Three lace bobbins at the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts: moving objects

Lace bobbin, approx 5″ long
Ca. 1810 -1870
Bone, pigment, wire and glass
Collection of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

Three bone lace bobbins nestle together on a shelf in a storage cabinet at the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts ( “Eliza” reads the dotted, colored lettering on the side of one, while the second reads “George,” and the third “Ruth.” 

Lace bobbin, approx 5″ long
Dated 1871
Bone, pigment, wire, glass beads
Collection of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

 Bobbin lace was handmade, by twisting threads around one another into intricate patterns. Each thread (and there could be between twenty and two hundred) was wound around a bobbin. The lace pattern drawn on paper laid over a densely stuffed pillow, and the threads were held in place with pins, and sequentially twisted and moved to form the design. A cluster of bobbins dangled from the unfinished edge of the lace, each to be lifted and manipulated in its turn.[1]

Modern example of bobbin lace-making, in-progress
Free downloaded image from

 Bobbin lace originated in sixteenth-century Italy, but these bobbins are nineteenth-century English objects. Only English bobbins, and, in fact, only bobbins from the East Midlands region of England (comprising Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire counties) have rings of beads (called “spangles”) at the ends.[2] The glass beads gave extra weight to the bobbins, and helped keep the threads taut as the lace-maker worked.

 Although handmade lace has always been a luxury for the buyer, it did not bring much profit to the lace-maker, especially in the nineteenth century. (By the third quarter of the century, machine-made lace produced in factories rendered bobbin lace-making completely unprofitable). By the mid-nineteenth century, the English women who practiced the craft tended to come from low-income families. Besides married women who worked at home, there were regular shops employing numerous women to produce bobbin lace. Selling lace supplemented family income, but in general, nineteenth-century lace-makers earned half as much for their time as common laborers.[3] Women who worked in small shops, instead of at home, had the further disadvantage of spending many hours of sitting, bending over their work, and straining their eyes.[4]

 It is fortunate that the bobbins they used were sometimes so meaningful, reminding lace-makers of family, friends, and sweethearts, and connecting them to the world around them.

 The names incised on these bobbins might be those of the maker, the owner, or the person who gave the bobbin to the lace-maker. Probably “George” either made the bobbin that his name is inscribed upon, or gave it as a gift, since male lace-makers were uncommon by this period. In lace-making districts, young men frequently gave bobbins as valentine gifts, and women also gave them to one another as tokens of affection. Sometimes bobbins bore verse inscriptions that spiraled around the shaft, for example, “My mind is fixt/I cannot rainge/I love my choice/Too well to change.”[5]

 The beads, too, sometimes functioned a mementos. Collector and author Gertrude Whiting imagined how, “each worker’s pillow was a veritable storehouse of mementos – a bead of Mother’s a button of Father’s, a prize bead awarded at the lace school, lover’s vows, discarded earrings … some of the beads are dainty shells, or even tiny cameos.”[6]

Other weights used on spangles included souvenir objects: metal coins and medallions commemorating important events, from the invention of the railroad engine to the hangings of notorious criminals.

Lace bobbin, approx. 5″ long
Ca. 1810 -1870
Bone, pigment, wire, metal and glass
Collection of the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts

 The spangle of the “Eliza” bobbin from this collection bears a particularly unusual object: a tiny, bronze-colored metal disc bearing what appears to be Arabic writing on each side. Many of the original beads appear to be missing (bobbin spangles typically had 4-8 small beads, with a larger bead, like the yellow one here, in the center), but the disc remains to puzzle and intrigue us. No doubt it had some particular personal meaning for its owner, long ago.

Metal disc on spangle of the “Eliza” bobbin

 By the beginning of the twentieth-century, the bobbin lace industry was essentially over. But antiques collectors began to notice the charm of old decorated lace bobbins (which, in addition to having colored lettering like these, were sometimes inlaid with metals, dyed various colors, and decoratively carved). This explains how a set of English bobbins comes to be in the collection of an American museum. These three bobbins are actually part of a much larger collections of bobbins owned by the museum. The Land family, who donated the founding collection of objects to the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts, were avid collectors of all sorts of hand-tools, and no doubt these elegant little bobbins caught their eye.  The particular personal histories embedded in these bobbins is now lost, but we can reconstruct a world where they functioned not only as tools for working women, but as valued reminders of attachments and events.


[1] Catherine Amoroso Leslie, Needlework Through History: An Encyclopedia (Westport, Connecticut and London: Greenwood Press, 2007), 22-23.

[2] Nerylla Taunton, Antique Needlework Tools and Embroideries (Woodbridge, Suffolk: Antique Collectors’ Club, Ltd., 2006), 192.

[3] H. J. Yallop, The History of the Honiton Lace Industry (Exeter, UK: University of Exeter Press, 1992), 159-62, 179-180

[4] Ibid, 173 –179.

[5] Gertrude Whiting, Old-Time Tools and Toys of Needlework (New York: Dover Publications, 1971. Reprint of 1921 ed.) 210.

[6] Ibid, 213.

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2 Responses to Three lace bobbins at the Museum of Early Trades and Crafts: moving objects RSS Comments (RSS)

  1. Nevin says:

    where the bobbins made in factories and modified or hand crafted?

    • Hillary Murtha says:

      Good question. Apparently, the bobbins that are considered most collectable today were turned on the lathe by individual, professional craftsmen. Some used decorative devices so unique that their particular bobbins can be recognized – for example, the “butterfly” design inlaid on the bobbins made by William “Bobbin” Brown. Some craftspersons also hand-carved bobbins, and these can be recognized by the fact that they aren’t as symetrical as machine-turned bobbins. Gertrude Whiting, I believe, suggests that hand-carved bobbins were mostly likely gifts from the amateur carver to the lace-maker. I didn’t come up with any instances of bobbins being made in factories, although you would think that since certain regions on England were famous for their lace-making, that bobbins would be mass produced for sale to those regions – made in furniture factories – as a sort of side-line, perhaps, with scraps of wood. Certainly textile lace “inserts” or lengths of fabric tape for weaving into the lace, were factory-produced. It would take a bit more research to discover if there were bobbin-manufacturing shops as well as individual craftspersons.

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