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

Published: Tuesday, July 28 2015 11:26 p.m. MDT

Lace samples are displayed at Fairview Lacing Days. (Tom Sakievich) 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 as well as other parts of Utah. (Tom Sakievich) 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 as well as other parts of Utah. (Tom Sakievich)

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."

Fairview Museum of History and Art held its 20th Annual Lace Day in July. (Tom Sakievich) Fairview Museum of History and Art held its 20th Annual Lace Day in July. (Tom Sakievich)

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.

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 as well as other parts of Utah. (Tom Sakievich) 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 as well as other parts of Utah. (Tom Sakievich)

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.

Bobbins and other lacing supplies are displayed at Fairview Lacing Days. (Tom Sakievich) Bobbins and other lacing supplies are displayed at Fairview Lacing Days. (Tom Sakievich)

The appeal of lace-making is manyfold, say lacers. Larsen first learned how to do it while she was in England on a Fulbright Scholarship. "I just like to do things with my hands. Plus, it's unique. Not a lot of other people do it. But I've gained a lot of friends through lace."

Brenda Wright "blames" her sister-in-law, DeLora Cameron, "for getting me into this. But sometimes in life you just need a new challenge. There's really no logical reason to do this, except to look at it after, but it's fun."

Fourteen-year-old Eliza Morey was one of the youngest students there. "I started because my mom does it," she said. "I learned it as part of my personal progress project for Young Women." She has done bookmarks and "snakes." Her biggest project, to date, is a picture frame. "It's not that hard when you know what to do," she said. "When you do know what you're doing, it's very relaxing."

(CITY) -- Brigitta Gornk demonstrates the technique of bobbin lace inside the crafting tent at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City Friday, September 14, 2007.   PHOTO BY STEPHEN SPECKMAN / DESERET MORNING NEWS. (Stephen Speckman, Stephen Speckman) (CITY) -- Brigitta Gornk demonstrates the technique of bobbin lace inside the crafting tent at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City Friday, September 14, 2007. PHOTO BY STEPHEN SPECKMAN / DESERET MORNING NEWS. (Stephen Speckman, Stephen Speckman)

Alice Dalton is working on a project that involves designing the figure 60 in lace. The International Old Lacers Inc., the national organization most of the lacers in the country belong to, will be holding its national convention in Salt Lake City in two years, and that will also be the organization's 60th anniversary. "So we're starting now. We figure we will have to make as many as 400 bookmarks, favors, whatever by convention time."

Dai Newman is one of the members of the group. "I saw a community ed class and signed up and fell in love with it," he said. "I like figuring it out from looking at the pattern. I love the finished product, having something tangible to show for it."

Cockuyt also loves figuring out patterns and design. "It's very mathematical, very structured, but it's like a puzzle you have to solve. You are just using loose thread to make a design." But there are so many variations, so many possibilities, she said.

Artist Elizabeth Peterson demonstrates the process in which bobbin lace is made at the Church History Museum's Artist Elizabeth Peterson demonstrates the process in which bobbin lace is made at the Church History Museum's "Artists at Work" event in Salt Lake City on Friday, Feb. 27, 2009.Mike Terry, Deseret News (Mike Terry, Deseret News)

Brigitta Gornik learned to make lace in Oklahoma before moving to Tooele in 2000. She was happy to find such a "crazy group" of lacers here, she said. Her favorite lace is one called Gravenmoer, a Dutch lace that she has designed patterns and written four books about. She's made everything from doilies and decorative pieces to dolls' dresses to Christmas ornaments. "I can easily spend six to eight hours a day making lace. That's how much I enjoy it."

Kathy Kirchner from Michigan was on hand to teach a class on knitted lace shawls. Knitted lace is just like regular knitting, she said, "except you use the yarn-over stitch to create holes and patterns. And it uses finer needles and threads."

The "Holy Grail" of knitted lace, she said, is to make a shawl of one-ply yarn that is so soft and delicate you can pull it through your wedding ring. "You've arrived if you can do that."

Nancy MacKay is the founder of Fairview Lace Day. (Tom Sakievich) Nancy MacKay is the founder of Fairview Lace Day. (Tom Sakievich)

The popularity of lace-making in the area is drawing in other craftsmen. Bruce Bassett began making bobbins a few years ago. A lot of bobbins used to come from England, but with the economic downturn, they were becoming more expensive and harder to find. His lathe-turned bobbins are a lot of fun, he said. "Because they are so small, you can use exotic woods that you couldn't use for bigger things." His bobbins sell for $7 to $8 each and come in such woods as lilac, tulip, zebra, osage orange, yellowheart, pink ivory, canary and others.

Velancey Fisher has started to paint bobbins, turning them into works of art of a different sort. A lot of her designs feature hedgehogs, the unofficial mascot of all bobbin lacers. The story is told, she said, of a woman who was making lace into the wee hours of the night and ran out of pins, so a little hedgehog told her to use his quills so she could finish her design in time.

Whimsy, tradition, intricate design, friendship, love of beautiful things — it's all there in the story of lace.

(CITY) -- Brigitta Gornk demonstrates the technique of bobbin lace inside the crafting tent at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City Friday, September 14, 2007.   PHOTO BY STEPHEN SPECKMAN / DESERET MORNING NEWS. (Stephen Speckman, Stephen Speckman) (CITY) -- Brigitta Gornk demonstrates the technique of bobbin lace inside the crafting tent at the Utah State Fair in Salt Lake City Friday, September 14, 2007. PHOTO BY STEPHEN SPECKMAN / DESERET MORNING NEWS. (Stephen Speckman, Stephen Speckman)

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