Artemis has contributed some lovely articles to our blog in the last month or so. Her most recent piece, on the Amesbury Archer, appeared last week and here is the final one. Each time, I have been encouraged to look again at items in our collection. Perhaps you have too? The Downton lace is certainly worth it!

The second object of interest was the Downton lace industry. I’m a complete numpty when it comes to pretty things like fashion and fabric – I know nothing about it, except that designer brands aren’t worth their price and that skinny people can get away with pretty much anything. Given that, I was shocked to realise that I had actually heard of Downton lace before – specifically Downton lace! – albeit very vaguely, and so delved into research during the hours in the library. 

Part of my History A-level course involves a depth study of Louis XIV, the Sun King of France 1661-1715. As such, when I learnt that the lace industry of England largely started due to the Huguenots’ mass migration to England under Louis’ harsh anti-Protestant policies, I marvelled at how learning history can tie events together by chance like this. The Huguenots bringing over their lace trade was a major revolution in the English fashion industry; their craft, having been influenced and developed by Italian and Venetian laces of Louis’ luxury imports, was much more developed than that in England. By the 1730s and certainly by the end of the 18th century, Downton lace had become an established trade that was practised by most women and children, and went on to become a family tradition of past generations. Before official schools were established, there were “lace schools” in villages where kids over 5 would go to learn how to read and how to make lace, regardless of gender. Generally lace was used in a bartering system with other goods. As a whole, lacemaking didn’t pay very well, but lacemakers and their families managed with the “male” incomes as well as bartering with their handiwork.

Unfortunately, the Industrial Revolution meant that much of the handmade lace industry was replaces by more efficient machinery. At the same time, job opportunities increased in factories that needed workers, and so the practice became reduced to an “old person’s hobby”. By the end of the 19th century women in Downton came to realise that this practice was something that they should preserve, so they gathered up what few lacemakers they had left and started classes for young girls to relearn the tradition. It is thanks to them that handmade Downton lace survives to this day, even though they are relatively few.

Downton lacemakers have had the privilege of lacemaking for the royal family throughout the 19th and 20th centuries for major events like weddings and coronations. The work of unique lacemaking methods and patterns, which aren’t so easily achievable by machine (an expert would be able to tell you the exact differences, but I can’t) are the reason why they – and most handmade laces — are so highly priced today.

Most samples of Downton lace are found as insertions or edgings, such as trimming for handkerchiefs and nice underwear. Around 100 patterns are still practised today, and most are named (e.g. the Grecian, the Shell, the Garland, and the Duke’s Garter are all named Downton patterns). There are older and more complicated patterns, but those have largely been abandoned for the sake of time and convenience – not to mention the time needed to practice and perfect the creation of each lace pattern. Passed down from the Huguenots, a cheaper French lace named a torchon is still handmade, but it is much quicker and easier to make and as such lowers its market value. Downton lace generally uses finer thread and has more complex patterns, which is why they are more couture and expensive to commission.

The bobbins of Downton lacemakers are the most unique part of their industry. The earliest dated bobbin found is from 1789, but given that there is a Salisbury bobbin dated 1693, it is highly possible that there are other Downton bobbins that are even older, but simply without an engraved year. Generally the bobbins are smooth and simple, possibly engraved with the owner’s initials, but a lot of them have beautiful geometric designs or engravings of birds, sometimes filled in with wax. To make beautiful lace, they probably wanted beautiful instruments as well.

What is it about lace that has entrapped people’s fantasies for centuries? Is it the quiet nature of lacemaking itself? The mystery of how on earth people managed to figure out such delicacy in a time without modern technology? Or just the beauty of it, so thin and fragile, like the fashionable version of a spiderweb?

I still don’t know anything about fashion, and I doubt I ever will; basic sewing is all I need to get on in life. But maybe over the summer I’ll try making paper lace.

Thank you Artemis, and best wishes to you. We have more to come from the students who have been on work placement with us this summer. I hope you, and they, will look forward to that.