The story of lace: Tradition of making it by hand still thrives in Utah

Published: Saturday, Aug. 20 2011 3:00 p.m. MDT

Lace samples are displayed at Fairview Lacing Days.

Tom Sakievich

FAIRVIEW, Sanpete County — Light, airy, delicate, beautiful — lace is one of those things that serves little purpose other than aesthetics. But the fact that it is one of the oldest of the decorative arts says something for the human need for beauty.

"Bobbin lace has been dated positively to the 1200s," says lace-maker and teacher Elizabeth Peterson. "It may be older than that."

It became popular with royalty in the 15th and 16th centuries. "You see a lot of paintings by the old masters that show people wearing lace," says Peterson. "In those days, only royalty wore it, but the peasants made it."

Today, much of the lace that decorates our lives is made by machine. But the tradition of making lace by hand still thrives.

Fairview Museum of History and Art held its 20th Annual Lace Day in July, which drew lacers from all over the country, including Idaho, Washington, Georgia, California and other parts of Utah, as they came to meet and mingle with fellow lacers, take classes, work on projects, compare notes and buy supplies. There's so much to do, in fact, that Lace Day usually spreads over three days. Special teacher this year was Vera Cockuyt from Belgium.

In honor of the 20th anniversary of Lace Day, the museum is also putting on a special lace display, which will run through Labor Day, showing examples of all kinds of lace, both old and new. The museum also has an extensive collection of lace from pioneer and other eras, which will remain on permanent display.

"Lace has always been a part of our heritage," said Nancy MacKay, who learned to make bobbin lace from her mother, who learned it from her mother. MacKay started out with tatting. "In the fourth grade, I remember they wouldn't let me take my tatting shuttle to school, so I put a pin in my pocket and used that to tat. When I got to the sixth grade, my mother thought it was time for me to learn bobbin lace. In those days, my bedtime was at 9 p.m., but I could stay up until 9:15, if I was working on lace."

It has always been a family tradition, she said. "As far back as I can trace, my ancestors did handwork." She loves that history, but she also likes the process. "I just like to keep busy. I don't like to sit idly. And you can do it everywhere. I've been carrying tatting in my purse for 80 years."

When MacKay first came up with the idea of Lace Day, "I could hardly find any other lacers. But now we have about 40 to 50 people come." There are three lace-maker organizations in the area: The Sanpete Lacers draws people from all over the county; the Beehive Lacers, which meet the second Saturday of each month at the South Jordan Library; and the Academy Lacers, which meet on the fourth Saturday of each month in Provo.

In addition, said Nancy Larsen, regular classes are held at the Pioneer Craft House in Salt Lake City. So, she said, there are lots of opportunities for anyone interested in lace-making to find out more.

Bobbin lace, which is a woven lace done with thread wound on wooden bobbins, is probably the most popular among the local lacers. It is done on what is called a "cookie pillow," where the threads are held together with pins until the design is finished. Bobbins are used in pairs. Beginning patterns use about eight pairs of bobbins; more intricate designs take more. Peterson is working on one that uses between 800 and 900 bobbins. "There are thousands of patterns; each country has its own style of pillow, bobbins and lace," she said. "All the bobbin is, is a thread-holder. You use four bobbins to make one stitch."

But there are many other kinds of lace. It can be knitted, crocheted, knotted, done with a needle and thread, or as cutwork where threads are removed from a woven background and the remaining threads wrapped or filled in with embroidery — anything that makes a holey, airy fabric, said Peterson.

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