Jumping into bobbin lace
Despite its age-old history and spread throughout many areas of the world, the art of bobbin lace still seems somewhat elusive. A magical and tiny craft using tools you’ve probably never seen, somehow creating beautiful lace from thin air! I know for me, it was definitely something of an enigma. But I just had to learn! Thankfully in these more recent times, lace making has been experiencing somewhat of a boom due to the internet making it a bit more accessible.
(Photo of my own lace making practice of a pattern from “Introduction to Honiton Lace” by Susanne Thompson)
My own lace journey has been far less challenging than many I know, but it was definitely not without its difficulties. My first exposure to it was through historical costuming. I had been an active participant in the costuming crew of my high school, and going to school for fashion design had gotten me into looking back at some of the more historical pieces I had made in previous years and how I could improve them with my newfound skills. I don’t remember exactly when or where I was, but I know that my first time seeing bobbin lace in-progress was on a Pinterest page. I was fascinated!
(Photo of my own lace making practice from a pattern by Ulrike Voelcker)
For most of my life, I’ve been very drawn to old techniques but using them in weird ways with contemporary materials, tools, spaces, or just in different applications than would be the norm. I think this desire for experimentation in older techniques mixed with this new oddity and confusion of bobbin lace is what really got me hooked on the idea of learning it. I’ve always been one for a challenge, and seeing all of those shapeless threads suddenly go through some sort of magic transformation through a portal of pins was just fascinating! I suppose that really, the complexity it presented was something that I just couldn’t keep my mind away from.
But how to find a teacher or some means of learning from videos or books? At the time, the main resources I could find were several books I was lucky enough to come across in a second-hand store. While this self-teaching method was an okay introduction, I really wanted to find a way to learn from someone I could interact with. That was when I finally came across what I had been searching for - The International Organization of Lace!
As an aside, I feel I must add that this is one of many organizations world-wide. Many are even small communities, in which bobbin lace making is a common practice. While these smaller organizations used to be a bit harder to come by, there are many that have developed their own social media presence usually including their geographic location and lace specialty in their name. Depending on your location, you may find that there are several available to you! But the International Organization of Lace was my own starting point.
Little did I know that throughout the world there were various regional lace guilds filled with people from different levels of experience and specialty. And coincidentally I came across my local guild (The New England Lace Guild in the United States) via the International Organization of Lace’s directory just a bit before their annual retreat, at which was offered a beginner class. Needless to say, it was one of the most information-packed weekends of my life! I learned more about the different kinds of tools used and why to use different variations of them (like bobbins of different shapes and sizes, different kinds of pillows, thread sizes, etc.), what variations in lace grounds and styles there were - it was both incredibly inspiring and overwhelming!
(Photo of bobbins on sale from the Van Sciver Bobbin Lace Supplies display at the New England Lace Guild retreat)
While I was able to form a good connection to further education in the bobbin lace community through this event, that is a bit harder now the world has changed with social distancing and no events such as this currently happening in person. So how do you get started now? Despite the challenges that virtual teaching initially presented, many lace guilds and lace teachers have been incredibly successful! Teachers of different lace-making backgrounds have begun to work with various lace-focused online platforms to provide such classes. Some of these platforms include the International Organization of Lace, The Lace Museum, though there are many others run by smaller groups or individual teachers. On these platforms, various courses are listed in different areas of lace making from bobbin lace to tatting to needle lace!
Of course, with this sudden means of accessibility to people all throughout the internet as opposed to in-person, this also means that registration for these classes can fill up quickly. So another virtual road worth taking is looking into the many lace guilds that are having their monthly meetings online through zoom. I am part of two lace guilds that I first attended in person prior to the pandemic - The Brooklyn Lace Guild and, as previously mentioned, The New England Lace Guild. Prior to the pandemic, I had barely gotten to really go to meetings in-person. Even though I was local, the drive to where they were held was near impossible for me. However, since these zoom meetings started, I have been able to attend nearly every one! Coincidentally, we have also gotten many new faces from people suddenly being able to join and attend virtually.
(Photos from the outcome of a virtual class I took through The Lace Museum via Karen Thompson’s Introduction to Ipswich Lace class)
While these meetings are not classes per say, they offer great insight and relationships into how to best start out. Many seasoned lace makers will gladly offer support or help, book recommendations, or if a teacher is present in your guild they may even be willing to conduct private lessons virtually! Additionally, this type of meeting offers a beginning lace maker the ability to also learn more about other facets of lace such as lace identification, collecting, and history.
But all of this said, why would you want to continue to pursue a hand craft that is seemingly so complicated to start out in?! Aside from its mystique and beauty, bobbin lace has been becoming a medium that offers great variety in its usage as both embellishment and in innovative technique. Not just as one that offers such a wide variety of creative complexity, but also one that presents itself as a means for socially driven change in various forms of design.
For example, through the approach of mathematical algorithms as applied to bobbin lace, designer Lisa Marks utilizes an algorithmically designed lace in conjunction with modern tools to create bespoke bobbin lace bras for mastectomy patients. This intersection of old and new technology helps to ease some of the challenges that can face mastectomy patients in the types of undergarments currently available to them. While this design strategy is still newly presented, it has been seen as having great potential in furthering this social impact by being awarded the Lexus Design Award in 2019.
Utilizing this type of old technique in conjunction with contemporary need is something that I find to be particularly interesting and full of potential. For my final year in attaining my BFA from Parsons, I decided to try and further this concept through my thesis collection. Looking at what bobbin lace is - essentially, off-the-loom weaving - I wondered if it would be possible to create garments in a way that would generate little to no wasted materials, as I could be in complete control of the shape and form my lace would take on. In this garment-centric approach, I chose to use yarns instead of threads in order to work with a large-scale form of bobbin lace that could be worn on the body. All of these yarns were also made of local materials, so of what little waste I did inevitably have (such as <1 inch pieces of yarn ends), I was able to compost.
Of course, this is a small step in making a system that could actually create in this way. However, being able to complete it and prove that it was indeed possible, was incredibly satisfying!
(Photo of a large-scale piece in progress)
(Photo of a completed large scale bobbin lace look)
(Photos of another large scale bobbin lace look)
(Photos of another large scale bobbin lace look)
But if none of these brief approaches speak to you, there are many bobbin lace artists working with lace as a medium for depicting everything from real people, to sculptures, to HUGE lace using ropes! And of course, these individuals are of immense inspiration! The variety is truly astounding, and never seems to cease. Many of these artists have taken to social media to show their works, which lead to even further community interaction and inspiration! Two of my favorites off the top of my head are Pierre Fouche who makes an astounding amount of picturesque bobbin lace pieces depicting everything from people to different scenery, Daniela Banatova who creates experimental laces, to bobbin lace hats, to bobbin lace vests! Of course, as previously stated, there are tons of lace makers online that you can readily find the work of under the appropriate tags.
Though all of these more contemporary approaches to bobbin lace are quite exciting, maybe you are indeed interested in learning the traditional types that can be used as garment embellishment. I have some garments that I have taken to adding my own hand-made lace to, such as an old dress of mine that had a hole in it. After doing a rather unsightly repair job, I used a small motif of lace that I had made to cover it as a sort of applique! So while lace can be used as trim, inserts, etc., there are so many further possibilities, patterns, and utilizations of bobbin lace that can extend it even further as a creative medium or embellishment! And I can almost guarantee that the feeling of joy and satisfaction you get when completing a piece in all its complexity is absolutely amazing.
(Photo of my outcome following the DVD lesson and pattern titled, “Milanese Bobbin Lace with Louise Colgan” by Hansel Productions)
All in all, bobbin lace is a seemingly never-ending stream of possibilities. It can become more or less exciting, challenging, or frustrating depending on what you try to tackle. But, you will likely never be bored with it! I for one am incredibly happy to have been able to start and continue on in my lace journey, and I hope that you will feel inspired and excited to begin yours as well!
Thank you so much for this introduction to the - totally unknown to me - world of bobbin lace! My mind is 100% boggled by the intricacy of the work, but I am so inspired by your modern interpretation of such a traditional technique, and your sustainable zero-waste approach to lace garment construction. Thank you Kara!