Monday, 13 November 2017

Honiton lace

In mid-September, at the start of my West Country holiday, I was in south-east Devon, and one day I spent a couple of hours in Honiton, a place I usually ignore. It's a proper town, with decent shops and things of interest; but personally, given a choice between (say) Sidmouth and Honiton, Sidmouth will win hands down.

Still, it doesn't pay to have fixed ideas on what places have to offer, as they do change as time goes by, often for the better. Or, if one visited them before in company, then going back there alone and being free to wander about according to one's own inclination and whims might make all the difference.

Well, I won't say that this visit to Honiton transformed my opinion of the place, but I did at least discover the town's Museum. This post is about what I found inside.

Honiton Museum has the usual local history stuff, with nods towards all the local trades and industries of times past. But the principal exhibition - and it really is something to make a fuss about - concerns the lace-making that used to make the town famous. I didn't know a lot about lace. This then was a chance to see some of the best ever produced in this country.

It had an entire lower floor all to itself, filled with glass display cabinets. It paid to take it all slowly, and read every explanatory note. It was fascinating.

We'll get to that eye-catching scarlet nightdress in a moment. First, three pictures that reveal the best and worst of lace-making, and how competition from modern factories impacted on the quality of the hand-made product.

As always, click on these pictures to enlarge them. Example 1 was the best. Example 7 the worst. You can imagine the poor harrassed lady who made the '7' handkerchief rushing against the clock, and probably having to work on into the night, in bad light. High-grade lacemaking would have been an exacting occupation, hard on the fingers and hard on the eyes, and definitely not something you could hurry, however skillful and nimble the hands. Hand-production, even if well-organised, was still a cottage industry, and hopelessly slow compared with what machines could do. It may have remained true that the finest, most desirable lace - lace fit for a queen indeed - was always hand-made lace, but machine-made lace nearly killed off the Honiton product. 

Still, it survived as a luxury item with a great reputation. And when Mrs Wallis Simpson (the American lady who married the abdicated King Edward VIII in the late 1930s) wanted to embellish a scarlet nightdress, it had to be with Honiton lace. Here's the stunning result. The note explains why wearing such clothing was so important to her.

It must have taken Edward's breath away, every time he saw her in that particular garment. He'd never finish his cocoa on those nights.

Nearby was a light blue dress from Regency times. Its outer layer was a fine net of lace, beautifully decorated with little leaves and flowers.

Exquisitely done. And read how long it must have taken!

That's right: eight hours of eyesight-destroying labour to produce just that tiny piece of net in the centre of the picture.

In Victorian times, lace was still very much in vogue, at least for those who could afford to dress well. Another exhibit was a relic of the days when strict mourning rules applied, rules made fashionable (in fact obligatory) by the example of Queen Victoria herself after Prince Albert died. The note suggests the garment here was one that might be worn in the third year after the husband's death. A prim but expensive dress, covered in black lace, complete with a black lace shawl and a black lace head-covering. Presumably the necklace was made of jet from Whitby.

If not in mourning, then cream-coloured lace might be worn, such as this cap, shawl and flounce from around 1860. Their design is elaborate, and the ensemble must have been a costly purchase, to be worn proudly.

I was glad I saw all this. Lace-making, if done as well as this, was clearly an art. I am always envious of anyone who can make such beautiful things. My Mum might have managed some of the simpler items, as she was very good at needlework, knitting, crocheting and anything similar. Her daughter has of course inherited none of her creativity or skill. 

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