Lace by Sheila A Mason BA FRSA

Lace was first knitted by machine in the 1760s and, as it was sold through the town of Nottingham with other products from the knitting frame, it was called Nottingham Lace to distinguish what was then considered a very inferior, machine-knitted lace, with a selvage edge and on which a pattern was run-in by needle, from the beautiful handmade laces of Buckingham, Bedfordshire, and elsewhere. Since then any lace or net made on the machine in the United Kingdom has been given the generic title Nottingham Lace.   

The structure of the machine-made lace industry is a complicated one which changed little until the 1950s. While to those outside the industry it might appear to be a single entity, to participants it was a complex web of individual, through interrelated, businesses, divided primarily by the action of the machine being used into knitted and twisted laces, and then further divided into different sections by the type of operation carried out in each firm.

The first machine-made lace was knitted from a single thread through mechanical alterations to the knitting frame, (more commonly called the stocking frame). Point lace, as it was called, was knitted from the 1760s until it was succeeded by improved laces in the 1820s. One such improvement was warp lace; invented in the 1790s this unites the loop of the knitting frame with the warp of the weaver’s loom, and had the advantage over point net in that, although knitted, it only laddered if damaged, not unravelled. An improvement, the raschel warp lace machine, was invented in the 1840s although it did not come to prominence until the 1950s. 

The second type of machine-made lace is that in which threads are twisted together to make lace in the same way as the hand lace makers. The twist machines have been described as the most complicated textile machines in the world, and the lace made neither unravels nor ladders if damaged. The first machine of this type was invented by John Heathcoat in 1808 and was followed by a plethora of different twist lace machines, the most important of these to the British lace industry being the Leavers machine invented in 1813, and the curtain lace machine invented in 1846. These three machines divided twist lace making into three sections; plain net, made on machines based on Heathcoat’s principle; lace for home furnishings, made on curtain lace machines; and lace for garments, made on Leavers machines.

Laces made on the Barmen machine invented in Germany, and also various types of embroideries, often labelled laces and made on machines mainly invented abroad, were also sold through Nottingham.  However, while both are interesting sections of the European textile trade, they demand more space than is available in this work on the Nottingham Lace industry, which will concentrate on the laces made on Nottingham-built machines.

After being segregated by the type of lace made, the lace industry was further divided by the various trades in each lace section.  Firstly, into lace making, which is self-explanatory; secondly, lace manufacturing which encompassed the finishing and marketing of the type of lace concerned, not its making as is the usual meaning of this word; thirdly, lace dyeing, which, although closely allied to lace manufacturing, was a separate, specialised industry; and finally, machine building and its numerous subsections.  Few businesses combined two or more sections and large firms were the exception, even if the most prominent. On the whole the lace industry continued the organisation of the framework knitters and was composed in general of a multitude of small firms, often in rented property.  Demarcation lines between the various sections were unwritten but rarely crossed. Moreover, the participants in each section often had little or no understanding of other sections.  A Leavers lace maker, for example, would usually go through his working career without having seen a curtain machine, let alone be able to work one; few lace manufactures had more than a basic knowledge of pattern designing or draughting and the type of machine from which the lace came; while lace machine builders usually only built only one type of frame.

The town of Nottingham was never large enough, even after the 1845 Enclosure Award permitted expansion into the former open fields or after 1877 when its boundaries were extended to incorporate the former industrial villages of Bulwell, Basford, Radford, Lenton and Wilford, to house the whole of such a large, and diverse, industry that continued to grow for 150 plus years and at its height in the early 1900s employed probably between 60,000 and 100,000 men, women and children, and thousands of machines.  The central core of Nottingham was reserved for the manufacturer/merchant-convertors while in the industrial suburbs, and further afield, the machines were built and worked, and lace dyed.

Lace Market – Central Nottingham in 1820 taken from Smith & Wild’s map. The Conservation Area is delineated by dots.Lace Market – Central Nottingham in 1820 taken from Smith & Wild’s map (click on map for larger version).

The clue to the main function of central Nottingham within the machine-made lace industry is given in the name of the city’s iconic conservation area – centred around St Mary’s Church. Even though little industrial activity can now be found there, it is still called The Lace Market. In the 1760s merchants finished and marketed together all products of the knitting frame, but gradually, as lace production increased, merchants specialising in twist lace split from the hosiery merchants, and from the 1820s began to move from the area below Nottingham Castle into the eastern area of the town.  Situated on the former Saxon burh, this eastern area was by the medieval period a residential area, and lace manufacturers moved first into the former residences, and then erected purpose-built warehouses.  Here in a single day lace buyers could view hundreds of patterns assembled by lace manufacturers from many different lace makers, rather than make lengthy visits to widely scattered factories. 

The lace manufacturer purchased a web of unfinished lace from the lace maker’s machine and sent this web to one of the specialist lace dye works in and around Nottingham.  After scouring (to remove the black lead/graphite with which the machines were lubricated), bleaching, dyeing and stiffening the wet web of lace was stretched on a long dressing frame to set it to the correct size and shape of each pattern, before despatch to the warehouse. Once in the warehouse it was subjected to a myriad other finishing processes before it was finally ready for sale. Such tasks included inspection (for faults), mending, drawing (separating one band of lace from another), scalloping (getting rid of surplus fabric to reveal the curved edge), clipping (getting rid of surplus threads), as well as a large number of other tasks. Some of this finishing work was done in the warehouses but much was carried out by an army of outworkers in their own homes. Females comprised most of the workforce in lace manufacturing.

Warp lace makers’ houses in Stapleford showing the top floor elongated windows.

Location of machine-made lace making in the East Midlands (click on map for larger version)

While the centre of Nottingham concentrated on lace finishing most lace making was carried on outside the town.  Every town and village in the map accommodated lace machines at one time or another. Into the 1840s most lace machines were small and worked by the hand and feet of the operative, so that for nearly 100 years they could be located in houses or workshops.  It was only after the 1850s, that machines were generally worked by steam power, and moved into factories.  Large multi-tenanted factories with distinctive vertical fenestration for Leavers and curtain lace machines became a feature of the townscapes of, mainly, Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire.  Lace making was not, however, confined to the East Midlands.  John Heathcoat left Loughborough in 1816 and established the plain net branch of twist lace making around Tiverton when he was followed to the West of England by a number of other makers with his type of machine.  There were also hand-operated lace machines in the Isle of Wight and in the area around Worcester into the early nineteenth century.  While from the 1870s most curtain lace was made in the Irvine Valley in Scotland, around Darvel and Newmilns.  In the lace workshops and factories machines were nearly always worked by males, called the twisthands in the Midlands, and weavers in Scotland. Females, and into the 1860s children, were mainly confined to auxiliary tasks, even if they were skilled ones such as bobbin winding.

Boulevard Works, Radford.
Boulevard Works, Radford. Building A, abutting Radford Boulevard, was primarily for Leavers machines. Building B, abutting Forster Street, with the slightly higher vertical fenestration, was for curtain lace machines. Building C, on Norwood Street and Radford Boulevard, was used for embroidery machines.

The industrial villages incorporated into Nottingham in 1877 were home to a number of lace factories, most of them built between 1845 and the end of the century. Hyson Green, Radford and Bobber’s Mill had 26 workshops and factories, including one built in 1882 for John Player in Radford, which housed lace machines for about 20 years before it was gradually taken over by tobacco production, and another known as Boulevard Works, also in Radford, built for the Perry family in 1883 partly for their own machines and partly for those of tenants. Lenton had 5 lace factories, Basford 9, and Carrington, Sherwood and Daybrook 4. To the west of Nottingham, Beeston had 10 lace factories, including the ‘gothic’ Anglo Scotian Mill complex, while Stapleford had 7. Few lace machines were found to the east of Nottingham, exceptions being in Southwell, where the House of Correction was converted into a lace curtain factory, and in Stathern in the Vale of Belvoir where one family of framework knitters turned lace makers had a small factory of Leavers machines from the beginning of the industry until 1920.  However, the largest number of lace factories was along the Erewash Valley of Derbyshire, all less than 10 miles from Nottingham. 40 were to be found in Long Eaton, while Ilkeston had 24, and there were other factories in Sandiacre and Heanor.

In addition to lace factories, the foundries and workshops of the lace machine builders, bobbin and carriage makers, bar makers, and all the other auxiliary trades so necessary to the working of lace machines, were located in the industrial suburbs of Nottingham, as well as along the Erewash Valley. Until the 1950s more than 90% of warp and twist lace machines working in the world were made in the Nottingham area. The Nottingham lace machine builders contributed significantly both to the world-wide fame of Nottingham and to the prosperity of the local economy.

Graph of exports of British-made lace, 1855-1957.

The lace industry continued to expand into the 1920s. Outer- and under-wear were lavishly made of, or trimmed with, lace, and lace furnishings, so beloved by Victorians, continued to be in great demand.  There was a worldwide export trade (see graph). Before the First World War the number of Leavers machines probably totalled about 5,000, all of them in the East Midlands, while the numbers of plain net machines in the West of England and the large factory in Derby, and of lace furnishing machines in Scotland, Lenton, Southwell and Bobbers Mill had also continued to increase.

However the depression that followed World War I had a devastating effect on the export-orientated lace trade.  Export figures declined sharply from the peak of 1923 and the number of firms in the lace industry declined all over the United Kingdom. As a fashion industry the Leavers industry centred in the East Midlands was particularly badly hit when skirts shortened dramatically and permanently. The number of Leavers lace makers fell by at least 35% in the interwar period and no new machines were sold to United Kingdom makers between 1923 and 1947.  This contraction continued through World War II when “no lace or lace net, other than hair nets, approved glass substitutes and approved anti-scatter fabrics could be manufactured for the home market.”  The curtain and plain net sections made mosquito, sand fly and camouflage nets, but the Leavers section was not considered a priority and other than for the sections above – mostly hairnets - any Leavers lace made had to be exported.  Only 29 out of the remaining 89 Leavers firms were permitted to remain open.  Leavers lace could not be sold on the home market until 1952 and by then some lace makers were unable to reopen – loss of skilled labour being one important factor.  By 1959 the number of Leavers firms had dwindled to 56 and only 480 machines out of the former 5,000 remained. 

Moreover, the traditional Nottingham lace machines were increasingly affected by the introduction of an improved raschel warp lace machine from Germany in the 1950s. Although at first only able to make honeycomb net overlaid with simple patterning its ease of working, speed of production, and use of nylon yarn fulfilled both the requirements of lace makers with less skilled labour, and of ladies who had been starved of lace during the war and immediate post-war periods. The continuing upgrading of the raschel machine by the Germans led both to the eventual demise of lace machine building in the East Midlands as well as to the near eclipse of twist lace making. Moreover, although there was for a time a surge in lace production, in the long run the raschel machine also led to the decline of all lace making in the UK.  A number of former Leavers lace makers had converted solely to raschel lace production; however, to keep to the forefront of the industry, it was continually necessary to purchase new and improved machines. By the end of the twentieth century a new raschel machine cost about a £1 million and the UK lace makers could not compete with increasing investment and lower production costs abroad.  However experienced the UK was in lace making, the lack of business help by government, high wages and increasingly onerous regulations meant that the country’s lace makers could not compete with the low wages, light regulation and the funding of machines, and new factories, by the World Bank, or by the foreign lace makers’ own governments.

At the same time as lace making declined so did the amount of lace processed through Nottingham.  The structure of the lace trade – merchants in Nottingham and lace makers in the surrounding area – had remained basically the same for 200 years.  Then, from the 1950s it began change. Dye works and machine builders closed and lace manufacturers had a declining customer base, because not only was lace made increasingly abroad, so were garments. At the same time modern communications meant that those lace makers who were left could more easily contact customers directly. Allied to the high rents and increasingly onerous traffic restrictions in the Lace Market, everything combined to take an increasing toll of the financial viability of the lace manufacturer. In the twenty first century the Lace Market is a place for living and entertainment, not lace manufacture.

 By the end of 2012 there were four makers -  one Leavers, two raschel and one Barmen -  utilising lace machines in the East Midlands.  In addition there were two curtain lace makers in the Darvel Valley and one plain net maker in Chard, Somerset.  Lace is no longer processed through or made in Nottingham.  In Nottingham only the conservation area and a £1 million panel of concrete lace on the wall of The Contemporary, plus an industrial museum with static lace machines, remain of a once great industry employing thousands.