Basics of Bobbin Lace
by Kris | 8 responses | 9 minute read
Bobbin lace can be incredibly beautiful, but it’s equally intimidating. Tiny threads, specialized materials and patterns that just look like grids and dots are fairly unwelcoming, and clear documentation can be hard to find.
Bobbin lace is basically an elaborate braid and/or weaving pattern worked around carefully placed pins to form holes. If you’ve managed to learn how to knit, crochet, knot friendship bracelets or do any sort of seed bead work you’ll definitely be able to make bobbin lace.
Lace making started in Italy in the 1500s. As it spread through Europe and became more popular it also became a way for women to earn a better income than many other handcrafts.
When hand lace-making was a major industry it was common for girls to start going to a lace-making school at about 5 years old and focus completely on lace until graduating at about 16 years old after making a “senior project” of sorts that included about 1000 bobbins. Don’t feel bad if it takes an afternoon or two to catch on.
Hand lace making was eventually replaced by machine made lace. You can find books of old lace patterns, but I’m not focusing on those patterns at this point. The reason is simple – those books were around when companies started manufacturing the polyester lace that now fills every craft store trim department. I don’t see the point in making that stuff by hand. If you’re going to put in this much effort it should look like you made something special.
I tried to make the process very clear, but the most important thing is that whatever you do, you do it consistently through the whole piece of lace.
Supplies and Equipment:
Especially when starting out, natural fibers are the best choice. I love cotton crochet thread (size #30) the most. Natural fibers will set into the shape you want them to more easily than synthetics. Once you get comfortable with the techniques involved you can start experimenting with other things.
Lace tends to give you a lot of surface area as compared to the materials used. That makes it a great place to use more lush, expensive materials like silk. I bought a 500 yard skein of #30 white cotton for $2.89US and I estimate that I can work about 6 square feet of lace mesh from it. That’s enough for a 2×3 foot piece (like a bridal veil) or trim on multiple garments.
If you want to dye your lace it’s best to dye the thread before weaving. Dying can shrink fibers, and it would be abusive to the delicate weaving you’ve just finished. If you want to paint it or use anything that might stiffen the thread, though, leave that for afterward it’s woven.
I’ve found thinner threads make a better looking lace than thicker threads, overall.
Bobbins vs Clothes Pins
Bobbins are (quite obviously) used to make bobbin lace. Bobbins are an investment that I didn’t want to make when just starting out. A simple piece of lace can take 24 bobbins and they’re around $10US each on etsy. So, I came up with an alternative.
An ordinary clothes pin make a great bobbin. It’s easy to keep the extra thread wrapped into the jaws of the clothes pin and to open it to unwrap a bit more thread whenever you need it. Clothespins are also super cheap where I’m at, so I’m into that part of the project for about $4.
The downside to using clothes pins is that you can’t pick up pairs to manipulate them way you can with normal bobbins. When starting out this isn’t really a problem, it’s a bit of an advantage that the bobbins can’t roll at first. As soon as I come up with something I like as a more traditional bobbin I’ll update this post with it!
I’m using ordinary sewing pins for my lace – they’re technically labeled “satin pins” (which I have because they’re thinner and less likely to snag delicate fabrics.) I would never consider starting any sort of lace project without at least 200 pins on hand, the more the better.
Cork Tiles and Pillows
Traditional lace makers use a specially designed pillow for lace making. I make a lot of stuff and generally try not to collect any more equipment than I have to. I’m already a great devotee of using cork tiles for all sorts of things, and this is no exception. I especially like them because when working a linear lace I can work the length of a tile, then add another tile at the edge and keep working seamlessly.
Pillows do offer the option of using gravity to help with the tension, so if you’re using my method you’ll need to be extra careful to regularly pull on the bobbins lightly to prevent loops of thread in the pattern.
The patterns used in lace are traditionally called “prickings.” This is because you prick them with pins, and those pin pricks can be used to duplicate the patterns, which was more valuable before the advent of home computer printers.
As much as possible I’m creating patterns based on a consistent grid so that different elements can be pieced together to make custom patterns.
Cores or Tubes
A small cardboard core or tube can be useful for wrapping up lace on. This can either be while you’re working on a long linear piece, or for storage of finished lace waiting to be used. Avoid folding or creasing the lace because it can be hard to un-crease it later.
Finished lace can be left as is or finished in a variety of ways.
When the lace is still pinned at the edges I like to go over it with a hair dryer to heat it up and set it in place.
If ironing, use pressing sheets above and below the lace. Don’t drag the iron, press it down and lift it up. It’s best to avoid ironing lace that’s not sewn down if possible.
You can use a spray starch to make lace more rigid.
You can carefully apply fray check, clear fabric medium or fabric paint (the stays-flexible kind that’s a little diluted is best.) This will really lock the lace in place. Do this with the lace on waxed paper and be careful to gently dab the paint on with a brush or sponge instead of brushing across it. You can achieve a lacquered lace effect in this way as well.
Preparing the Bobbins
Lace is generally made with pairs of bobbins. Each thread has two bobbins attached to it, and you usually start working from the center of the thread.
If a pattern has 24 ends, so you’ll need to cut 12 pieces that are twice the length you need.
Cut the strands.
Fold each strand in half, and tie a slipknot to hold the halfway point.
Start wrapping a clothespin at one end, and wrap as much thread onto it as you can. You may want to use a slipknot at the end of each strand to tie around one side of the clothespin.
Wrap another clothespin from the other end, and use the spring action to adjust the two pins to be as close to equidistant from the slipknot at possible. This is mostly important for starting off well.
Repeat this with all of your strands.
Running Out of Pins or Pattern
Eventually you’ll run out of pins. When that happens, start pulling pins from the beginning of the pattern. Don’t pull the pins on the outer edges, just the pins in the center (as in the photo.) The outer edge pins protect the lace from being disrupted as you work below it. If you make your lace long enough you’ll eventually have to pull all of them, but put it off for as long as possible.When removing pins do it one at a time and pull straight up.
If you run out of pattern before the lace is as long as you want it to be just add another piece of paper pattern to the end. This pattern is designed to fit together seamlessly.
Add more cork tiles at the edge of these to continue the pattern onto.
Keep working until you reach the length you want.
One option for finishing your piece is to work to the end of my length and simply tie off pairs of bobbins with square knots.
You could use overhand knots and leave fringe or finish this in whatever way you want.
If you’re applying a finish of some sort to the lace leave the fringe until the finish is in place and then trim them off if you so desire.
Don’t unpin the lace until the bobbins are cut (the weight can distort the lace if they’re attached when you pick it up.)
Carefully unpin the lace. Work from the start to the finish, and be careful to pull the pins very vertically.