Object lesson No 34 Nottingham lace

13th October 2000 at 01:00
DH Lawrence had a thing about stockings. In an early draft of Sons and Lovers, the hero, Paul Morel, secretly slithers into a pair that belong to his girlfriend. The scene did not make it into print - perhaps it was just too close to home for a Nottingham lad, even the one who went on to write Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Nottingham had manufactured stockings ever since a local man, the Reverend William Lee, invented the knitting machine. What turned the Reverend from prayer to pantyhose is uncertain, but he died down-at-heel in France in 1610. Elizabeth I had refused him a patent, fearing a run on the profits of hand-knitters.

Lee's technology proved to have legs, and in 1786 a descendant of his invention produced the first machine-made, or Nottingham, lace. The nobs loved the new net, and to prove it Princess Charlotte got married in knitted silk in 1816.

It was a long time before the machines caught up with two eyes and 10 fingers. But by 1808 they were producing 1,000 "meshes" a minute while a poor lacemaker would be straining to do five. Still, the result was only plain or slightly patterned net and thousands of women had to embroider on the decoratio.

These "lace-runners" ran out of luck in 1841, when Joseph Wragg worked out how to outline patterns on the net automatically. This coincided with primitive computer-type programming using hole-punched cards. Soon the fanciest of fancy lace was within the grubby grasp of the middle classes - and their servants. Nottingham's lace market, with its 130 steam-driven factories, had become the heart of the world's lace industry.

This success threatened to unravel with the First World War. As the bloodstains spread, people felt revolted by frills and frivolity. But humanity did not let conscience rule its wardrobe for long. The lace industry revived in a world inspired by Hollywood starlets draped in satin, false silks and nylon. Amazingly, 100-year-old machines could work with the new fibres - and some are still operating today.

Lace has become easy-care, machine-washable, minimum-iron, of any colour and design you like. You can still wear it to your wedding, but now you can wear it to the disco afterwards. So go on, grab your mother's lace tablecloth and cut a dash down the club tonight. Princess Charlotte would understand.

Stephanie Northen


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