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Timeless craft, industrial power

Nottingham lace: from craft to industry 

Nottingham Local Studies, part of Nottingham City Libraries, preserves a wealth of artefacts that illustrate how the lace craft became an industry central to the British Empire's growth.

A black & white photo of Princess Elizabeth admiring some Nottingham lace during a 1949 visit to Nottingham. Local dignitaries look on beside her.

Nottingham lace was admired by royalty and central to the city's identity. Source: Picture Nottingham

If you visit Nottingham you’ll see how lace has been woven through the city for generations.

That relationship is shown through documents, photographs and other artefacts preserved by Nottingham Local Studies

What started as a hand-woven craft became a global industry as the British Empire spread. And you might be surprised by the extent to which it helped shape the Nottingham of the 21st century. 

A red street sign made from iron with white text reading St Mary's Gate. There is a lace motif above the text.

St. Mary's Gate, in the Lace Market area, still bears lace motifs today. Source: Richard Hoare on Geograph CC BY-SA 2.0

A drawing of a woman posing in a floor length orange lace dress with a white trim topped with a matching cape. To the right of the image is a carriage clock balancing on blue, purple, orange and yellow flowing lace.

Lace Charmaine was an elegant style of lace created by Nottingham company Simon May & Co. Source: Nottingham Local Studies

Industry, intricacy and innovation 

Fine lace has been valued as an intricate textile for centuries. Its increasing popularity ran alongside Britain’s rise to prominence as a leader of the industrial revolution.

Nottingham became the centre of the explosion of lace, renowned for innovation and links to global commerce — as well as the brutality and class division that often powered heavy industry.

The contrast between delicate finery and the harshness of its means of production was an early characteristic of lace, and it would remain so as the textile’s popularity spread.

Textiles were a big driver of the industrial revolution: steam-powered machinery in factories increased demand for coal and iron. And the need to transport goods for longer distances led to the growth of canals and railways.

A black & white photo of an intricate lace tablecloth in Arts & Crafts style covering a dining room. The table also features silver tableware and cutlery, crystal glassware and a prominent candlestick.

Lace tablecloths decorated the dining rooms of society's well-to-do. Source: Picture Nottingham

The origins of lace production

The lace craft is thought to have arrived in Britain in the 16th century. In the 1700s ‘lace schools’ emerged, the name disguising the fact that these were often little more than workhouses where children as young as five would be put to work.

The craft at this time was primarily around bobbin lace. Thread would be wound around wooden bobbins, and then woven around pins that were inserted into a template design.

The more sophisticated the design, the more time it took. It wasn’t unusual for laceworkers to toil 12 hour days in dim, cold conditions that would have lasting health implications.

Such conditions were sadly consistent with the origins of the fabric with which they were working. By the end of the 18th century, most cotton used in textile manufacturing was a result of the labour of enslaved people in British colonies such as the West Indies and the United States.

A black and white drawing of a group of women sitting by a window in a dark room making lace and winding bobbins.

Source: Wikimedia

Technological disruption

The bobbin-net machine, invented in 1808 by John Heathcote, saw machinery used in lace-making for the first time. But its impact was dwarfed by the dawn of steam-powered machinery. Suddenly, huge machines could create lace at scale.

And so, Nottingham became known for producing not only lace, but the heavy machinery required to create it.

Emerging markets in France, Germany, the USA and South America saw a surge in demand for the city’s manufacturing expertise.

Not everyone was happy about the emergence of machinery. The Luddite riots began in 1811 in Nottinghamshire, and soon spread to neighbouring counties. They were led by handicraftsmen upset at their livelihoods being threatened.

Beauty born of hardship

Lace was a status symbol for society’s well-to-do. But the work that went into creating it could be punishing and very poorly-paid, and left many workers with long-term health problems. 

One of the most common ailments people suffered was poor eyesight. Sitting in dimly-lit factories finishing garments by hand meant many workers — often women — found their vision failing, at a time before eyeglasses were widely available. 

Another effect factory workers suffered was curvature of the spine, due to the long hours and poor posture their work required. 

A warehouse room full of women work on finishing lace garments and drapery. At the bottom of the photo are the words 'Finishing Department'.

Most lace joiners – or 'finishers' – were female. Source: Picture Nottingham

Reading recommendations from

Nottingham Local Studies 

Want to learn more about Nottingham’s fascinating history of lace? Lisa Hopwood, a Local Studies Specialist Advisor for Nottingham City Libraries, provides a shortlist of books for you explore.

Lisa’s lace reading list

  • Felkin’s History of the Machine-wrought Hosiery and Lace Manufactures

    William Felkin

    1967

    Long considered the ‘go-to’ book for anyone wanting a complete history of the lace and textile industry in Nottingham during the 19th century.

  • Employment of Children

    Children’s Employment Commission 1842

    An interesting though grim read for anyone wanting to know more about the social history of the lace industry.

  • Century of Achievement 1849-1949: The Simon May Story

    Simon, May & Co. Limited

    1949

    One of Nottingham’s lace companies reflects on its centenary in business, during which the city’s lace became popular worldwide.