Bobbin Lace Making – Its History and How to Start

Bobbin lace is another technique of lacemaking. It’s also known as pillow lace, and it is made by weaving threads wound on bobbins around pins holding a pattern to a pillow. It is a complicated and beautiful art, but achievable with practice and patience. Let’s talk a little about the history of bobbin lace, and then I’ll help you get started making this incredible work of art!

Where Did Bobbin Lace Come From?

In the 15th century, braidmaking in Genoa, Italy, was a famous decorative skill, and bobbin lace evolved from this technique. A will written in 1493 mentions lace made with bobbins. Since the technique was much easier than the cutwork lace, and the tools required were inexpensive, the craft became popular. For women all across Europe, bobbin lacemaking represented a way to sustain themselves, and the market for lace was higher than spinning or weaving. Like needle lace, bobbin lace became a moneymaking pastime in convents and schools. In the 17th century, Italy lost its lead as the primary lace source for Europe to Flanders and Normandy. Lace fell out of fashion in the 18th century, but has made a modern resurgence in both fashion, art, and craft.

Bobbin lace is also a cultural fundamental in Spain’s history. Women and girls were expected to know how to craft this lace to supplement their income. You can read more about Spain’s history with bobbin lace by visiting Carlos Lorenzo’s photoblog here.

How is Bobbin Lace Made?

Bobbin lace patterns are made by “pricking” a pattern card attached to a soft but supportive backing, like a cushion or a pillow. The prick holes form the pattern, and the pattern is gradually filled with pins as the lacemaker works the threads down the pattern. A set of even numbers of threads are looped over the first line of pins at the start of the pattern. Each thread is wound over a long spool at each end, called a bobbin.

Bobbin Lace on Pillow

Bobbins serve several purposes in lacemaking. While they make manipulation of the thread easier by adding tension, they also keep the thread clean by providing someplace to hold other than the thread itself. They also serve as a reserve of more thread – as the spools are loaded prior to hanging.

While the pattern is being worked, each hand holds one pair of bobbins. The threads are then either crossed or twisted around each other to form patterns. As each row of the pattern is worked, the lacemaker adds more pins, continuing the pattern down the pillow form.

What Tools Do I Need?

Bobbin lace is made traditionally with either coarse or fine thread, but for beginners, I encourage crochet thread, size 8 or 10. This lets you see the weaving that you’re doing, and makes it easier to undo mistakes. Feel free to click the links below to find what you need, or explore on your own once you know what you’re looking for.

You’ll need:

Thread: I suggest crochet thread, size 8 or 10, depending on how willing you are to maneuver tangles

Bobbins: there are many different types of bobbins, but I recommend these as a starter set – easy to hold, and enough to get started

Scissors: a must for all thread arts – I always recommend the bird scissors by Gingher

Pillow: I would use a very firm pillow if you can find one. If not, bobbin pillows are available online.

Pins: many many pins – some with good heads on them, like these. If your pins have tiny heads, the threads will slip off.

Pattern card: I use construction paper or cardstock for this – whatever you have at hand that is slightly firm.

Pattern book: Introducing Traditional Bedfordshire Lace is a great place to start and is cheaply available on Amazon. You can see that the lace strips are narrow and not as complicated, but still introduce you to a variety of stitch types. The instructions are very clear, and the book is filled with diagrams, making learning easy. If you’re a person who prefers to learn via video – as I do, you can follow the links below.

How do I Read a Lace Pattern?

Bobbin lace only has TWO (2) basic movements: the cross (c) and the twist (t). These stitches used in combination create different designs in the lace. You may see examples of instructions that read like this: ctc, ct, ttt, ctct, cttc, tct. Now, you know that those read “cross, twist, cross”, etc.

The “stitching” of bobbin lace is only two basic stitches: Whole stitch (ws), which is a cross, twist, cross; and the Half Stitch (hs), which is a cross, twist (ct) with four bobbins.  Below is a pattern of bobbin lace.

First, you’ll notice that you’ll need “6 pairs (12 bobbins)”. This means, that you’ll wind each end of six threads onto 12 bobbins. If you pick up a thread in its middle, two bobbins should hang down from your fingers.

The pattern is on the left. You can see the zigzag, and that’s the basic pattern line for a simple stitch across. So, in this pattern, you’re going to be doing whole stitch, then half stitch. On the right, you’ll see the way that bobbins go over each other. The second and third bobbin cross over and under each other. Then, the second bobbin crosses over the first, and the fourth over the third. Finally, the second crosses back over the third. You do NOT have to keep track of which bobbin USED to be where – just where the bobbin is now.

bobbin-lace-pattern

Bobbin Lace Beginning:

Bobbin lace takes some time to wrap the head around, and even more time to become proficient enough to even move the needles – but it is so worth the time! You can see the delicate work that can be created by bobbin lace in the video below.

Don’t worry if at first, your lace looks like you vomited thread onto a pillow – mine looked even worse! But – I look forward to revisiting this craft and learning more about what patience can create.

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2 thoughts on “Bobbin Lace Making – Its History and How to Start

  1. I had always loved lace when I was young. Whenever my mom wanted to buy new dresses for me during special occasions, I would always look for dresses with lace as they made me feel like a princess!

    Before reading this article, I always had the impression that lace was machine-made. I mean how could anyone make such complicated designs with bare hands, right? After reading the article, I realized I was very wrong. Lace-making requires hard work and patience and I think I will appreciate it even more now. So, thumbs up for Spanish women!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Lynn! Machine-made lace is beautiful, but these artists are carrying forward an incredible tradition that we look at today with awe. It’s so amazing that they did this BY HAND for so long!! I love learning about and trying these things – it definitely makes me appreciate the crafts more! Thanks again!

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