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Beautiful Program on “Beautiful Lace”

Tim and Kathleen Nealeigh’s February 28 program on lace making was a delight. Kathleen introduced the subject by summarizing references to lace in Austen’s work. Lace making is one of the female accomplishments that Austen finds unproductive. Her heroines do not make lace; Lady Bertram spends nearly all her time on it. An excessive interest in lace among her characters is generally a sign of vanity or pride. Mrs. Elton is “as elegant as lace and pearls could make her,” while Emma had very little lace even in her wedding dress.

Tim exhibited four types of lace and showed how each is made, while Kathleen introduced each variety by reading a pertinent passage from Austen. Tim is accustomed to demonstrating his craft to individuals passing by his booth at fairs and exhibitions. For our group, he crafted large-scale models using rope instead of thread to demonstrate the various knots required, an extra effort which we appreciate.

Two of the lace-making techniques are simple enough to be practiced by amateurs. Knotting (or tatting), Lady Bertram’s main occupation, produces strings with knots in them, which could be used for fringes, sewed onto clothing for decoration, or constructed into larger designs. Netting, enumerated in Pride and Prejudice among the arts of the accomplished lady, can produce purses, mitts, or collars, some of them very lovely.

The other two types of lace Tim discussed, needle lace and bobbin lace, require a professional hand. They would be worn, but not created by, the wealthier Austen characters. Needle lace progresses at about an inch a week. Lace makers worked in unheated rooms so that smoke would not soil the lace, often in damp cellars to keep the thread pliant, with special lamps— globes of water surrounding a candle—to illuminate their work. It is no wonder that lace was enormously expensive, and heavily taxed and regulated.

Washing lace was also very difficult. Ladies kept their lace in cornmeal to absorb any grease and had it washed only every couple years. To dry a piece of netting, it was necessary to pin every loop, a job that could take all day for a large piece.

Tim, obviously a man of great patience, is adept at all these types of lace making. He was a French teacher for 38 years (hence his persona “The Arrogant Frenchman”), and he fell in love with lace in Brussels, on his first field trip with a class to the continent.

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