Lace schools
April 17, 2010 10:43 AM   Subscribe

Lacemaking in 19th-century Britain relied heavily upon child labour. Large numbers of children attended 'lace schools' from an early age, working long hours in miserable conditions. An 1860s parliamentary report on child labour describes their world.

Harriet Wheeker of Sidbury describes a local system in which lace manufacturers keep general shops and pay workers in overpriced goods; "I wish that Government could do something to stop this: it is so cruel." Conditions are unpleasant and crowded: at one lace school, 18 children work in an 8'11" x 6'10" room; lace finishing requires working in incredibly hot rooms (with damaging effects upon the moral character of teenaged female workers, apparently). Children often begin work at five and six years old, and many of them are interviewed for the report. Elizabeth Ann Shawe, aged 12, is "wretchedly pale and ragged, and seems utterly crushed by her early work, or want, or both." Elizabeth Sanders, aged 8, when asked about Joseph and Jesus Christ, replies "No, Sir; never heard nowt of those folks." Elizabeth Crofts, aged 14, "Does not know what a mountain is; whether an eagle is a bird; or whether the sun rises in the north, south, east or west." Lucy Reed, aged 7, "Cannot read. (When asked if she knows anything in a child's book shown to her with pictures, A, B, C, &c. bursts into tears.)" Ill health is common; 12-hour days are the norm. An anonymous letter from a lacemaker describes the business as "worse than slavery in South America"; but Mr Thomas Herbert, manufacturer, believes "things are very well as they are."
posted by Catseye (15 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
This is really interesting reading. I was all set to be all "bla bla thank the unions that we don't have children working in lace factories anymore" but then read further and it looks like the industrial revolution [and to a lesser extend globalization] pretty much killed the industry before the rights issues became problematic.
The Exhibition of 1851 gave a sudden impulse to the traders, and from that period the lace industry rapidly developed. At this time was introduced the Maltese guipures and the "plaited" laces, a variety grafted on the old Maltese. Five years later appears the first specimen of the raised plait, now so thoroughly established in the market. At the time Queen Victoria's trousseau was made, in which only English lace was used, the prices paid were so enormous that men made lace in the fields. In those days the parchments on which the patterns were pricked were worth their weight in gold; many were extremely old and their owners were very jealous of others copying their patterns. But, of late years, we hear of so little store being set by these parchments that they were actually boiled down to make glue.

The decay which threatened almost total extinction of the industry belongs to the last twenty years. The contributory causes were several, chiefly the rapid development of machinery, which enabled large quantities to be sold at lower rates than the hand-workers could starve on, while the quality of the manufactured goods was good enough for the large public that required lace to last but a short time. Foreign competition, the higher wages required by all, and the many new employments opening to women took away the young people from the villages. In 1874 more than thirty young lace-women left a village of four hundred inhabitants to seek work elsewhere. The old workers gave up making good laces and supplied the popular demand with Maltese, which grew more and more inferior both in design and quality of thread, and gradually the old workers died out and no new ones took their places.
Here's a neat example of the sort of parchment pattern they're talking about. Nice post!
posted by jessamyn at 10:52 AM on April 17, 2010 [4 favorites]

and now the kids just play the gaddamnedvideogames all day long and you can't find good handmade lace for love or money. much better.
posted by sexyrobot at 11:56 AM on April 17, 2010 [3 favorites]

what we need is a video game that spits out completed lace at the end. bang! problem solved.

I've seen some lacemaker's patterns at the V&A and have tried tatting and other simpler forms of lacemaking. Fascinating stuff, thanks for the post!
posted by annathea at 12:11 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Not to be too glib or dismissive about it, but isn't this pretty much the story of every 19th century industry? Abominable conditions, de facto child slavery, ruined lives...I can say I've never read or heard anything about a 19th century industry that didn't have all this and more, and if the Industrial Revolution killed off some wretched factories, it created even more.
posted by briank at 12:15 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've made lace, as a hobby. It is AGONIZING work. Irish Crochet was of immense popularity in the late 1800's, largely because it was so much faster and easier than traditional bobbin lace which in and of itself was much less labor intensive than the gorgeous but eye-ruining needle lace. This Irish Crochet -- the fast, easy kind, remember -- is worked with a crochet hook less than half a millimeter in diameter and thread finer and smoother than sewing thread. The task of lacemaking often fell to children because of their small quick hands and not-yet-ruined eyes. To this day, I can't look at antique lace without thinking of the jaw-dropping hours of labor that went into it.
posted by KathrynT at 12:17 PM on April 17, 2010 [8 favorites]

I guess they had the usual lefty whining and so lost that trade too...instead of outsourcing our stuff why can't we get kids to quit school and make cheap goods for us? I guess the unions would bitch about that. But we could undercut wages this way and bring back making things to America.
posted by Postroad at 12:30 PM on April 17, 2010

Like briank says, this seems to be the rule, not the exception, for 19th Century manufacturing. The lace knitters of the Shetland islands are another well-known example. The innocent-sounding "lace school" is quite the Dickensian scam - of course children belong in school, we're just teaching them a useful trade along with their ABCs. All that lovely Victorian ornament doesn't seem so lovely when you realize how it was made. (Not to say that the modern world is all rainbows and roses for working conditions either, but we've made progress on the whole.)

Just a note about handmade lace: I visited Bruges in the late 1970s and watched some old lacemakers at work. They were making some fairly simple bobbin lace (nobody would pay for the really complicated stuff any more, and to be honest, the lace itself wasn't all that appealing), but it was fascinating to see. Their fingers flew in a blur, bobbins flicked and clattered, and the lace grew slowly but visibly as you watched. They'd stop every few minutes to re-pin, but mostly worked without appearing to even look at what they were doing. They didn't actually grasp a bobbin, just scooped it up with a crooked finger and tossed it, with the same automatic ease of a musician playing their instrument. Definitely a "flow" process.
posted by Quietgal at 12:51 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

What's fascinating to me is how - like a lot of different things in fashion - when you reduce it to the fundamentals lace is basically a way to publicly broadcast "I have this much spare income to spend". This is tied to technology in such a way that it's hard to counterfeit, as the time, place and technology of the time makes inexpensive "machine made" lace not possible.

It's not just about the design aesthetics - it's a complicated, time-costly textile for the sake of being a complicated, time-costly textile. By wearing it in the era you would be broadcasting how many child slave-laborers you could casually afford to employ, which makes it seem even a bit more evil to me. It's not like the child laborers are producing useful farm implements. It's all about status and showing off that status.

The same rules used to apply to velvet and silk and many other variations of textiles and fashion. Silk velvet used to be insanely expensive. Having an entire gown or robe made of it was once reserved for the lofty realms of kings and queens.

And what happens when much cheaper machine-made textiles or fashions become possible? They generally become unfashionable in a hurry, where "hurry" is defined at the technological time scale of the time. It could take decades for the novelty to wear off in the time scale of the day, today it happens at the speed of communication.

Today people engage in the same public displays of expendable income, but it usually involves a much more disposable culture based on cut, line and color, and there are a lot more subcultures engaged in the process as well.
posted by loquacious at 1:18 PM on April 17, 2010 [9 favorites]

I guess they had the usual lefty whining and so lost that trade too...

Troll fail.
posted by loquacious at 1:19 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

Not to be too glib or dismissive about it, but isn't this pretty much the story of every 19th 21st century industry? Abominable conditions, de facto child slavery, ruined lives...


posted by Salvor Hardin at 1:39 PM on April 17, 2010 [2 favorites]

tatting - a word I only use when doing the NYT crossword puzzles.
posted by caddis at 1:50 PM on April 17, 2010

Thank you, Salvor Hardin, I was trying to find a way to extend that to the present day.
posted by briank at 2:10 PM on April 17, 2010

Not to be too glib or dismissive about it, but isn't this pretty much the story of every 19th century industry?

I guess I don't get this line of questioning. It seems to argue against a point that neither the poster nor the linked sites seem to be making. Yeah, this kind of thing happened all over, but here are some specific historical examples within one specific, specialized industry. What's wrong with that?
posted by hermitosis at 3:33 PM on April 17, 2010 [1 favorite]

Loquacious, you've described conspicuous consumption to a T, right down to the way cheap knock-offs make the expensive thing less desirable. I'd add that a lot of Fashion is about looking wealthy (whether you really are or not) using the context and clues of your society. Pale person living in an agrarian world? Keep your skin as light as possible (with parasol, makeup, etc) to show that you don't work outside in the fields. Pale person in an industrial world? Get a tan to show that you don't work indoors in a factory or office. (Of course you do, you just want to look like you can afford to loll around by the pool all day.) Status symbols change (and fear of skin cancer has made tans a less desirable symbol), but it's all about appearing affluent.

We're getting pretty far from lace here, but as you point out, people who buy cheap crappy clothes at "in" places and then ditch them after a few wearings are doing the same thing on their own financial scale. It seems more fashionable to buy cheap and replace often than to save up for something good and wear it for years. Sort of a reverse flip on Sam Vimes' boots, showing that you can throw money away on frequent, albeit small, purchases.

Of course, the entire factory system requires making LOTS of stuff - once you're tooled up you need to churn out and sell zillions of widgets to offset the setup costs. So the industrial economy needs people to buy lots of stuff, which is another factor leading to our world of disposable everything.
posted by Quietgal at 4:03 PM on April 17, 2010

That story made much more sense after I went back and read the first word correctly, instead of as "lovemaking".
posted by Mike D at 8:37 PM on April 17, 2010

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