Bobbin Lace

Whenever friends see my bobbin lace they are so impressed. I keep telling them I’m a beginner and they are seeing the impressive ‘tools’ and not the lace itself. It’s not very often someone believes me. Which means I am very excited that one friend was inspired to try her hand at lace. I sent her photos of a bookmark I’m working on with all its mistakes and asked her if, now that she has done some lace, she believe me when I say I’m a beginner. She does.

I’m a beginner, but I started back in the early 1980s. There was a woman who owned a shop with all things fiber. Weaving, spinning, lacemaking, knitting, etc. I signed up for a course on bobbin lace because she had said at that time it was dying out. I didn’t like the idea of old ways being forgotten. Now, of course, it’s had quite a resurgence.

The course ended up being a gathering of lacemakers who brought their projects each week. It really wasn’t a beginner course. I was given basics and left to my own limited talent to figure it out. Back then there were books but I struggle learning from diagrams. So I worked on it some and fell in love with all the paraphernalia. And then I put it all away.

I’d pull it out occasionally, but it was frustrating. Until the advent of the internet and YouTube. Wow. Now when I’m trying to figure out a ground or pattern, I look it up on YouTube and find wonderful videos.

My sister’s cat helping us destroy some old necklaces.

Right now I’ve spent months making bookmarks. Bobbin lace is extremely slow. Plus, I’m slow. So it takes me at least sixteen hours for a simple pattern. I’m making them for an upcoming arts festival where we’ll have books for sale. Once I’m done with that festival I’m going to try my hand at a big project – a Celtic wall hanging. I already know I’m going to be spending a lot of time on YouTube and tearfully asking my husband to show me what to do. These bookmarks typically use around twenty pairs of bobbins. The wall hanging will take 161 pairs and a much larger Belgian pillow. My sister has been roped into helping me bead all those bobbins.

An early bookmark with its pricking, or pattern.

By the way, he has helped me a lot on lacemaking. He doesn’t know anything about it but has one of those brains that can figure stuff out anyway.

What I’m doing is called Torchon lace. It’s a good beginner lace and very straightforward. There are other types that I aspire to, like Bedfordshire, Cluny, and Maltese that might look more like what you picture when you think of lace.

Torchon bookmark with variegated thread and a ‘honeycomb’ ground.

I use East Midland, or English bobbins. What kinds you use is determined by how you like to move bobbins, (palm up or palm down), what type of pillow you’re using, and what kind of lace you’re making. Midland bobbins have beads that act as weights to keep tension on the threads and to keep the bobbins from spinning and putting unwanted twists on the threads. In old days some people chose colors or shapes of beads for reasons like warding off evil spirits. I have some that are teardrop shaped that are African wedding beads. But most of my beads come from thrift-store necklaces. It’s the beads that always catch people’s eyes and make them think I’m an expert. They look impressive.

In the photo below you will see two odd bobbins tied with thread to one of the English bobbins. That fat little thing is a Belgian bobbin. I don’t like using them on the type of pillow I use because they spin too much. But they are a common style. I’m using it in the photo because I ran out of thread on my bobbin and had to add one and this way I can clearly see which is the add-on. In the background you will see some wooden sticks. Those are very old bobbins my sister gave me. My friend used clothespins which is an excellent way to start. It allows you to see how you like to handle the bobbins and also saves you investing money until you find out if you like lacemaking. There is a wonderful sound to bobbins being worked. Look up bobbin lace making on YouTube and listen.

Bobbin lace has a long history that is, honestly, awful. Girls as young as four would start with making the prickings, or patterns. Most times they were leashed to their chairs to keep them still. In medieval times, light was limited and many lacemakers were practically blind by their late teens. Lace was worn only by the rich because of how time consuming it was. If a king had a daughter, lacemakers would be commissioned at her birth to start on the lace for her wedding. Granted, those daughters were usually married quite young.

Bolster pillow, pricking, and a forest of pins.

This blog post could be novel-length about lace so I’ll try to restrain myself. I hope it makes you look at lace differently. And that maybe you’ll go to the internet and look up images of types of bobbin lace, or look at images of antique bobbin lace. Read up on the long history of lacemaking. Go to YouTube and look up Elena Kanagy-Loux and how she started with lacemaking. You will see a lace collar she was commissioned to make for the late Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

And maybe you might decide to put some thread on clothespins.

Just remember, you might get sucked in and start haunting thrift stores for old necklaces and realizing I’m a beginner.

The same bookmark as the green one above, just longer and a different stitch in the center diamond.

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.