Crafty Manolo » How To Save a ‘Dying’ Craft

How To Save a ‘Dying’ Craft

By Twistie

(Illustration via Stuart King)

Mention bobbin lace, and chances are if the listener knows anything at all about it, this is what they think of: an old woman in antique clothing doing something they can’t for the life of them figure out.

A hundred years ago, that’s exactly what bobbin lace looked like, too. It was something nobody needed to do for themselves anymore, so they didn’t learn it. It was something only very poor people did, and most of them had been run out of the market by the machine laces that were so much faster and cheaper to make.

By the time I took up the craft in 1990, most people I saw at demonstrations thought it was tatting and would pontificate that it was a ‘lost art.’

In reply, I would hold up a tatting shuttle to show them the difference, and explain that bobbin lace isn’t lost at all. I found it just fine.

There are a lot of crafts that used to be quite common that aren’t usually done by hand anymore. Furniture used to be carved by hand, not bought in flat packs at IKEA. Plates, bowls, and cooking vessels were carved out of stone and wood , molded out of clay, or hammered out of red-hot metal over an anvil, not picked up in handy boxes with celebrity endorsements at the department store. If you wanted clothes, you sewed them yourself rather than hopping on the internet to find the perfect dress for your big date, then having it overnighted to your front door.

But people see more of woodcarving, pottery throwing, and sewing than they do of bobbin lace, naalbinding, blacksmithing, or the arts of the luthier. And so it is that if it’s something the majority of people haven’t actually seen someone do before, they decide it’s a ‘lost art.’ It’s a neat little package for things that are oddly quaint and unnecessary. After all, I can go down to the craft store and buy lace for less than a dollar a yard. If I want a new tea kettle, well, there’s probably a good sale going on somewhere. So really, the only reason to do it is to entertain people, isn’t it?

I hate the ‘lost art’ trope. It absolves people from having to think about it because it ceases to have any sort of relevance to day to day life. It convinces them that there’s no point in attempting to learn because it doesn’t really exist anyway, like unicorns. It’s all very well to admire pretty tapestries about unicorns and wax poetic  about the old lacemaker… but then we can simply tuck them away in a corner to gather dust and it doesn’t matter.

Because of the ‘lost art’ concept, bobbin lace very nearly did die out.

By the 1970’s, there were tiny pockets of bobbin lacemaking in the world, mostly among poor people whose ancestors had practiced it for centuries, and as a tourist attraction in Belgium.

But a few intrepid souls decided not to let the art become lost. They went forth to find it and spread the word. They sought out lacemakers and asked for instruction, haunted auctions and antique shops and dumpsters and attics for patterns and equipment… then set about figuring out how to make the equipment they needed and the patterns they wanted to make. I have books from this era. These books assume you won’t be able to find pillows and bobbins, so they tell you how to make your own. I’ve got information on how to make lace bobbins out of meat skewers and wooden beads, and even old toothbrushes! These books are written on the theory that you won’t find very fine threads or tiny brass pins, so they’re written to work with heavy threads and dressmaking pins.

By the time I took up the banner, less than twenty years later, I could buy everything I could possibly imagine needing – or wanting – to help me make lace. Instead of half a dozen mostly self-published books on the subject, there were a couple hundred, some published by fairly major companies. There were tee shirts and mugs and bobbin shaped jewelry. And yet it wasn’t a demonstration until somebody came up and announced that bobbin lace was a ‘lost art.’ I had dozens of people tell – not ask, tell –  me that I learned my craft at my grandmother’s knee. Nope. I learned it from a mail order kit. Bobbin lace is not a lost art. And if I have anything to say about it, it won’t ever be one.

If your favorite craft is one of the obscure ones people assume is lost to the mists of time, there are things you can do to promote it. There are things you can do to help keep the craft alive and vital.

You can teach what you know. Whether you show a friend one on one, make a video and post it on YouTube, write a book, or hold workshops in your own kitchen or living room, pass on your knowledge. When I took up bobbin lace, I was told that it was good form to teach three other people. That’s a good start, but why stop there?

You can demonstrate your craft at a fair. My demo partner and I showed off our craft at dozens of Highland Games and a couple Renaissance Fairs. At the Games, if we weren’t given a spot in the arts and crafts building, we would sit in our Clan tent and stitch away, answering questions. Fairs are always looking for something eye-catching and unexpected to amuse the visitors. Find one and ask how to go about getting a space.

You can wear the tee shirts and the jewelry. They’re great conversation starters.

And if anyone tells you what you’re doing is a ‘lost art’, you can always do what I do: smile, look them in the eye, and say: ‘I found it just fine.’

6 Responses to “How To Save a ‘Dying’ Craft”

  1. Sarah R Says:

    I couldn’t have said it better myself!

  2. ZaftigWendy Says:

    I do tat (though not as frequently as I knit) and I spin, and I’m frequently told that those are “lost arts.” Shucks, I’m even informed fairly regularly that KNITTING is a lost art. Knitting! The art that has been practiced continually since it was invented!

    Sure, the popularity waxes and wanes (and is waxing now, thankfully for this knitting teacher), but one’s never had to look far to find a knitter. They carry the tools in WALMART for Pete’s sakes!

    So, anyway, I’m just encouraging you to stay up on that soapbox. Shall we make a cozy for it?

  3. Libby Says:

    I’m working in a historic joiner’s shop at a museum as part of my dissertation research, and you wouldn’t believe how many people walk in, totally convinced that what they learned at their grandparent’s knee is the only way to do things! Even as we try to illustrate why what they said can’t be true, we’re still wrong.

    My second favorite lines are the “dying” skills ones. No on knows how to do this! Except the ten of us in the shop doing it, of course.

    The best line I’ve heard: “Look, there’s a woman!” Because women totally can’t handle anything other than knitting (which I also do quite frequently). Its amazing the kind of people you run into in the world.

  4. Twistie Says:

    @Sarah R: Thanks! But I’m sure you can say it quite well, too.

    @Zaftig Wendy: Oh I intend to stand on my soapbox until I fall off it… but a soapbox cosy would be absolutely delightful! I like purple.

    @Libby: I particularly used to love it when people would come up, see me, my demo partner, her adolescent daughter, and a member of the crowd trying out the ‘give it a go’ pillow all merrily lacing along, talking about going to lacemakers’ conventions, handing out lists of our favorite lace supply vendors… and then tell us ‘this is a lost art.’

    For our demos, I always did my best to make sure there was something representing men making lace, because there were guys who really did want to try, but were afraid of being thought less than manly if they tangled threads. It always confuses people when we cross gender expectations with our crafty choices. Funnily enough, I don’t remember anyone laughing at Rosy Grier when he pulled out his needlepoint! What’s more, I bet many of us could learn a lot about joinery from you.

  5. ZaftigWendy Says:

    @Twistie: Howsabout some glittery purple with fun-fur edging?

    @Libby & Twistie: My husband and I hear the gender thing a LOT. We both knit, though he’s a purely practical knitter who really just does socks. Dozens and dozens of socks. I’m more of an experimenter and designer and I do a lot of everything, the more finger-and-brain-bending, the better. We laugh because it ALWAYS happens that when we’re out knitting-in-public together, my colorful/textural/interesting/technical knitting will get barely a glance, but his plain-vanilla-nothing-special socks get TONS of attention and praise. Because obviously, knitting is SO MUCH HARDER if you have external genitalia.

  6. Twistie Says:

    @Zaftig Wendy: Purple and glittery is always best!

    Also this: “Because obviously, knitting is SO MUCH HARDER if you have external genitalia.” needs to be embroidered on a cushion.

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