A brief history of machine lace

Lace was traditionally made by plaiting threads weighted with bobbins, around pins mounted on a pillow. Tissue paper templates were used to create the design. It was a cottage industry, women making the lace, then selling their wares at local markets. It was worn in quanitity only by the very rich, as production was very time-consuming.

In 1586, William Lee (a curate at Calverton, Nottinghamshire) invented the stocking frame (the first knitting machine of its kind), and by the 1730s there were about 50 such machines making plain hosiery in Nottingham. Subesquently, an invention known as a 'tickler', enabled the machines to produce an arrangement of holes in the knitted fabric. Later elaboration by Robert Frost of Arnold, Nottinghamshire, and Jedediah Strutt enabled manufacturers to create basic designs. These were used to create knitted cloth, used in the hosiery industry.

Thomas Hammond produced the first true machine lace in 1768, and by 1775, the method had been improved to the point where fine mesh backgrounds with reasonably elaborate designs could be produced.

The bobbin net machine was invented in 1809 by John Heathcote of Derbyshire. This used travelling bobbins instead of needles, and better emulated the actions of hand lacemakers. It also produced wider swathes - traditional lace had a maximum width of about 6 inches. Lace was still something of a cottage industry, however, lacemakers renting machines from the manufacturing companies.

All these inventions had improved the quality and quantity of lace, and much of the industry was still a cottage industry based around Nottingham. The real industrialisation of the fledging industry began after the invention of the Nottingham lace curtain machine in 1846. John Livesey's machines could produce a very wide variety of fabrics, and so began the growth of Nottingham's Lace Market.

In the early 20th century, the industry boomed, with over 130 factories employing over 20,000 people. Nottingham became the world's leading producer and exporter of lace, and much of the local city economy depended on the trade. However, World War I changed that - exports fell and the market slumped, and The Depression, changes in fashion and foreign competition all took their toll.

The industry continues to prosper in Nottingham, and much lace is still made there. The Lace Market still stands, tribute to an industry for which Nottingham has become famous worldwide.

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