Anachan's Corner

One woman's journey through marriage, motherhood, and the classroom…

Lacing with Bobbins

Written By: Anachan - Aug• 23•16

In my “past life” with the SCA, I found I wanted to learn an old skill which was a little less frequently learned: bobbin lace.

To be honest, most lace made in the 1500s was not made using bobbins; it was made using needles. Needle lace is created by making a thread outline, then making a lot of buttonhole stitches on the thread. It takes a long time and a very even hand to make a nice-looking piece, and an even hand is something I have never had. (Seriously, that’s why I do better with knitting than crochet. Knitting is more “dummy-proof,” when it comes to thread tension.) I did a small piece of needle lace using oversized threads in an SCA workshop, and I honestly cannot imagine being a lady during that era laboriously stitching the delicate lace for one of those Elizabethan ruffs. (Ugh.)

But there were people in the late 1500s who used a different technique to make lace with threads wound on bobbins (wooden dowel-like implements used to hold and manipulate threads). Their work is primarily seen in edgings, on the hems of garments, circling ladies’ hats, or on the edges of those infamous ruffs.

When I started to learn, however, I didn’t pay any attention to period-appropriate lace; I just wanted to learn the basics. And for bobbin lacemakers, the basics are a type of lace called Torchon, meaning “washcloth,” a derogatory term for a durable lace people viewed as less beautiful and only useful for edging washcloths. Torchon lace is considered the simplest form of bobbin lace, more mathematical, and therefore usually the best one for people first learning to manipulate their bobbins.

My friends in the SCA didn’t care that I was making Torchon lace, which wasn’t technically period. They just knew it was handmade lace, so they loved it.

I started with this book, which had nicely color-coded sketches of how the various threads were supposed to weave together, and so which was fairly simple to follow.

Bobbin lace manual

No, it actually doesn’t come with the pattern on the cover. I tend to cover paperback books which I really want to last with frosted contact paper.

My first gift using Torchon lace was when I made a white eyelet dress for a sister’s baby daughter, edging it with a very simple “baby lace.” After that, I made many lace bookmarks, as a favor for my sister-in-law, who was about to become “queen” of our SCA “kingdom” and therefore needed tokens and such to be able to hand out in largesse baskets. (Traditional nobility actually did have to keep up the appearance of generosity, in order to maintain the loyalty of their subjects, hence, the largesse. One can imagine that there might have been those who got into financial trouble because of the requirement to appear generous . . . Actually, we don’t have to imagine much, at all. There are historical records of this happening.)

lace bookmark pink

Torchon bookmark, with lacy fans, mini-spiders, and rose ground.

lace bookmark purple

Torchon bookmark with tight fans and Scandinavian holes.

Even now, when I want to put in a little extra effort for someone, especially someone for whom I cannot bake (for one reason or other . . . maybe they are moving, or maybe they just don’t eat bread), I make lace bookmarks. But I have branched out a little . . .

A few years ago, I decided to make a couple of lace mats. I wasn’t sure why I was making them; I just wanted to do it. Now, I can use them beneath statues and such. And then there were the handkerchief edgings . . . I haven’t sewn handkerchiefs in them yet . . . but I have the edgings. I expect they will end up being gifts, too.

Lace mat

Torchon mat with half-stitch fans and spiders.

Lace edging

Torchon handkerchief edging with lacy fans and spiders.

As much fun as Torchon lace is, I have decided it is time to expand my lacing horizons a bit. There are, after all, many other kinds of bobbin lace.

My next project is to learn to make Bedfordshire lace. Bedfordshire lace is not as mathematical as Torchon, being made up primarily of plaiting, or braiding, mixed with some of the more basic lace stitches.

This summer, when my family traveled to San Diego, we attended a presentation done by a lacemaker who had restored a 19th century lace “pillow” (the surface on which bobbin lace is worked) and recreating the lace the lacemaker had been making. It turned out it was a type of Bedfordshire lace. I was inspired to go ahead and try to learn the techniques, with the idea that perhaps one day I would be able to make this historically significant piece of lace.

But first, I had to learn to plait . . . or, rather, I had to learn to plait decently.

I had attempted plaiting once before. You see, when bobbin lace first started appearing in the 1500s, it was primarily done with plaiting. I picked up a copy of a pattern book from 1559 and attempted one of the simpler patterns, and I found it was much less simple for me than Torchon lace. Deciding it wasn’t worth the effort, I shelved the book for potential use in a future project (after I had mastered Bucks Point lace–a very delicate and lacy type which I have not yet attempted) and went back to my bookmarks.

This time, I pulled out a different book from which to learn the basics of Bedfordshire.


This author is a little more difficult to follow, I think, for the brand-new lacemaker. She has good verbal explanations, but the diagrams in the Bobbin Lace Manual are invaluable when learning the first steps of Torchon.

And I’ve taken my first steps to try to learn these techniques . . .

lace plaited exercise

Plaits and picots (the little round things on the edges of the plaits). It is obvious that my plaiting is uneven and needs some serious work.

It will take a while. My next exercise is to learn to make “leaves,” which some argue to be one of the most difficult techniques in lacemaking there is . . . to do well, anyway.

Eventually, I’ll figure it out. Even if I do not end up making yardage Bedfordshire lace, it will be nice to at least know I can do it. And maybe I’ll finally have the courage to tackle Bucks Point, after that.

Note: The two books above contain all the patterns for the pieces I have shown.

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