Lace in literature

One of the things I enjoyed about the Made Up initiative were the quotes from literature regarding sewing which Karen posted on her DidYouMakeThat blog. I’ve only ever found a handful relating to lace or lace making but I’m sharing a couple of my favourites here which are both of a time when lace-making was more of a way of life.


First up has to be Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace by Alison Uttley. P1100181This is a charming children’s book featuring the well-known characters of Little Grey Rabbit, Squirrel and Hare. The story involves Grey Rabbit’s friends helping her to get together the equipment for her to learn to make lace (which she does with amazing speed!). The descriptions are quite accurate in terms of what was needed and how the lace is made:

The little rabbit sat at the door with her pillow on her knee, and the bobbins hanging down. She tossed the bobbins over and crossed the threads and moved the pins down the paper pattern, while they all watched her paws. A tiny strip of lace appeared, and it took the shape of a bee.

P1100182I love reading this book to my girls and it’s great that these books are still so popular many years after their first publication.

Another passage is from the autobiographical novel Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. These books inspired the BBC TV series of the same name a few years ago, and one of the characters- Queenie- could sometimes be seen making lace in the programme. Written in the late 1930s and early 1940s the book documents a now bygone way of life. In one of the chapters, Survivals Flora talks of the traditional country ways which are rapidly disappearing, including Queenie’s lace making. Set in Oxfordshire there would have been many lacemakers in the area, and it was during the 1940s that the craft virtually disappeared everywhere. This passage speaks of the transition during Queenie’s lifetime:

There had been a time, it appeared when lace-making was a regular industry in the hamlet. Queenie, in her childhood, had been ‘brought up to the pillow’, sitting among the women at eight years old and learning to fling her bobbins with the best of them. They would gather in one cottage in winter for warmth, she said, each one bringing her faggot or shovel of coals for the fire and there they would sit all day, working, gossiping, singing old songs, telling old tales till it was time to run home and put on the pots for their husbands’ suppers. These were the older women and the young unmarried girls; the women with little children did what lace-making they could at home. In very cold winter weather the lace-makers would have a small earthen pot with a lid, called a ‘pipkin’, containing hot embers, at which they warmed their hands and feet and sometimes sat upon. 

In the summer they would sit in the shade behind one of the ‘housen’, and, as they gossiped, the bobbins flew and the lovely, delicate pattern lengthened until the piece was completed and wrapped in blue paper and stored away to await the great day when the year’s work was taken to Banbury Fair and sold to the dealer. [….]

Now, of course, things were different. She didn’t know what the world was coming to. This nasty machine-made stuff had killed the lace-making; the dealer had not been to the Fair for the last ten years; nobody knew a bit of good stuff when they saw it. Said they liked the Nottingham lace better; it was wider and had more pattern to it! She still did a bit to keep her hand in […] but, as for living by it, no, those days were over.

Lace-makers of Cranfield, image from a postcard, credited to Robert Cheetham 1906

Lace-makers of Cranfield, image from a postcard, credited to Robert Cheetham 1906

It sounds so lovely and cosy in winter, doesn’t it, but the women had to work very hard to earn their money, often in bad light and for little pay. And I’m sure doing something every day to make a pittance soon takes the fun out of it, so I guess we’re lucky that it is an enjoyable pastime for us, not a necessity. The group work must have been wonderful though and can only in part be replicated in some of our lace, sewing or craft groups and online communities.

I’ve also read a couple of books with lace as a theme or backdrop in recent years- The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry and The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri amongst them. Have you come across any others? I’d love to hear about them.


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