weaving their spell

Huguenots’ Legacy a box of bobbins launched a quest to piece together the threads of ripon’s lost industry. Fiona Russell reports on a revival of traditional lacemaking.

It was filled with lace treasures – thread, bobbins, lambskin “prickings” and a catalogue of lace-making equipment. It had been found in an airing cupboard by Lyn Bidgood who was clearing her grandmother’s house in Somerset.

Lyn knew her grandmother, Winnie Frost, had been born and brought-up in Ripon, so, instead of throwing the box out, she decided to send it back.

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“I could see the box was important, but I didn’t know what to do with it,” says Avril.

So she re-packed it carefully, and set about finding someone who did. At a history fair in York, she ran into fellow family historian, Mary Moseley, who has been making lace for 30 years and showed her the box.

“I thought all my Christmases and birthdays had come at once,” says Mary. “ I was speechless for a few moments.”

They both knew that Ripon had once had a lace industry, now extinct for more than a century. But the box gave them the push to find out more. How did lace making start in Ripon and when, how and why had it died out?

Getting the answers has been a long journey, not least because, like many other cottage crafts and industries, lace making is remarkably difficult to research.

“Even when we came to the nineteenth-century,” says Mary, “when we knew that the industry was well-established and we had the census and the trades directories to work with, there was very little trace of lace making.

“In fact, at one point it looked as if there were more people dealing in lace than there were making lace in Ripon which was, to say the least, unlikely.’

It seems likely lace making with bobbins was introduced into this country in the late 1500s by the Huguenots – French Protestants fleeing religious persecution on the Continent.

They probably settled in the Ripon area because of the well-established textile industries and the trade links between the Yorkshire coast and the Low Countries.

Ripon was also a market town, and Avril and Mary speculate that Ripon dealers would have sold fine lace from both the Continent and the town to wealthy North Yorkshire families and beyond.

A coarser lace would have also have been produced locally and sold to business and working people who wanted to ape the better-off.

The trade, however, fluctuated more than most. Lace was popular during the time of Charles I. It fell out of favour during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, only to become fashionable once again with the Restoration. It was in and out of fashion in the eighteenth century but in the early-nineteenth century a preference for a cultivated simplicity in dress led to decline once again. The lace period most easy to document in Ripon began with the accession of Queen Victoria who was very fond of lace. In the 1830s and 1840s the town became a well-known centre for the production of “trolley lace”.

“It wasn’t the finest lace,” Mary explains. “This would have been imported, from Belgium, and also other parts of this country, for example Honiton in Devon. Ripon lace was used to trim less important items, such as pillow-cases and tablecloths or the neck-lines and hems of petticoats.”.

But even in the nineteenth century, the lacemakers themselves remain elusive. “We know very little about them except they were poor women,” says Avril. “Some were apprenticed as children – we have found indentures – but there were no lace schools here, as there were in other parts of the country.

They probably learnt lace making at home and it would have been a useful bit of extra income, something that could be picked-up and put-down. In the census they would simply have been registered as ‘wife’.”

Like other poor craftsmen and women, they have left behind artifacts, not least the characteristic “Ripon bobbins”. These were smaller than most English bobbins, made of fruit wood and undecorated, except for some circular grooves cut into the wood around the shaft (it has been suggested that these circles represented the three Ridings).

“They are very like French bobbins,” says Mary. “And they’re not spangled like other, later, English bobbins.” “Spangling” – decorating the bobbin with glass beads, shells, charms or buttons – weighted the bobbin down, making it easier to use.

The English began to spangle their lace bobbins in the early 1800s and also to personalise them in other ways, for example by painting and inscribing them. “Some were obviously presents, quite often love tokens,” says Avril.

The hey-day of the Ripon industry was short-lived. By the 1850s lace making was becoming mechanised. But in Ripon nobody set-up a mill and the skills gradually disappeared.

In the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, wealthy Ripon ladies, devotees of the fashionable Arts and Crafts movement, organized classes and exhibitions. There was a further revival of interest in the 1970s and 1980s when evening classes specialised in it. A private teacher, Jill Clark, continues to run a class in a nearby village. Mary makes lace with a group of friends and also attends a private class. The group visits Belgium once a year to examine continental laces.

To my eyes, it is just too complicated a craft for a mere hobby. So I looked for lace makers closer to my home near Huddersfield. I discover a group who meet at the Colne Valley Museum in Golcar every other Tuesday night. Norma and Sandra, mother and daughter, began some 30 years ago and are largely self-taught.

Sandra has a disability which severely affects her hands, but she has always loved making things. Morag, another member of the group, finds lacemaking “quite addictive really”.

As we talk, the women move their bobbins to and fro, shifting the pins, examining their work. What they are doing seems painstaking and complicated, yet they insist that “it’s not that difficult”.

They show me their bobbins, which are spangled, some bought at lace fairs, but some made by Norma’s late husband. Morag’s boyfriend is a fisherman and he sometimes paints and spangles the bobbins for her.

Norma, Sandra and Morag’s bobbins take me back to the Ripon box of treasures. What will happen to it now, I ask Mary.

She still has it, but will eventually give it to Harrogate Museum. It will join their collection of other lace-making treasures which can be seen by appointment.

• Lacemaking in Ripon: A History by Avril Edmondson and Mary Moseley, Ripon Local Studies Research Centre, contact [email protected] Jill Clark: [email protected] . The Colne Valley crafts group: [email protected]