Category Archives: thinking

thoughts on seeing a piece of antique lace

I think I’ve mentioned somewhere that I’m a hand spinner. I use my hands and various tools such as spindles and spinning wheels to make what I’ll loosely term ‘yarn’  from loose fibres by twisting them together. It’s an ancient skill. Yarn and the cloth made from it doesn’t usually survive to be dated (it rots, especially the early yarns made from plant materials), but sometimes the impressions of texture and pattern made by cloth and string in mud or soft soil do survive. Fragments of clay found in the Czech Republic show the pattern of cloth thought to have been woven 27,000 years ago. Some of the ‘Venus’ figures found in Europe dating from 20,000 BC have carefully carved string skirts, some so detailed that they show the skirt string is plied. Left dangling loose, a single strand of twisted fibre rapidly untwists to become loose fibre. Only if two strands – known as singles – are plied, twisted together in the opposite direction, will the dangling string remain string. Given the skills demonstrated by the things that have survived, it’s been suggested that people – probably women, as men are traditionally hunters – have been spinning fibre into string/yarn for over 40,000 years.

That’s a long time.

That’s many, many generations of my female ancestors. Only for the last 300 or so of those 40,000 years have women not needed to spin, at least in western Europe, where I come from. I am descended from a long line of women who could spin, and spin well, because the yarn they spun was needed to cloth their families, to be sold for money to pay the rent or feed their families. In the early days the string they made would have been knotted into nets to catch fish and birds. If my ancestors hadn’t been good, productive spinners, they and their children wouldn’t have survived. I wouldn’t be here.

So, as I’m spinning, I think of my ancestors, spinning. I didn’t gain my skill directly from their hands – my mentors passed on their own skills from their hands to mine – but my hands are doing the same things, going through the same motions, as those of my ancestors. Spinning unites us, hand to hand, across nearly 40,000 years.

Lynn, I search out antique handspun textiles because handling those textiles, learning new skills by examining them, is a direct link with the people who made them. For me, it’s all about the people, not the finished piece. I don’t care if something is tattered, too badly damaged for a ‘serious collector’: the ragged edges and loose threads mean I can see how it was made, whether the yarns are plied or singles, estimate their grist. I can extract individual fibres (of wool) to estimate staple length and fineness of fleece. Knowing these things I can try to replicate the yarn. Spinning it, I remember with respect the person who spun the original.

AlençonLace

So. Here is a piece of linen lace in the style of Alençon, in northern France, dated by style and condition to the 18th century (1701–1799). Pre-Industrial Revolution, there’s no doubt the thread used for this was handspun and, for lace, of the finest quality at the time. Because in this condition it is of no value to a collector 48″ of this cost £5, but to me it’s beyond valuation. It’s 48″ of people’s lives: the skills of the flax grower, the processors, the spinners, the lacemakers.

AlençonLace2

Detail of the lace magnified 20x. The lens circle is 1cm in diameter.

 

AlençonLace1

The damage allows me to examine the individual strands of yarn more closely.

AlençonLace3

Above, a damaged area magnified 20x, showing what seems to be a single thread.

Below, the same area magnified 80x. 

AlençonLace4

The lustre of the individual threads and the ‘hand’ of the fabric, even after more than 200 years, suggests this is linen. I am awestruck by the fineness of the fibres in the yarn: having done some flax processing myself (this link shows the basic principles), I have some idea of just how tricky it would be to get fibres this fine. Having spun flax, I have some idea of what it takes to spin this fine. At this point I’m not even sure whether this is plied or a singles yarn. I did find a description of the spinning process in Cassell’s Illustrated Family Paper, Vol. 4 1865 on Google Books:

“Why, the flax of which the old Brussels and the point d’Alençon were made, was cultivated on purpose; it was chiefly grown in Brabant, Halle, and Courtrai, and had to be spun in underground cellars, because contact with external air made the thread brittle. The thread was so fine as almost to elude the sight; the spinner had to go by the sense of touch, examining every inch as it left the distaff, and at the slightest irregularity stopping the wheel. The room was kept in darkness, except for one single ray of light arranged to fall on the thread, which was thrown up by a background of dark paper … “No wonder,” said Goody, “that fine lace is so costly; why, I have read lately, that at the present moment, hand-spun thread is often sold at £240 sterling for one pound only.”

MeasuringWorth says £240 in 1865 would be between £20,690 and £471,100 in 2015 pounds. I am stunned.

I hold the lace and I respect the people who made it. I remember with respect the people who, generation upon generation, developed the skill to make things like this. They may not be my personal ancestors, but without them we wouldn’t be here.

All that from a piece of old lace.

Fridays are for fixing.

Some time ago someone started a ‘Fridays are for Fixing’ thread in one of my Ravelry hangouts. It seemed a good idea – I have lots of fibre-ish things that need repairing – but I couldn’t bring myself to commit to the work. Last Friday evening found me sitting on the couch happily fixing something I love; I’d had a tiny lightbulb moment I’d like to share.

tabiOn

These are my tabi. Japanese sock/slippers, with a gap between the big toe and the rest so the owner can comfortably wear zori, which resemble UK flip-flops or what I called thongs in my Canadian childhood. It’s perfectly possible to ram feet wearing ordinary socks into a pair of flip-flops, but it’s very unkind to the socks. I like tabi. They’re comfortable.

tabiSide

The ankle opening is closed by interesting fasteners, faster than buttons: metal tabs that neatly slide over and behind threads, like hooks and eyes, but larger and very much more … Japanese. Elegant.

tabiFasten

Sadly I haven’t been wearing my tabi because they’re broken: they weren’t very well made and the snug fit that makes them comfortable and safe to wear has pulled the material of the sole out of its seam in several places on both.

tabiDamge

They’ve been sitting in the bag of things to do for almost a year because I was intimidated by the damage. I felt it should be repaired to be ‘as good as new’, and I couldn’t think of a good way to do that; there’s simply not enough fabric to mend that seam. I could handstitch entirely new soles, but for the work involved I might as well buy a new pair. Or make my own, which is on my short list of projects, but I’m waiting until I have some special fabric for that. Last week the solution became instantly obvious as I cut up an old pair of my husband’s trousers for scrap fabric to test slipper patterns, stacking the pieces next to my sashiko project bag. Sashiko is the Japanese art – it IS art – of repairing, reinforcing and embellishing fabric with simple stitches. I’m fascinated by it, and by boro, the textiles (usually indigo-dyed ‘country cloths’) that have been patched and mended using these stitches. Personal revelation: I didn’t have to make my tabi as good as new. I just had to make them function as they should. I didn’t have to use indigo cotton and white thread, I could use whatever I had, which is true to the tradition of clothing repair. What I have is pieces of trouser leg and a box of embroidery threads, some of which are over 40 years old.

EmbThread

RepairDet

I tested the patches before I started and no, I can’t feel that overlap. The repair might not last a long time – the embroidery thread is probably a bit too fragile – but it should last long enough for me to make my own slippers.

I’m not a seamstress. I’ve done my best to avoid sewing for most of my life. But I’m beginning to enjoy it as part of the process of bringing real things into existence. I hope I’ll get better at it. I think I will.

RepairInSide

After all, practice makes perfect and I’ll get more practice now that I know perfection is not the goal. Fridays are indeed for fixing.