Ethics in Art

Some of you know I do bobbin lace. Recently, a member in a lace group I’m in posted this absolutely beautiful wall hanging. I realized it was the type of lace that I could do, and asked if the pattern was available. Matter of fact, lots of people asked about the pattern. We were all directed to the webpage of the woman who had created it.

Unfortunately, that page has been inactive for years. Direct messages and google searches got no responses. There doesn’t appear to be anyway to now get that pattern. Whether the person who created it has passed away or is simply no longer interested in lace, there’s no way to know.

That got me thinking about the ethics around things we create. In this particular case, it’s possible that some of the people who have made that pattern might be willing to pass a copy on. But would that be right?

I think about books. We spend so much time writing them and publishing them and they then exist out there in the world. Matter of fact, I can’t even get rid of old versions with awful covers. With the publishing world the way it is now, copies will never be exhausted and I presume my estate/heirs might continue making a few dollars a month without me.

Obviously it’s unethical to make copies of whatever a person creates, without the creator’s permission. Whether that’s books, music, paintings, or lace patterns. And equally obvious, at some point creativity passes to the public domain and then it’s okay to print, download, use, etc.

But what happens when it’s something like this lace pattern? When it’s not in public domain but the person who created it no longer is actively involved in allowing the pattern to be purchased or used? To my way of thinking the same ethics still hold. Until the creator releases their interest in whatever the item is, their wishes are still paramount. Thinking of books again, just because I quit writing doesn’t mean my books are then released for free out into the wild.

There are a lot of people who want that lace pattern. And there are a lot of people who have it. What would I say if someone offered me a copy? My overly-developed guilty conscious would have to turn it down because I know nothing about where the creator is now. If she’d passed away, even then I think I’d want to contact the family and see if they were okay with sharing her work.

Coming again from the background of writing, if someone offered to sell their copy of my book to another, it would bug me. If someone offered to give their copy to another, I would love the idea that my books were being shared and passed on. So maybe it’s money that makes such sharing unethical.

Honestly, if someone offered to give me a copy of that pattern, my guilt might be quiet. Maybe. I don’t know.

It was a beautiful work of art though.


Several years ago I was invited to a fire circle led by Chief Beavertail. His goal was to bring people together through story and song. As we arrived he welcomed us and all our ancestors who came with us and stood behind us.

That image has stayed with me all these years. That image of connection to the millions of ancestors stretching out behind us.

In the 1970s I took a course on how to do bobbin lace because I’d heard it was a dying art. Bobbin lace has a fascinating history if you’re interested, and I feel connected to that long history as I weave the bobbins.

Growing up, we sisters helped mom can and put up food. We hated it. Now I can willingly, following the traditions of generations. Putting up, stocking up, preparing for winter.

Continuity, tradition, ties to the past. To family. I love that feeling of connection to land and people. But not all ties are so easy to talk about.

Last night I watched a movie called The Last Full Measure. Being honest here, I watched it because Sebastian Stan was in it and because I like a good action film. But this wasn’t an action film, as I quickly found out. I’m glad my husband, ex-Army, elected to not watch it because these kinds of movies deeply bother him.

The husband

If you haven’t heard of the movie, it’s about William H. Pitsenbarger, a US Air Force Pararescueman who, during the Vietnam War, chose to stay behind to help soldiers on the ground. Before dying in battle, he saved over sixty men. He chose to stay. He was twenty-two years old. Younger than my son. Thirty-two years after his death he was awarded the medal of honor.

Where is my continuity here? As a child, I was oblivious to the Vietnam War. The news didn’t come on the television until 11:00 pm, well past our bedtimes. But still, I’ve wondered before how such a huge thing, that impacted countless lives, wasn’t even a blip in my little-kid-world.

But I do have an uncle. And one of the things I see in his poetry is how the time spent fighting in Vietnam bored so deeply into his heart and soul.

My uncle. Before.

I have ancestors and relatives who have fought in wars, including my father who was in the Korean War. But dad didn’t see what my uncle did. And dad didn’t live long enough to tell us kids war stories or choose to keep silent. So I don’t know what impact that war had on him.

Dad on the right

This uncle, though, this man tied to me by DNA and family and generations of ancestors, walked through hell, and I only see the briefest, tiniest, glimpses of what that did to him through his words.

I cried during the movie last night, and I’m not one who cries during movies. But those tears were more for what my uncle went through than for the story itself.

Those tears were for the paths many still walk and the stories that can’t be told, but that still bind us.

A Home For Lace

Back in the 1980s I took a class for bobbin lace because it was a dying art and I thought it should be preserved. Unfortunately there weren’t enough people to keep the Lacemaker shop open and it closed before I moved much beyond the raw beginner stage. And then between moves and life changes, the lace pillow was packed away. Now that I have a home again and more time in my life, I have unpacked.

Bobbin lace is how lace was made before machines. If you research the history of lace you will find that the task of making it was so exacting only royalty or extremely wealthy people wore it. When a girl was born, her family commissioned a lacemaker at the time of birth, so the lace would be finished in time for her wedding. Young girls around age four began training to make lace, beginning by learning how to make the pricking, or pattern. These children were tied to chairs to keep them still for hours, and they worked around a large table with a single candle in the center. Each child had a bowl of water in front of them to help refract the light. Most were blind by the time they were in their early teens. Such was the value of lace.

Now, however, it’s a handicraft you might see at county or state fairs alongside spinning wheels, crocheting, and knitting. In the 80s when I started, there were roughly 3,000 lacemakers in the States. Now I’m sure there are many more.

There are different styles of bobbins. I have both Belgium and English. Belgium are shaped like a pear and use the ‘bulb’ to weight the bobbin. I prefer English bobbins as they have interesting beaded spangles. In mediaeval times some beads warded off evil spirits; some brought luck. Then, as now, the beads work as weights to keep tension on the threads. Below, I am beading English bobbins. Rather than buying expensive beads at a craft store, I go to thrift stores and buy old necklaces and cut them up.

Old necklaces repurposed to English bobbins

Old necklaces repurposed to English bobbins

Next, a pricking is created. As I’m still a beginner, this is a Torchon lace pattern, meaning the lace is worked in straight lines. To make a pricking, a drawing on plain paper is attached to card stock. A tool called, originally enough, a pricker, is used to poke holes through the card stock. The card stock then becomes the pricking. Years ago I had a wonderful tiny wooden bowl filled with beeswax. All I could find now was a plastic box with candle wax. The pricker is stabbed into wax frequently to make the needle pass through the card stock easily. The lines on the paper version show which direction to work and will be drawn by pencil onto the pricked card stock.

Creating the pricking.

Creating the pricking.

The bobbins are then wound with thread. Because lace is done by working with pairs of bobbins, two bobbins are wound from each end of a length of thread and then secured with a slip knot to keep the bobbins from unwinding while using. Below I am using a bobbin winder which saves wear and tear on your wrists.

Tea helps with the winding process.

Tea helps with the winding process.

Another thing that helps is a place to hang the pairs as they are filled with thread. Years ago I had a handy wooden frame just for this. Now, a chair back works just fine to keep pairs from tangling.

Pairs on chairs

Pairs on chairs

Once all is ready, the pricking is pinned to what is called a bolster, on a lace pillow. The bolster turns so as you work the completed lace feeds off the back. Holding pins are placed above the pricking to hold the bobbins ready to begin. You’ll see, next to the ever-present tea, another pricking. This one is a handkerchief edging I made in the 80s, curved from years pinned to the bolster. You’ll also notice four bobbins in the center, separated from the others. This is a worker pair and a weaver pair, ready for the first stitch. The stitches are done by weaving one pair through the other. After a pair is worked it is set aside and the weaver moves on to the next pair. To work the pricking, a stitch is done, a straight pin placed in the hole in the pricking, and then another stitch is worked to ‘close the pin’. The straight pins stay in place until at least an inch of lace is completed, then the pins from the back can be pulled and moved to new stitches in the front. This moving of pins allows the bolster to turn and the completed lace to feed off.

Lace pillow with pricking, pins, and bobbins

Lace pillow with pricking, pins, and bobbins

In spite of having the direction to work penciled on the pricking, I had to pull the stitches out three times because I went the wrong way. Remember, I never made it past the beginner stage, oh so many years ago. But below, finally, is the beginning of a bookmark.

A future lace bookmark.

A future lace bookmark.