BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK, Derbyshire

This is one of a series of articles published in The Peak Advertiser, the Peak District's local free newspaper, on 14th February 2000 (p.1 & p.9), and reproduced by kind permission of its author, Julie Bunting.

The series is now available as a fully-illustrated paperback, published in 2006 by Wildtrack Publishing of Sheffield (ISBN 1-904098-01-0)

BYGONE INDUSTRIES OF THE PEAK: LACE MAKING

Lace making was unknown in England until introduced by Flemish and French immigrants in the late 16th century, yet by 1662 import restrictions had been introduced to protect this fledgling industry.

Making lace by hand utilised narrow bobbins wound with threads, kept taut to produce a pattern previously pricked out on a tightly stuffed pillow. Bobbins were commonly made from bone or wood. The intricate lace-making work lent itself mainly to women and children, working in their own homes for dealers who sold them the cotton thread and patterns, returning to buy the finished pieces. Pay was poor but girls as young as eight often worked ten-hour days. Yet by the time it reached the customer, hand-made lace was expensive and beyond the means of all but the most fashionable. Nevertheless, there was great demand from the home market and a considerable export trade to America, at least until the War of Independence.

Change came at end of the 18th century with attempts to mechanise the manufacture of lace-net. Parallels were drawn with the way the hosiery industry had been revolutionised by the stocking-frame and in 1808 John Heathcoat of Duffield finally patented the bobbin-net machine, using a twisted thread of cotton to produce a lace comparative to the hand-made product. The water-powered machinery was well suited to the factory system, though attacks by Luddites prompted Heathcoat to move his own factory from Loughborough to Tiverton. However, one of his two partners established a successful factory at Derby which operated until 1958.

The change from water power to steam power resulted in machines up to 40 ft long, determining the design of long, multi-storey factories. It took manual strength to operate factory machinery and the work mainly devolved to men, with women and children responsible for keeping them supplied with thread and pressing the finished fabric. Machine-made lace quickly found favour around the Midlands, especially at Nottingham, traditionally the centre of hand-made lace. Boosted by an invention which enabled patterns to be created, the industry expanded rapidly and workers were numbered in their thousands. With lace now being made by the length, an ever-growing demand for net curtaining accounted for a high proportion of output. A few individual enterprises were set up outside the major lace making centres; in 1840 two Chesterfield men received a patent for 'Improvements in the machinery used in manufacturing bobbin-net or lace'. Six years later an inventor/manufacturer named John Walker Waterhouse was presented with a silver medal by the Prince Consort for his 'Great lace-working machine at Chesterfield by which the finest Mechlin lace is produced'. His wonderful machine performed almost a quarter of a million movements to produce a fine patterned lace, chosen by Queen Victoria to make Christening gowns for two of the royal princesses.

Meanwhile a lace factory was in operation on the river Bradford at Middleton near Youlgreave, almost certainly having a connection with a bobbin mill in the same area. The occupation of lace maker appears on census records of the mid-19th century. In fact Middleton women had been making lace by hand for several generations but the number of home workers fell with the introduction of machinery. Some Account of Youlgreave, Middleton and Alport (1931) states: 'The lace was made in silk and cotton; in black, white and cream; in two qualities, the very fine and coarse; this was made on a specially made frame. The chief articles concerned were: Parasols, shawls, jackets, and narrow lace. An average wage of about 10/- to 12/- a week could be made, fine lace-making more than coarse. A parasol would make 6/-. One lace-maker of that period, being a skilled worker of fine lace, entered in a Paris Exhibition and won a first prize of 2/-, whereas her sister gained something higher, winning a special prize - that being a lace collar.'

Although nothing remains of Middleton lace mill itself, the dam is still identifiable at the southern end of the Bradford, skirted by a public footpath. Documentary evidence of a lace mill at Two Dales is sparse but reminiscences of the late Mrs. Linda Slack, a native of the village, revealed that lace was formerly made at the Ladygrove mill now used by S. & E. Johnson Ltd. For some ninety years prior to 1882 this had been a flax mill so any change of use must have been after that date. Mrs. Slack's grandmother was one of a hundred employees, some making lace but others turning out items such as fur gloves, for which rabbit skins were bought in. Both ventures were short-lived and lace making in the Peak soon ended altogether, although fine cotton lace thread continued to be manufactured at Edale Mills. The art of bobbin lace, however, has been kept alive by a few enthusiasts whose beautiful, intricate work always fascinates visitors to the region's Craft Fairs.

© Julie Bunting
From "The Peak Advertiser", 14th February 2000.

Articles by Julie Bunting are reproduced with her kind permission.

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