There’s lace under the leather.


A recent NPR feature reporting the failed attempts of the tourist bureau in Nottingham, England, to piggyback on the movie Robin Hood makes me very sad – and makes me laugh.  Nobody really knows who Robin Hood was, and hardly anyone remembers the real Nottingham.

The city is spread over two little hills; I have gone there three times to learn about an earlier international economy: the Lace Market.  In 1972, the establishment of a conservation district, including the town’s oldest streets – Stoney, St. Mary’s Gate, and High Pavement — saved 35 historic buildings, reached by a 20-minute trudge uphill from the train station.

In 1994, I began at Lace Hall, a museum in a disused church (lots of those in England) that told the story from its start in humble cottages to its end in abandoned factories.  The highlight of the guided tour was a chance to witness the noisy power of a monstrous metal loom.

Lace-making was introduced to England in 1563, along with carrots, turnips, parsnips, cabbages and celery, by Protestant refugees from Spanish-controlled lowlands, 200 miles across the North Sea.  Lace was a luxury, and thus local women so inclined, after daily chores were done, produced pillow lace and bobbin lace pieces to sell to a “bagman,” who would sell them at a profit in London.

They worked by precious candlelight magnified by a water-filled, glass ball that concentrated the light on their handiwork.  In summertime they sat on their porch steps.

When the knitting frame was invented by a local man in 1589, its purpose to make stockings, a small adaptation allowed lace-making families to establish attic industries in their homes, still working by hand.

Enter the entrepreneur.  By 1800, lace-makers, including children, were rounded up for steady work in crowded workshops at the tops of warehouse buildings.  Together they could work faster and on larger pieces.  In 1810, 1,800 frames were producing the net called Nottingham Lace.

Then, over the next four decades, knitting frames were replaced by steam-driven machines, and workshops by factories. Hours of employment became regulated by boilers.  In two shifts, between 4 am and midnight, about 500 workers took their places in the deafening, dangerous, overheated (100 degree) environment.  Male “twist-hands” operated the contraptions, which were lubricated by black lead.  Women then bleached the silk or cotton “webs” (420 inches wide and 50 yards long), and thousands of other townfolks “finished” the lace with hand embroidery.  Eventually, newer machines were built with the ability to weave patterns.

All this time, tuberculosis and damaged vision were common hazards.  Mere children were maimed helping out in the factories.

But never mind, Nottingham lace was becoming known on the world market, and was now affordable to the middle classes, so more people had jobs.  The industry prospered, and companies built grand structures as “showrooms.”  Then came World War I, when it was prudent not to be seen wearing lavishly-trimmed garments.  By World War II, lace machines were manufacturing camouflage and mosquito nets.  Today’s computerized machines are located in clean factories along shipping routes.

The historical Lace Market is squeezed between the Comfort Hotel and the National Ice Centre.  The area is enlivened by night life with the expansion of New College (including fashion design) on this site.  Lace Hall is a pub; the Costume and Textile Museum is open by appointment only.

Across the shopping district, Nottingham Castle Museum (with its monumental statue of Robin Hood), barely mentions The Lace Market, as if it meant no more than the early pottery works, or Boots The Chemists and Raleigh Cycle Company, headquartered here in recent times.  “Nottingham Lace” is still sold at the Lace Centre, across from the castle: tablecloths, curtains, bride’s garters, baptismal caps, and pretty shawls.  You can even order them online.

But it is the Lace Market architecture that is worth seeing.  Ironically, if you are blind, you can see them better, for there is a tour route called The Lace Trail, marked by plaques in Braille text next to marble sculptures in the shapes of the buildings.  What could be more appropriate to memorialize the vanished pride of village craftsmen and women who were taken by the hand into the maws of the Industrial Age?

In essence, this city has erased the lives of many good citizens, and celebrated the life of an outlaw who may or may not have existed in Medieval times.  Sherwood Forest is not a myth, but also was nearly lost in the hands of men who were determined to make money and war.  For the story of the lost trees, and how conservationists have replaced them, go to:

7 comments to There’s lace under the leather.

  • Great articles & Nice a site….

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    • karen

      Thanks. Contribute some thoughts, information, etc. I have two signings/discussions on aging coming up: one here in Tucson at Clues Unlimited, Saturday, August 28, 5-7 pm; and one at Janke’s Book Store in Wausau, WI, on Seotember 11, 2-4 pm. If you live anywhere near, come!!!!

  • Can I copy some of this post, if a put a link back to your blog?

    • karen

      Sure. Why don’t you send a photo of a patchwork coat? I once had a skirt made of old ties sewn together. Maybe other people will send photos of handiwork that gives an old-fashioned idea a new twist.

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