via the Higgs Family Website
Pictured above is Miss Annie Baker’s Lace School, Risely, in 1914. The school was established in 1906, but it was among the last of a dying breed by that point. The large scale handmade lace industry was already well on its way out, between changing fashions and the common availability of machine made laces.
But lace schools had been a part of the British landscape for a more than a century at this point. These schools dotted the landscape and were a major source of education for children of the poorer classes. And yes, boys went to lace schools, too.
Sure, the girls were more likely to make a lifetime career of what they learned in the lace schools, but boys went there, too, and became professional lacemakers at the same age.
Children as young as four might be sent to learn how to make lace (though five was a more common age to start), and start making money at it (for the school, at least) by seven. Some of these schools also taught basic reading and writing and simple arithmetic. There might even be a bit of religious instruction, too. Beyond that, though, it was all lace all the time. And there were plenty of schools that didn’t teach anything other than how to make lace. The youngest children whose lace wasn’t for sale yet had to pay for tuition, and the older children had their tuition taken out of their wages.
Discipline could be harsh. A child who was considered slow might have her face rubbed into the pins on her pillow, and many children were beaten for inaccurate, slow, or dirty work, or for defiance of the teacher. Or, indeed, for any reason the teacher might see fit. After all, there was no regulation of the schools. Each one had its own rules, and how reasonable those rules were was determined by the teacher.
Add to that crowded conditions, dim light, and no fire for fear of the smoke staining the lace, and you have a profoundly uncomfortable situation. Here is how Mrs. Bury Palliser described conditions in her 1902 study A History of Lace:
“In the evenings eighteen girls worked by one tallow candle, value one penny; the ‘candle-stool’ stood about as high as an ordinary table with four legs. In the middle of this was what was known as the ‘pole-board’, with six holes in a circle and one in the centre. In the centre hole was a long stick with a socket for the candle at one end and peg-holes through the sides, so that it could be raised or lowered at will. In the other six holes were placed pieces of wood hollowed out like a cup, and into each of these was placed a bottle made of very thin glass and filled with water. These bottles acted as strong condensers or lenses, and the eighteen girls sat round the table, three to each bottle, their stools being upon different levels, the highest nearest the bottle, which threw the light down upon the work like a burning-glass. In the day-time as many as thirty girls, and sometimes boys, would work in a room about twelve feet square, with two windows, and in the winter they could have no fire for lack of room.” The makers of the best laces would sit nearest the light, and so on in order of merit.
Imagine trying to share one light source with seventeen other people in a tiny, cold room in winter!
What’s more, the hours were grueling. It was common for the children to arrive at six in the morning and go home again at six in the evening with breaks only for sparse meals. Saturday was often just a half day. Sundays were the only day these children got off of school and work… and most of them spent much of that day in church.
When you realize all this, it’s not a surprise that blindness, tuberculosis, malnutrition, and a host of other ailments plagued lacemakers from a sadly early age. Oh, yes, and led poisoning. After all, grubby lace wouldn’t fetch much money from the lace merchants the teachers sold the school’s work to. That meant that any lace that had become discolored needed to be whitened. The most common way to do with was with white led powder.
All in all, I’m quite glad that today’s lace classes are purely voluntary, and usually held in nice halls or comfortable middle class kitchens.
via House of Bickert
But there’s still nothing quite like the face of a small child learning how to make something pretty with her own two hands.