A Brief History of Bedfordshire Lace

Bedfordshire Bobbin Lace - A Product of Its Time

A new style of lace, Bedfordshire, lace emerged, flourished and died within 50 years.

Background

Lacemaking was an established industry in England by the beginning of the seventeenth century. There are references to lacemaking in Shakespeare. Two distinct laces were made at Honiton in Devon and in the East Midlands - Bedfordshire, Buckinghamshire, Northants, Oxfordshire and East Anglia. Lace production was a cottage industry, employing men, women and children. Lace was made on large round pillows in a continuous strip. Lace dealers provided the designs and purchased yardage from the lacemakers. Larger dealers employed middlemen to make the purchases. Lacemakers were not bound to one particular dealer. Good workers were encouraged to work for just one dealer by gifts of bobbins. East Midlands laces were grid based, known as Point Ground, later Bucks Point. The designs on the lace were small and delicate. The lace was light so it draped softly when worn.

Bedfordshire lace evolved in the mid-nineteenth century as a response to changes in fashion, technology and the economy.

Features of Bedfordshire Lace

Fashion

In the eighteenth century dresses had tight bodices with low necks; bodices finished just under the bust and skirts were draped from this point to the floor, like those in the recent films of books by Jane Austen. Delicately draped lace was used to fill in necklines, as shawls, or over skirts. By Victorian times fashions changed. High necklines, long sleeves pulled in at the wrist, division between bodice and skirt moved to the waist, huge skirts puffed out by bustles, hoops and petticoats. Lace was still a mark of wealth and distinction, but needed to be used differently, as collars and cuffs over dark dress fabrics where some stiffness in the lace was useful. Bold designs were required so they could be seen at a distance.

Technological Changes

Knitted stockings were made on machines from 1589. Improvements in cotton spinning provided a new fibre for the knitters which was much finer. Knitting machines were developed to produce different nets from the finer cotton. By 1808 a net could be machine made from cotton for three shillings and sixpence (17.5p) for a square yard whereas the equivalent hand made net cost 60 pounds. By 1809 a machine was patented that could produce net like the background of Point Ground lace. Such machines were in general use by 1812. Women were employed to embroider designs on the net; this lace was much cheaper than hand made and could be purchased by less wealthy people. By the 1840’s machine lace could imitate the decorative features of Point Ground lace, so around 1850 the dealers started promoting patterns for a different style of lace.

Economic Factors

The lace dealers needed a product to compete with machine made lace. The first machine laces were geometric in style due to the net ground, and were limited first to straight edges, then to fairly simple edge designs. So the dealers called on the designers to come up with a lace which could not be copied by machines and that complemented the fashions of the time. Mr Sargent introduced patterns from Paris. Thomas Lester brought in a lot of new designs and greatly influenced the style. He introduced raised wheatears from North Italian bobbin lace in 1856. Use of new prickings sharpened up patterns - old ones were recopied a lot.

The designers responded by borrowing elements from other lace styles:

These particular features were chosen for speed of working, contribution to bold and flowing design and the lacemakers’ familiarity with similar working methods. The resulting lace became known as Bedfordshire Maltese as it was made in the Bedfordshire area, while Point Ground continued to be made in Buckinghamshire and acquired the name Bucks Point. Beds lace was made in coarse thread for furnishing or table linen use, or in finer threads for garments, but even the garment lace uses coarser threads than its predecessors, thus making it quicker to work.

Decline

The heyday of Bedfordshire lace was short. At the International Exhibition in 1862 nearly all the lace exhibited by East Midlands manufacturers was Bedfordshire Maltese. Queen Victoria’s choice of Honiton lace for her wedding veil gave the Devon lace industry a fashion boost at the expense of East Midlands laces. Honiton had always been a luxury lace competing with the best quality imported laces.

East Midlands laces were aimed at the middle classes - a typical product was narrow edging, ‘baby lace’. By 1865 machines were able to reproduce Bedfordshire style lace at a price the expanding middle classes could afford. Hand made lace declined in popularity when it could no longer be distinguished at a glance from cheaper machine made lace.

Lace depended on child labour. Children attended fee paying lace schools, but the proceeds from selling their lace contributed to family income. The 1876 Education Act promoted education for all, so by 1880 full time lace schools had ceased. No new skilled workers were learning the trade, so it literally died out.

Imports of foreign lace into Britain were prohibited in 18th century, and practically very difficult during the Napoleonic Wars. Import duties on foreign lace were gradually lowered from 1826 onwards, and removed completely in 1860, making it harder for English lace to compete with better made French, Belgian and Italian lace.

By the turn of the century commercial hand made lace had almost disappeared from England. Census figures for laceworkers:

1851 26,670

1891 3,376.

Bedfordshire lace is still made by hobbyists all over the world, but commercial production is limited to machine made lace.

This article was put together from reading books about Bedfordshire lace; I have not checked any original sources.

Pictures of some Bedfordshire lace I have made.

Bedford Borough Council Bedfordshire lace page with some history on the page called Introduction.

All designs, text and photographs on this site are copyright Stephanie Peters, except where stated. The designs by Stephanie Peters may be reproduced for personal use but not sold, nor used in any publication without permission. Permission to publish in newsletters etc. will be willingly given to any not for profit organisation that cares to ask.