“Just serve the gin as usual.” One member said when it was time for a tea break. I, along with most other members, was sorely disappointed when no such gin materialised.
Handmade lace was once a thriving cottage industry in many parts of the countryside. Its craftsmen, usually young girls, picked out a meagre existence selling lace from village to village. These delicate designs were once popular as trendy ornaments on men’s sleeves and cuffs, a fashion that, rumour has it, prompted monarchs to ban any man from wearing lace fancier than them at court.
However, the handcrafted lace industry began to decline during the Industrial Revolution as those who had once made it their livelihood were unable to compete with machines. Today, handmade lace is a rarity, made mostly for pleasure. Though it may never be as central to countryside life as it once was, a small but dedicated community still keeps this precious craft alive.
One such group, the St Andrews Lace Making Club has made it their mission to ensure the continuation of centuries of lace-making skills. Meeting every Wednesday from 7pm – 9pm, the club is small with twelve members, with varying levels of ability. Whilst most members are locals, I was surprised to find around half were students.
Speaking to the head of the club, Jennifer, I learned the group welcomed new members, especially young ones. “Because we are of a certain vintage”, Jennifer explained, “we are eager to find new blood.”
Two new student members were Chloe and Lucy, a pair of flatmates who had discovered the club whilst browsing the community centre website. During the session, they followed a sheet of illustrated notes, a bit like Lego instructions, which showed them how to create a simple pattern of a woman in a hat. Each had a cushion or board usually made out of polystyrene which was then covered by a cloth on which the design was sewn. The threads were attached to the design with pins and anchored at the other end by bobbins, little wooden poles decorated with beads which kept the tension consistent and prevented the pattern from becoming warped. Needless to say, the process was complicated and more akin to ‘Maypole dancing’ than traditional sewing.
The bobbins themselves were one of the most interesting things about lace making. Each was unique, made by hand and intimately connected with the culture of the local area. Today we were using a style from the Midlands but there was also a range of varieties from Scandinavian to Italian.
Whether it be essay deadlines or work, for many members, lacemaking was a way of taking their minds off the world and relaxing. “You can’t think of anything else” Judith, an older member, commented, reasoning that the complexities of the craft blocked out intrusive thoughts. Other members had more unique reasons for attending, “My husband said I’d never be able to do it, so I thought It’d be a good opportunity to show him up,” an anonymous member added.
As a small town, it’s sometimes easy to forget that St Andrews is not just a university. There are people who call this place home and, in many cases, have done so their whole lives. It’s no surprise then that over the years there have been moments of tension between university and town. Though a small group, the St Andrews Lace Making Club offers a possible solution, bringing students and locals together in a collaborative environment. I would encourage anyone looking to learn a new skill or simply to find new friends to try it.
Illustration: Lauren McAndrew