Honiton lace making

Honiton lace has been made in East Devon for centuries. It has its origins in the 16th century from various types of embroidery, cutwork and drawn thread work. Around 1540 lace was becoming fashionable, King Charles wore lace on his clothing and pattern books with printed designs that you could make yourself were printed.

In Honiton you can see a large collection in Allhallows Museum, which is housed in a 14th century chapel. This collection is probably the largest collection of Honiton lace in one place in the world. The staff there are very knowledgeable and will be happy to answer any questions you may have.

Lace making as an industry began around 1643 and was the product of a large number of workers working in bad conditions in their own homes. It was said that you could always tell a lace maker because they were very pale, nearly always looked tired and often stooped.

Because of the fashion of wearing lace as a trimming on clothing there was a large demand. It is a particularly fine lace and has flowers and other natural designs as part of the overall design. Individual lace makers would make the motifs and then these would be stitched together and sold as a larger piece.

Many small villages were involved in lace production, indeed at one time approximately half of the population of East Devon were lace makers. In time it became known as Honiton lace because the finished product was put on the stage coach, and in later times the train, in Honiton to be sent to the London markets and fashion houses.

Honiton lace is made using pairs of bobbins. These could be made of bone or wood and the fine line threads were wound onto the bobbins. The lace maker would then pin out a design on their lace pillow, a firm pillow stuffed with oat straw or sawdust. Using the pins to support the design they then plaited and twisted the threads from the bobbins to make motifs. In the early days of lace making the motifs were always geometrical but later on the lace makers got bored with geometrics and began to make flowers and leaves. These were stitched on to a net background to produce the beautiful designs that are instantly recognisable.

The motifs were combined to produce lace collars and cuffs, the edgings for handkerchiefs, shawls, tablecloths and bedspreads. If you had money you could have anything you wished made in fine Honiton lace.

Branscombe lace is a needle lace. In broad terms it’s made by weaving a design using a needle and single thread. The design is woven onto a tape, so it’s quicker to make than the bobbin lace. Experts can tell the difference between the two types simply by looking at the choices of motifs and designs.

One of the most famous customers was Queen Victoria. When she married Prince Albert in 1840 her wedding dress was designed by a young designer called William Dyce. The original design used Brussels lace for the veil but the Queen insisted that her dress should have English lace. An order was sent to Tuckers of Branscombe, who were the largest employers of lace makers at that time.

Her next order for Honiton lace was in 1841 for the dress that her daughter Vicky, the Princess Royal was christened in. This dress, now over 165 years old, is still used for Royal christenings. The last time it was used was in 2004 for Lady Louise, daughter of the Earl and Countess of Wessex.

Members of the Royal family are still occasional buyers of Honiton lace and Princess Diana had some on her wedding dress.

If you are interested in the lace making industry of East Devon then I recommend that you visit the Honiton museum to learn more about the history of Honiton lace and see more examples of the exquisite delicacy of this most beautiful of textiles. They often have a local lace maker demonstrating the techniques used in the production of Honiton lace.

You can also buy Honiton lace online by visiting the official Honiton lace shop.

To see more pictures of the motifs look at some samples

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