Honiton is the place for lace
PUBLISHED: 16:07 04 July 2016 | UPDATED: 16:07 04 July 2016
Lace maker Carol McFadzean tells Claire Frances what fascinates her about the historic craft and its links to Honiton
WHEN YOU think of royalty you probably don’t think of Honiton lace, or perhaps you do. You may or may not know that Princess Victoria first wore the original christening robe, which was made of Honiton lace, in 1841. Or that Queen Victoria, all her daughters, Queen Mary and Queen Alexandra, were all married in Honiton lace.
To make a square inch of this intricate lace takes roughly eight hours. Entire families would sit in their cottages, pillows on laps, threads, and bobbins in hands, quietly working through the night to finish in time for trading the next morning in return for breakfast. Perhaps a fascinating thing about Honiton lace is its connection with the rich and the poor, and how the two worked together to produce something quite unique, treasured by the hands that made it and adored by those who could afford to wear it.
Today, Honiton lace continues to capture the hearts of everyone who encounters it, with no divide of wealth, or lack of – just a shared love and appreciation of the beautiful lace and its craft. It is a pastime enjoyed by lace makers across the country, but for one woman, in particular, it will always be much more than just a hobby.
Carol McFadzean, who has written three books on the social history of dressmaking, has been perfecting the craft for 31 years.
“As soon as I touched the bobbins that was it. I liked the rhythm of moving them and the logic of how it all comes together. Quite a lot of people who are mathematically minded get into lacemaking, but for me, I loved everything about it; I just couldn’t get enough.”
Carol started lacemaking in 1985 and her own colourful lace has been exhibited across Devon and overseas, the 68-year old from Exeter is also the chair of the Devon Lace Teachers. “There are vastly different types of lace both in this country and on the continent, but in the Devon area, everyone knows Honiton lace,” says Carol.
Known as the Queen of English lace because it is so fine and takes so long to make, Honiton lace was, and still is, a favourite when it comes to royal attire.
“Honiton lace was ordered by Queen Victoria for weddings and for her daughters to wear, it really was a very special lace to have. It is so unique in the way it can be put together, and very expensive.”
So much so that Queen Victoria was dressed in Honiton lace while her open coffin was on display. It was also believed that Prince George was christened in Honiton Lace, although Carol is not so sure.
“I think he actually wore the replica-christening robe, which was made by the Queens’ dressmaker, Angela Kelly. It wasn’t made of Honiton Lace, they used a machine lace that looks like Honiton Lace – it’s made in exactly the same style. It was beautifully done.”
Honiton lace got its name because of the high number of lace makers recorded in the town in the late 1600s. It was made by the poorest of the poor and bought by the wealthy, who wanted it so badly they would sell parts of their estates to buy the latest in lace. Dealers would put what was known as the Honiton boxes on the stage coaches to travel to Bath and London, where buyers would be eagerly waiting because the content was so valuable.
Honiton lace was an extremely expensive commodity, but behind the scenes painted a very different way of life.
“They were lacemaking in not particularly clean houses so they had to be really careful not to dirty the lace,” says Carol. “They used to put white chalk on their hands to keep it clean. There were various recipes to wash the lace; one was to use black soap. They’d also wash it in tepid water and put it out in the sun to bleach. People would often steal it off hedgerows – there were quite a lot of people deported for stealing lace.”
In the 1600s, young Devon girls would be apprenticed to lace makers if they were orphaned or their mothers couldn’t afford to keep them, during which time they would perfect the art and mystery of lacemaking.
“When you were a lace maker you would have one or two patterns that you would make depending on how clever you were. Any piece of lace was not one person’s work; there could be 30 people who contributed to a collar.”
For Carol, lacemaking has become a way of life. “When you’ve got the bobbins and the pins in your hands and you’re constructing something, it’s just magic.”
To learn more about the craft of lace-making and to give it a try, visit: devonlaceteachers.co.uk
Honiton Lace Fact File:
Honiton lace is made with bobbins and very fine thread
Each Honiton motif is built up using individually worked leaves, petals, shapes, and braids
When machine-made net was invented in the 19th century, Honiton motifs were applied to make veils and other items.
Honiton lace comes in colours
There are six others types of lace in Devon but Honiton lace is the most unique
In 1949, Devon Lace Teachers was born. They are the only group of this kind within the UK.
Allhallows Museum has the best Honiton lace to view.