Malmesbury Lace - A Cottage Industry

A child lacemakerIn 1907 a lace making school existed under the patronage of the Countess of Suffolk; Lace making was a cottage industry; the lace would have been produced in people’s cottages and sold by the piece to an agent.

Many towns had lace making industries which started to grow up in the seventeenth century.

The first record in Malmesbury dates from 1698 where the parish register of burials records the death of Mary Punter, a child lace maker. The lace makers were almost exclusively women or children; the men would work on the land or other rural trades. Economic necessity drove this trade; times were hard.

Working conditions were poor. Most cottages were small and cramped, especially when one considers the large families which were the norm then. Windows were small so light was poor; candles were expensive. To make the most of this light glass phials were used filled with water to act as lenses and focus the light on the lace. Even so, the long hours, the cramped positions and eyestrain produced health problems like arthritis and deteriorating eyesight.

Children had to start learning their trade as young as five if they were to achieve the necessary skill and speed to make a living. Their best years were in the late teens and early twenties. Lace-making schools sprang up where children, over the course of a 12 to 14 hour day, would learn lace making first and the three RRRs second.

The industry flourished during the seventeenth century. At the end of the century a Select Committee of Enquiry into the Woollen Trade found that lace making was more profitable than working at Cannop’s mill (now called the silk Mills). The industrial revolution brought machine lace. Heathcoat’s variable width lace machine produced lace so much more cheaply. By 1881 only 11 lace makers were recorded in the town. Forty years earlier there had been 96 and at its peak it is thought the Malmesbury lace industry had over 300 workers.

In 1907 a lace making school under the patronage of the Countess of Suffolk; this ensured a revival for Malmesbury lace, for example some was included in the trousseau of Princess Alexandra.

Malmesbury lace making still thrives; demonstrations are held in the museum.