by Lara Cathcart
Lace, defined as open worked textile, has been valued throughout the ages by many diverse cultures. Laces have been knotted, netted, twisted,
braided, woven and embroidered. Because of the many hours of labor required to produce lace, it was worn as a sign of wealth and prosperity.
Bobbin lace is worked on a firm pillow over a pricked pattern. Thread is wound on bobbin pairs and twisted around pins set in the pattern or "pricking" until the tension of the work holds the design in place. Sometimes called "pillow lace" for the pillow used to hold the pins, or "bone lace" because fish bones were used by lacemakers who couldn't afford pins (and/or beacause small bones were sometimes used as bobbins). All bobbin lace is the result of two simple movements—the"cross" and the "twist" just as the most intricate knitted designs are formed of the basic "knit" and "purl" stitches. Regional differences in lace patterns and in shapes of lace bobbins arose but "Torchon" was a basic style of bobbin lace made through out Europe. Usually made from linen thread, it was a surprisingly sturdy lace (the name means "dishcloth," probably a comment on its washablity).
The quintessential Elizabethan era accessory, the ruff was worn in various incarnations by all but the lowest classes. Yards of lace are required for a single modest ruff, making elaborate ones extremely costly. One noble bragged that he wore around his neck "twelve acres of the finest French vineyards." While the Elizabethan elite wore other, more costly, types of lace in addition to bobbin lace, the middle classes most likely wore the more affordable bobbin lace. This is probably why Torchon laces were also known as "peasant" laces.
Ruffs were not the only lace items in demand at this time. Lace was used to trim everything from altar cloths to ecclesiastical vestments to tooth cloths and pillow beres (pillow cases).
Demand for lace was huge, and to meet that demand many women became lacemakers. Lace schools for village girls were founded by noblewomen, their patronage being paid for in lace, no doubt. Children of both genders were enrolled at about age five or so, with boys usually leaving as they grew strong enough for harder labor. Not that the life of a lacemaking student was easy. Even children worked from dawn til dusk, often in crowded, unventilated rooms with the most primitive of sanitary facilities.
Even worse was the lot of those who spun the incredibly fine thread used to make the lace. These poor souls plied their trade in damp and darkness. The fiber would break if it dried out, so the spinners frequently worked in basements lit by a pinhole in a shutter that allowed only a single beam of light to fall upon their thread.
Once trained, lacemakers were longer a burden on the family's resources. A girl could save towards her own dowry. She could continue to make lace after she married to contribute to her household's income and if she was widowed, she could support herself and her children. This new economic power, coupled with the Queen as a role model, may have sown the seeds of social change towards today's female independence.