I’ve always been fascinated by lace, its delicate nature and wealth of patterns. I used to design lingerie (for a leading High Street brand!) and I've spent years collecting fragments of the stuff at vintage fairs and charity shops. For my new collection, I needed to find a quantity of cotton lace, this time to be worn on the outside.
Knowing that Nottingham is traditionally world famous, I expected a quick Google search would conjure up a selection of worthy suppliers. To my surprise, only one true Nottingham lace manufacturer survives today, Cluny Lace of Ilkeston Nottingham.
Cluny has a rich heritage. Owned by the Mason family, now in it’s ninth generation, the factory still stands in an imposing mill in Ilkeston. It is here that the original Leavers lace machines were bought in the 1880’s, part of a thriving industry that once employed 20,000 Nottingham lace makers. Now, a smaller ‘family’, both real and adopted, continue the tradition with rare skills almost forgotten.
Leavers Lace is the closest you’ll find to handmade, made on huge 19th Century machines weighing up to 15 tons. Using finest Egyptian cotton, the yarn is twisted to emulate hand made lace. Apparently, John Heathcote, the original inventor of the machines had spent many hours observing the nimble fingers of the lacemakers as they twisted and spun the yarn by hand. Unlike modern knitted laces, the twisting creates a crunchy texture, the intricacies of the patterns clearly defined by the fineness of the thread.
When I spoke to Kate in sales, she kindly explained that no two rolls were the same, each one translating the ‘personalities’ of the machines, not always easy to work with but I was soon charmed by the knowledge that each piece had it’s own character and whimsy.
It’s an industry that literally survives by a thread. Taking seven years to train an apprentice, Cluny employs the last remaining lace crafters who have grown up in the business. With a workforce heading towards retirement, it will be challenging to find new apprentices to replace lifelong skills let alone be enticed to what is seen as as a dying industry. Ian, makes the punch cards that contain the lace ‘code’ for the patterns, he is the last man in Nottingham with that knowledge
It is interesting to note that the other famous surviving lace centre, Calais, originally imported all their machinery from Nottingham but whilst the lace industry has been government supported in France, Nottingham lace manufacturing has dwindled to near death following technological change, globalisation and the recession.
Hope and beauty
There are glimmers of hope with high end designers, such as Burberry and Paul Smith, using Cluny Lace and recreating it’s heritage into modern styles.
And, of course, Cluny were delighted to see their lace adorning Kate Middleton’s wedding dress designed by Sarah Burton.
Long live Nottingham Lace.
Visit Cluny Lace at http://www.clunylace.com