Basics of Bobbin Lace

by Kris | 10 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.

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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:

Thread

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!

 

Pins

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.

 

Paper Patterns

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.

 

Finishing Methods

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.

 

Setting Up:

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.

 

Ending Off

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.

Kris

About Kris

I use Twitter, I have a personal blog/portfolio, and I've recently started using Instagram, mostly for inspiration images and upcoming HDYMT projects.

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Forums Basics of Bobbin Lace

This topic contains 10 replies, has 2 voices, and was last updated by  Ine 4 weeks, 1 day ago.

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  • #15635 Reply

    Ine

    WOW!!!
    That was amazing!!!

  • #15636 Reply

    Renelle Legos

    It’s so weird that you posted this! I just started teaching myself how to make bobbin lace and I did come up with a cheap replacement for bobbins that work just as well and they actually look incredibly similar to actual bobbins. I think I paid 89 cents to make two instead of the much higher prices. I’m going to write a post on my tumblr about it soon. If you want me to let you know when it’s up, I’ll be glad to!

  • #15637 Reply

    RLD

    Honestly the Lacis beginners kit is worth the $30 on Amazon. You not only get a self healing foam “pillow” to pin into you get bobbins that are great for learning and that I’ve found perfect for heavier thread laces.

    There are a number of beginner bobbin alternatives. There’s a way with beads and kabob sticks, but basic pencils are great. The eraser and the hitch keep the thread from moving. I’ve also seen popsicle sticks. Here is my concern as a lace maker and teacher. These alternatives “work”, however, making the lace is more than the thread weaving. A HUGE part of it is the tension which the bobbins provide. Also building up muscle memory/hand movement. Many of the “real” bobbins you find are a certain style for a reason; they are for making a certain type of lace with a certain type of thread.

    If you decide to pursue this hobby I recommend getting a nice pillow and bobbins – spangled midlands or square continentals – they work with most all lace styles. Like all things good equipment make a difference. Also, check out the International Organization of Lace for a local lace group and teacher…we do it for free.

  • #15638 Reply

    Mandy

    Been a lacemaker for years I can direct you to amazon where you can purchase 2 dozen bobbins for 14.95. Your clothes pins will not suffice when sewings are needed. Not to mention the lacemakers knot used on the bobbins help to keep hands off the thread. This is not possible with the use of clothes pins.
    You beginner pieces look nice however.

    The mess from Lacis is known among lacers as the pillow from hades. You can purchase pillows from vansciver bobbins, snow goose or just use housing insulation and cover with 100 percent cotton. We do this for people coming into lace as a newcomer. It’s inexpensive and efficient.

  • #15639 Reply

    Mandy

    Ps. Insulation board. You can get several pillows from a board. Sorry

  • #15640 Reply

    Mini Monster

    i’m sorry, am i being really stupid here (not a first) but i cant seem to find the bit which actually tells you how to wrap the thread around the pins? again, just might be being stupid but… i just can’t find it!

  • #15641 Reply

    izzy

    I can’t find it either!

  • #15642 Reply

    Ada

    I’m with you on not wanting to spend any money – not even $15 – until giving it a go. I’m trying to figure out what I have around the house that I can use to see how I go.

  • #15643 Reply

    Rowan

    What about using pencils and nails or pins? You could get several out of a full sized pencil or use those kid sets of short colored pencils. Place a suitable sized nail or pin in the lead, a drip of glue to hold it in place, and a layer or two of clear polish over the sharpened point so you don’t get any marks on your clothes/lace/whatever. If getting several from a pencil with eraser, make sure the eraser end is the bottom of the bobbin.

  • #15644 Reply

    SJ

    I spent 0$. I used long bolts I had in the house. They were similar to the real thing: round, heavy, and long enough I could grab. I made them matching pairs by adding a bead (also in house) to each pair. Also had in the house: crochet thread, extra sleeping pillow, and pins. Found a youtube how-to video and make-shift equipment worked pretty well. All except the pillow, folded in half, I layed the pattern 90* the wrong way but it still worked. (I do have previous macrame experience that came in handy.)

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