been aware for some time that new powered lace-looms were competing successfully in the Nottingham area with the madras trade. Lace-looms were able to produce a woven fabric similar to madras. Whereas madras had an additional process involving the need to cut away excess yarn (part of the production process) power lace-loom weaving eliminated the need for this procedure. After seeing a demonstration of a power lace-loom, he thought that this could offer a way forward, that the skills of the valley hand weavers could be adapted to working with these new looms. A machine was purchased and installed at Darvel in 1877 and after some teething troubles was put to work. This was the beginning of the Scottish Machine Lace Industry. 

The East Midlands - Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Leicestershire was famous for the production of lace in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century. Nottingham is generally known as the 'lace' capital of the world but in fact most British lace has not actually been produced in Nottingham itself but in surrounding areas. Merchants and distributors sold the goods from the markets in the centre of the city and engineers and lace machine builders were established on the fringes. It was these sections of the industry that anchored the lace trade to Nottingham. 'Nottingham Lace' was made in factories dotted around Britain, although the East Midland counties had by far the largest concentration of lace makers. 

Ayrshire cornered the market in lace curtain making and household soft furnishings. The growth of the lace industry saw the decline of handloom weaving in the Valley although there was still a demand for hand-made madras. Handlooms were installed for a period within the factories and both handloom and power-loom manufacturing processes ran in tandem. Madras and lace, in particular, were in such demand that factories were working throughout the day and night to keep up with orders. By the 1880s around a thousand people were employed in Darvel alone bringing people from all the surrounding towns and from neighbouring Kilmarnock, which also had its lace factories. 

The Valley towns and Kilmarnock flourished from the late 19th century until the end of the World War II with dips in business during the two wars. This was the golden period of the industry. Associated trades such as textile design, jacquard card cutting and engineering also prospered. Local people had never lived to such a high standard. The Irvine Valley, at this time was producing 50% of all lace furnishings in Britain. Other members of the Morton family had joined the business and were involved in the industry in a variety of ways including experimenting with dyes. They were employing some of the best designers of the day and supplied high quality retail outlets like Liberty's in London. The Valley companies were also diversifying into new materials like chenille, double-sided velvets and carpets. Ayrshire was leading the way in textile design and innovation. Joseph Hood of Newmilns, who, in addition to producing lace made improvements to the design of lace machinery. One of the first Valley companies was Messrs. Hood, Morton, Cleland & Co. 

The production of machine lace starts in the design room. It was painstaking work starting with a black and white hand drawn design produced on graph paper. This was transferred to a coloured design which was hand painted. These were produced in a variety of sizes, some large around 8'x 4' or more. The colour did not indicate an end product showing colour but rather a depth of fabric. Red indicated solid cloth, green a finer effect and white represented holes in the fabric. This was submitted to the client for approval. The design was then passed to the jacquard card cutter who 'read' the pattern and transferred this information into his machine. With the push of a lever the design details were transferred to the business end of the machine which punched holes into cards. These cards were sewn together and installed in the jacquard frame at the top of the loom. It is this that provides the lace-loom with the instructions it needs in order to weave the patterned lace. 

Following the World War II factories were faced with stiff competition from overseas. Fashions changed and by the 1960s and 70s over half the mills in the Valley had closed. However diversification has allowed the continuation of the textile mills, producing a range of fabrics and items including tartans, sports goods, terylene and window furnishings. Ultra-modern machinery produces nylon and polyester lace using an automated process which is more like knitting than weaving! 

There is still one factory in the Irvine Valley that produces traditional cotton lace - Morton, Young & Borland Ltd. in Newmilns. Smith & Archibald Ltd. in Darvel still uses traditional lace-looms to produce a variety of products including baby blankets. The skills that were developed 130 years ago still exist in the Valley today. To see one of these huge impressive machines producing 'fairy' fabric is a thrilling sight. Many of the workers can trace their families' back to those people who were instrumental in starting this wonderful manufacturing survivor. The pride in this heritage shows in the quality of the products still being produced. 

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