Show Us Your Ugly Things: Lacemaking Edition

Every so often, I will forget that I am not someone who enjoys crafts. I’ll think to myself ‘sure, refinishing that cabinet will be fun!’ or ‘sewing is such a useful skill!’ and then hours of melodramatic cursing later remember that the type of patience required for tedious fiddly tasks is the kind of patience that I don’t really possess.

That selective amnesia was in full effect when I decided to teach myself lacemaking, and then, because of a massive amount of overconfidence, planned out about as poorly as I could have managed while still ending up with a finished piece.

To understand why I thought teaching myself lacemaking was a good idea in the first place, you have to know that my mom is amazingly good at any fiber art she’s tried. She’s done everything from sewing clothes to knitting to weaving. When I was a kid, the craft my mom was into the most was lacemaking.

How you make lace by hand is deceptively simple. You have a sturdy foam pillow onto which you attach your pattern, or pricking, for your piece. It’s called a pricking because, before you get started, you want to pre-prick all the places where you’ll be placing pins as you go. The pins are what you use to hold the threads—one piece of thread will be wound onto bobbins at each end to weight them down, and allow the thread to be manipulated around the pins. It’s more or less very delicate knot-tying. A lot of bobbins are spangled with pretty beads*, and when I was a kid I liked decorating them because I liked shiney things.


It was pretty easy to figure out which bobbins in my mom’s collection where ones that I’d decorated.

My mom taught me the basics of lacemaking itself when I was in first or second grade; in particular I remember making a snake bookmark. All of this I’d more or less forgotten about until we were going through some old file folders and my mom pulled out the lace giraffe she’d made using a drawing I’d done when I was four as the pattern.


How adorable is that?

In a wave of nostalgia, I decided that I’d take up lacemaking again. It’s a very flexible craft, and I liked the idea of making fancy collars for my shirts, or maybe a lace dinosaur. My mom gave me all the supplies I needed, an instruction book, and a pattern all ready to go that I could use for practice. I’d been able to do this when I was seven so how hard could it be?**

What follows is a summary of what NOT to to do when teaching yourself lacemaking.

A) Don’t get cocky. I was convinced I’d be able to just magically figure out how to do this by making the lace look like it did in the picture. I mean, that’s the point of a pattern, right?


For reference, here is design I decided to try, mostly because my mom had a copy of the pricking that I could use. Are you thinking to yourself”‘Gee, that seems a bit complicated for a raw beginner to start on?” You would be correct.

The first clue that this wasn’t going to smoothly was when I read through the instructions and I understood pretty much nothing. Even the introduction to the book assumed I at least knew the terminology, which no, no I didn’t. But I was not put off because I had the power of the internet, and after a couple of youtube videos on the basic techniques I thought I was set.


The setup.

B) Don’t underestimate how much thread you’ll need. The pattern I was using called for fourteen pairs of bobbins. Winding twenty-eight bobbins with thread took about two hours, and I was seriously reconsidering my life choices by the time I was finished. Also, it turned out that one pair of bobbins did a lot more movement through the pattern than any of the others, so I ended up having to splice more thread onto those bobbins about two thirds of the way through the piece.


It’s already gone very wrong, but I haven’t realized it yet.

C) Don’t pick a random pattern and just go for it if you want the end result to look good. Let’s be very clear here: I did not know what I was doing and the first several rows took multiple attempts before they bore any resemblance to what the lace was supposed to look like. This could have been avoided if I’d tried some of the beginner exercises in my book, but no, they looked boring.

I made it about half an inch into the pattern before I had to call my mom for help.


D) Don’t be too proud to call your mom for help.

E) Don’t forget to double check that you’ve started the pattern correctly. I had a fatal flaw in my setup that I didn’t notice until I was too far along to be willing to rip everything out and start over that caused the bobbin pairs to not line up as they should. Because of this. every section in the middle that supposed to be shaped like a heart has a bit where I just kind of made the pattern and hoped for the best.

But there were some things that I did during this project that were helpful! Emotionally helpful, anyway…

A) Accept that you are making the world’s saddest doily.***


The section that looks nice and dense, like cloth, is the section my mom had to totally re-do for me.

B) Contemplate why we invented machines to make textiles.


Finally starting to get the hang of it.

C) Give your project a name that is satisfying to yell. I called mine Nemesis.

D) Swear a lot. Slowly recover from your mistakes at the start.


E) Finish the pattern. Declare your Nemesis vanquished despite not knowing how to connect the ends.


The finished Nemesis!

Somehow, despite that when the thing was pinned the sides were equal length, the finish in NO WAY lines up with the start (note the upper left corner in the above picture). All I can figure is that I did such an abysmal job at the beginning that when I took the pins off the lace shrank.

I don’t know if I’m going to get around making more lace any time soon. On one hand, by the time I got to the end I’d figured out how the stitches worked with the pattern and the pins. On the other, it was really, really slow going there for a while, and the only reason I didn’t give up was that I kept telling myself that it didn’t matter what it looked like as long as it got finished. For any other project I do I’m going to have a higher quality standard which will make errors (of which I made SO MANY) even more frustrating.

I do think that this is an underutilized art form which could have some cool sci-art applications—lace molecules, anyone?–but those are probably best left to someone with a bit more patience than me.

*This is supposedly to help weight the bobbin, but the beads also tend to get caught up on each other so I’m not sure how much they helped. Personally, I think the spangles were more useful for telling the bobbins apart than anything else. I had enough trouble keeping track of which pairs were doing what as it was.

**Has anyone ever rhetorically asked this and had the answer be ‘not hard at all’?

***My instruction book calls this thing a paperweight. Perhaps you’re supposed to put the lace in something, like clear resin, when you’re finished? I do not know.

Information about lacemaking from people who actually know what they’re doing!

http://www.laceguild.org/home.html General lacemaking info

http://www.powerhousemuseum.com/pdf/research/glossary.pdf Lacemaking terms, most of which I totally failed to learn.

http://gwydir.demon.co.uk/jo/lace/ Patterns, more information on how to make lace.

http://www.lynxlace.com/bobbinlacefreepatterns.html Lessons using simple patterns and small words! This was the sort of thing I should’ve started with.

The Torchon Lace Workbook-Bridget Cook. This is the book I was using. I’m slightly horrified to see the Amazon description says this type of lace is “relatively speedy” to make. How long do the other types take??

Celia Yost

Celia Yost is a graphic artist and painter by both training and trade. She's also prone to ill-advised craft projects and yelling about politics.

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  1. Sounds like you’re suffering from a bad case of “ideas”.
    So far I have not found any cure or remedy for it. Just for the record: so far my highlight was making LARP swords using an electric knife.
    Nice doily. Just put the mishappen corner under something solid and nobody will notice 😉

  2. Ha, yeah a lot of things seem like a good idea until you actually start doing it.
    At the moment the doily is working well as a bookmark :).

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