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Bobbin and Carriage


Machine-made Lace and Lacemaker Stories

The journal Tulle is a treasure trove of facts, comments, research and speculation about machine-made lace, the Lacemakers of Calais and their families.

All 141 issues of Tulle are available in full on this website to everyone.

SHORTCUTS to the stories in Tulle will make this trove more accessible.

Machine-made Lace and the Lacemakers of Calais

The story of making lace is almost endless, but the story of making lace by machine is only a few hundred years old. It's this story that the Lacemakers of Calais are woven into.

The Beginning

In the 1770s fashionable gentlemen and gentlewomen wore stockings made on large, oily and heavy framework knitting machines. The prominent hosiery industry was in Nottingham and the surrounding villages. It was a cottage-based industry. Making stockings was a whole-of-family business centred on a rented, narrow-frame machine set up in the family house where the workers often worked up to 14 hours a day. The family men and women called stockingers, spun the yarn into threads and using the hand-operated machine, produced a shaped but flat fabric panel. The children turned these fabric panels into stockings when they stitched the edges together to create a seam. Other garments including caps and shawls were made on the framework knitting machine.

Yarn spinning wheel and framework knitting machine - Framework Knitters Museum Ruddington Nottinghamshire

A New Machine

Lace was another adornment to the clothes of those fashionable gentlefolk. It was a fabric of holes – a net – with intricate designs embroidered onto it. Soon clever stockingers thought that their knitting machine should be able to make the net. The race was on! Machines were adapted and by 1775 onwards, machines began to make net fabric and many improvements to the machines followed to produce better types of net fabric.

A Better Machine

Soon others thought that if a machine could make a net fabric as the base for lace, why could it not make the lace itself?

Many worked at this new development and began to improvise and make new machines. One of those improvisers developed an ingenious machine – John Leavers.

By 1813 he had a working prototype for a machine that revolutionised machine-made lacemaking. Within a few years the machine-made lacemaking industry in Nottingham was thriving and expanding rapidly. The new machines were installed in newly built factories where they were worked for much of the day and night. This “progress” was detrimental to the home-based stockingers and their hand-operated framework knitting machines. They could not compete. This and other social and economic factors meant civil unrest soon followed and angry mobs, the Luddites, began to attack the factories and break the new machines.

Lacemaking Machine made by John Leavers between 1828 and 1840 - Nottingham Industrial Museum

Why France?

The new machine-made lace needed new markets and the makers looked to Europe for them. However, the new English-made lace imported to France was subject to very high tariffs – it was not competitive with French handmade lace. To avoid the tariffs, a few English lacemakers began to smuggle their lace into France. Soon they smuggled the lacemaking machines into France and set them up in Paris and Rouen.

Calais and Saint Pierre-lès-Calais

In 1815 the Napoleonic Wars ended. English lace makers and workers began to move across the Channel to work and live in Calais.

Over the next 10 years Calais grew to be a thriving lacemaking centre in competition with Nottingham.

The lacemaking machines were incredibly noisy. The French inhabitants of Calais soon found the noise a great nuisance, especially, as in England the machines worked on into the night.

Also Calais, constrained by its ancient town walls, could not expand to absorb the influx of English workers. They were “encouraged” to leave. The workers and their machines then moved outside Calais’ walls to the nearby village of Saint Pierre-lès-Calais. The once small rural village expanded rapidly, and it was there that most of the Lacemakers of Calais lived worked and died until the social and political strife of 1848 uprooted many of them again.

Read the full story…

This is a brief summary of the lecture given by Elizabeth Simpson in Sydney in 1988.

See the full text online of the lecture in Tulle Issue 24 pp7-13 and Tulle Issue 25 pp7-14

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