Thursday 18 September 2014

Guild of St Clare makes lace

We had an enormously successful lace making course at the Fibreworks, Oxford. Our tutor, Liz Baker, isn't only a dedicated and highly skilled lace maker, but also an expert on the history of lace making. Most generously, she is giving her time almost free in order to pass on her skill.

Dorothea adjusts the tension on her work
 Liz's enthusiasm for her art is infectious, and we are all rapidly becoming lace-making addicts. We've certainly begun making a collection of lace-making materials - collecting lace bobbins is a hobby in itself. 

Clare's beautiful purple and gold lace snake

Learning this craft is particularly thrilling because it is so closely connected with the liturgy. Now that our lace snakes are completed, Liz is guiding us through our first independent project, and two of our members are starting work on mantillas. This is something which many people enquiring about the Guild ask us whether we can do. It is such intricate work that I doubt we'll ever go in to industrial production, but anyone who wants to learn to make their own can now do so with us.

The kettle is always on the boil at the Fibreworks...and you can see Dorothea's almost complete snake. 

We were thrilled to discover that there is a vigorous lace making community in Oxford, the Isis Lacemakers. There are at least 50 members of this group, all regular attendees at its twice-monthly meetings. Once a year they have a lace fair, when suppliers and lacemakers from all over the country come together to compete, socialise, buy and sell.

Dorothea's bobbins
We are very fortunate to have their support as we start our voyage on what we all hope will be a lifelong lacemaking journey - like Liz, they are all anxious that their skill should survive and thrive and are willing to expend a lot of their time in helping beginners.

Clare's tension was voted the best of our group: see how evenly spread her threads are
Four of us participated in the original course, booked at the Fibreworks, Oxford. Sadly the shop has now had to close (although the Chipping Norton branch is thriving), and we are continuing our lessons with Liz in our own houses. We have already increased our numbers to six.

Dorothea was the first to finish her snake, and she willingly agreed to complete an unfinished one which had been started by the Fibreworks shop assistant.
I do urge anyone who feels attracted to lace making to take up this hobby, if you can. (If you'd like to do it with us, you would be very welcome! otherwise, we can put you in touch with people local to you who can help.) Of all the many kinds of needlework we have learnt (and by now, we've all had a considerable amount of experience) bobbin lace has the greatest power to engage the heart. It's strangely stirring to learn such an ancient skill - so ancient that no one really knows where it came from, or when. More than that, lace making needs us. Here is Liz Baker on the subject:

It is with a real sense of sadness I attend lace fairs now because so many of the great suppliers are long gone and whilst some excellent new blood has come into the craft if we are honest we are watching this skill slowly die a horrible death in the UK.  When I joined back in 1990, the Lace Guild was the second largest guild in the UK, only just short in numbers to the sugarcraft guild.  Those halcyon days are long gone and whilst there are some fantastic pockets of the art ... many groups are struggling to find enough people to keep themselves viable.  We are not teaching this art at schools - despicable when you think how it helped to fund education in the early lace schools through the girls learning to make lace and read with maths taught to the boys, and here in one of the lace regions of England - Beds / Bucks children are not taught it as a skill.  The average age of lacemakers in the UK is 40+ and if we are honest it's really 50+ and I'm just being generous.

I beg any lacemaker out there who finds an even mildly interested person younger than them to superglue them to a chair and force them to learn the craft so it will live on.

Me, superglued to my chair. Just where I want to be!