Lace-making Tutorial: Getting started- the basic equipment

There are very few hobbies that you can just start without needing any equipment or tools and bobbin lace-making is no exception. So before you invest, see if you can beg or borrow any bits from anyone else, or get your hands on an introductory kit for around £20, such as: If you get hooked (pardon the pub) you can always upgrade later.

So, what do you need? As a minimum:-

  1. A lace cushion (also known as a lace pillow)
  2. A set of bobbins (around 10 pairs i.e. 20 individual bobbins is fine to begin with)
  3. Some thread
  4. Some pins
  5. A pattern

So let’s go through each in detail to see what you need to consider.

1. A lace cushion (or pillow)

There are different types of pillow for different purposes, broadly summarised below:

Type Best for…
Round / domed Small motifs, curved or round edgings, round or oval mats
Square Square or rectangular edgings and mats, bookmarks
Block Long pieces e.g. garters, tablecloth edgings, long edging   strips/trims
Travel Small motifs, thin edgings, miniature lace (for dolls   houses etc)
Honiton You guessed it, Honiton pillows are best for Honiton lace   (the clue was in the question!)

Photo 1

Top to bottom: travel pillow, block pillow, domed pillow, square pillow

Photo 2

Block pillow

Photo 3

Travel pillow including bag with spaces for bobbins and a cover cloth

Pillows are also stuffed with different materials including horse hair and polystyrene. It’s perfectly possible to make your own starter pillow out of a square of polystyrene, a board of the same size and a piece of blue fabric to cover it. Indeed, this is how my Dad made my first pillow.

It’s also a good idea to have a cover cloth to keep your lace protected whilst it’s on the pillow and so that you can cover your bobbins whilst you’re not working. Pillows and cover cloths are usually dark blue or green because it is easier to see the thread (if of course you are working with dark blue or green thread, this theory doesn’t hold up…). Again, you can very easily make a cover cloth, using a piece of hemmed plain cotton fabric the same size as your pillow.


2. Bobbins

Just as with pillows, there are different types of bobbins for different reasons. The most common type used for Torchon, Bedfordshire and Bucks Point lace look like this:

Photo 4

The key features are that the neck is quite long to allow plenty of thread to be held on the bobbin. The beads at the end are called spangles and serve to weigh the bobbin down so that it doesn’t slide around on the pillow and tangle all your threads up.

Photo 5

Other types you may come across include Honiton (thinner, lighter and without spangles as Honiton thread is easily broken so a light bobbin is needed):

Photo 6

and continental, used for e.g. Bruges Flower and Binche lace- again without spangles but the fatter end carries the weight to keep the bobbin from sliding around the pillow.

Photo 7

To begin with, plastic bobbins are perfectly acceptable:

Photo 8

but most people then build up a collection of wooden or bone bobbins of their own- indeed some people just collect bobbins, without ever making any lace at all. You can find antique bobbins sometimes at collectable fairs and often online.

As you make more lace, you’ll probably find you prefer one style over another- some lacemakers I know have pillows full of bone bobbins, others use just plain wood with spangles, others have commemorative bobbins which tell the story of the milestones in their lives. I have a mismatch of lots of different styles for my Torchon and Beds lace and a modest collection of plain Honiton bobbins. The largest piece of Torchon I’ve made to date required 83 pairs (166 individual bobbins) but it is easy to amass that amount- even if I don’t need anything else, I’ll always pick up a bobbin or two at a Lace Day and I’ve had a Happy New Year bobbin from Winslow Bobbins since 2000 so I kind of have to keep going now!


3. Threads

As you might expect, different threads are required for different reasons. You couldn’t for example do Honiton with a cotton perle gimp thread as it is just waaay too thick.

Photo 9

Standard sewing threads e.g. polyester thread and some cottons are not suitable either due to the twist/tension on them. Most patterns will specify which threads are best, and good suppliers will also be able to advise you if you are unsure. I’ll do a brief comparison chart in a future post so that you can see which threads are similar if you can’t get hold of the one your pattern specifies.


4. Pins

Yep, you’ve guessed it, there are different types of pins you can use. Basically, you don’t want something so thin it will bend each time you try to insert it into the pillow, or something which will rust and discolour your lace, or something too thick which will distort the holes and therefore the look of your finished piece. To get started, and for use with Torchon lace, I’d recommend a 26mm length 0.65mm pin.

Photo 10

You can also get divider pins to keep your bobbins in separate sections, or use long bead-headed pins such as these.

Photo 11

The use of a pin cushion is highly recommended, not least because most of us have dozens of them lying around so you may aswell make use of one. But also (and perhaps more importantly) because they:

– keep the cushion tidy

– avoid damaging/bending your pins

– keep your pins close at hand

– can help to keep the pins sharp

– prevent damage to the pillow (especially polystyrene ones, where repeated stabbing of pins in the same area will eventually weaken the pillow).


5. Patterns

You can find lace making patterns in books (at Lace Days, or try your local library, second hand bookshops or the internet). There was a surge in lacemaking in the 1970s and 80s and publishers, notably Batsford books, published a number of titles, many of which are now out of print but you can still sometimes find them second hand and online.

Photo 12

Many lace suppliers, including Presencia (for Torchon lace) and Christine Springett produce pattern sheets which you can buy online or at Lace Days. You may also be able to photocopy patterns from other lacemakers, although check the copyright restrictions first.

The pattern looks a bit odd at first and not much at all like a piece of lace:

Photo 13

Each dot represents a pin hole so careful reproduction is necessary to avoid misshapen lace. When I was first taught lace, I was told to trace the pattern onto tracing paper, then trace it onto thin card, and then prink out each hole. I was later told by someone far more sensible that it is much quicker, easier and more accurate to photocopy the pattern directly onto thin card, (or onto paper then stick it onto thin card), cover it with sticky back plastic known as blueing (which protects the holes from ripping and shows the thread up), then prick the holes out. It’s up to you though and there are those who much prefer to trace the pattern themselves. Other methods include putting the pattern sheet over your pricking card and pricking directly through (this is the method commonly used for Honiton patterns and small motifs).

From pattern, to pricking, to finished lace:

Photo 14

Photo 15

Photo 16

Although pricking can be a bit tedious when you just want to get going with the actual lace making, it is a vital step, much like preparing a pattern for dressmaking or preparing your ingredients for baking a cake. You would end up damaging both your pins and your pattern if you didn’t prick the holes out first.

Photo 17

Left to right: pricking card, small motif pattern covered in blueing, red self-heal pricking mat, cork pricking board, needle pin, pricking tool, pattern

To do your pricking accurately, and without putting holes in yourself or your table, get a pricking board – cork or ‘self-healing’ versions are available, or you can just use a cork board to begin with- just don’t push too deep or you’ll come through the other side! Alternatively most small Honiton motifs are pricked out on the pillow without the use of a pricking mat.

You should also use a pricking tool (see image above) which should have a point that is the same size as your pins, to avoid stretching the holes. However for your first couple of practice patterns, you could get away with just using a sturdy divider pin or similar.


What else?

Of course it doesn’t stop there- the above is just the basics but there are lots of additional accessories and tools out there which will help in your lacemaking. Some of the more common and useful are listed below.

Photo 18

Left to right

Bobbin holder- sold as stitch holders for knitting/crochet, these can be looped through the spangles to keep bobbins in order when not being used

Needle pin- used in Honiton lace to make sewings

Pricking tool- see above

Lazy Susan- used for sewings

Small (0.40mm) crochet hook- used to sew ends in and to add beads into a piece of lace

Pin lifter- does exactly what it says on the tin. Could also be called the ‘manicure saver’.

Divider pin- used to separate the bobbins when working on a particular section. Of course normal pins will do the job just as well but these are prettier.

Wooden roller- used to roll long lengths of lace round to keep it out of the way when working on a large piece such as a garter, tablecloth edging or scarf.

At top

Bobbin holder- used to hold down threads to prevent them getting tangled when the cushion is not in use or is being transported.

Photo 19

Bobbin roll- to store your bobbins when they’re not in use.

Bobbin winder– you get a much more even-tensioned wind when using a bobbin winder, and it can be a little quicker when you have lots of pairs to do


So go on, get your bobbins out and give it a go!


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