Bobbin lace – a beginner’s guide to beginning!

My slide into galleries deep down the thread and yarn crafts rabbit hole continues inexorably and is gathering pace… and so it was that in the middle of June I became the proud owner of the necessary supplies to get started on bobbin lace. It shares aspects with weaving, but with the roles of warp and weft threads constantly changing.

There are two broad classes of bobbin lace: continuous lace and part lace. The names tell it all, in that continuous lace consists in working the final piece as a single item, while in part lace various motifs are stitched independently then joined together.

Bobbin lace uses, of course, bobbins, and on these alone the selection is pretty much infinite – they go from machine made to hand turned, out of wood, bone or metal, resin and even glass (in addition to plastic – though these are pretty rare). They can easily turn into works of art, and master craftsmen and artist embellish them in all sorts of ways, from inlays of brass wire, silver, gold and other materials, to intricate carving, to beautiful painted decorations. A list of lace bobbin makers and decorators is here – so they are mostly UK based, with the exception of one maker based in Belgium. In addition to these here is a link to Jean Roux, in France, who delivers to the UK and has some exquisite work (continental lace bobbins only).

Bobbins hold thread (cotton, linen, silk) that is pinned (yes, you need a ton of pins) on a pillow – and here too, the variations are very many. Again, there are two main families: the bolster pillow, around a roller, which usually is worked “palms up”, that is the bobbins hang freely down the pillow (from the pins), and the lace maker manipulates . Mostly a tradition of continental Europe, this uses so called continental bobbins, which have a bulbous end to tension the thread. The second category is mostly flat, or domed shaped (cookie pillow, flat pillow). The lacemaker in this case works typically “palms down”, as the bobbins lay on the pillow and are shifted around. For these pillows typically you’d use Midland bobbins, which are uniformly thing. To avoid them rolling around the pillow they are spangled with beads (can you see another sliding gallery opening here?!), adding a further array of possibilities for personalisation and decoration of your tools. Why not use precious stones for spangles?

Chris Parsons‘ beautifully hand turned bobbins – these are among the simplest in his range

How beautiful bobbins can be is really hard to describe – the bone ones decorated with flowers and butterflies pictured at the top are my first crafted bobbins, beautifully painted by Dee Carver. The pins in the picture above are “divider pins”, which are used to separate various groups of bobbins – obviously the lace maker needs these to be very pretty too!

The beads attached are the top are typical of the “Midland” style of bobbins which are prevalent in the UK bobbin lace tradition, and are needed to both weigh the bobbins to improve tension, as well as to avoid the bobbins rolling around. Those beads are called “spangles”, and spangling (i.e. adding beads to bobbins) of course opens up all sorts of possibilities.

Semi precious stone spangles
Pairing bobbins to spangles

Talented, award winning designer Louise West has an instructional YouTube channel – among other things, she also expansion how to spangle bobbins:

Louise West on bobbin spangling

Bobbins work in pairs, each pair holding a different end of the same thread, and the whole process is based on two basic movements involving two pairs: Crossing and twisting. A cross is when the bobbin from one pair moves from the left to the right and over the adjacent bobbin from the other pair. A twist is when one bobbin moves from right to left and over the adjacent bobbin in the same pair. And that’s pretty much the basis of bobbin lace making, the same as “over, under; under, over” is on the basis of weaving. And yet endless sequences of combinations of these movements produce some amazing cloth – this fascinates me no end!

The pinning, crossing and twisting takes place following a pattern, which is prepared, or “pricked”, on sturdy card that is pinned to the lace pillow: pricking consists in making holes in the cards where the pins to make the pattern will go. The pricking of the pattern can take even hours for a complex/large pattern, and lace makers do embrace technology. The amazing Louise West has developed. And of course there is software to make patterns, too.

As in weaving, the connection with maths is inevitable – so enter Veronika Irvine, an amazing artist who also happens to be an academic mathematician and computer scientist. Tech and lace are an obvious match for modern times, and I will blog on this separately – for the moment I invite you to lose yourself in Veronica’s site.

So, if you catch the bug, where to start? Torchon seems a favourite to introduce the absolute beginner to the magic of lace, so that is where I am starting from – here are my very first and very bumpy practice pieces (first to the left, last to the right), there is at least one mistake in most of them.

My first lace samplers – first two from the left are from Doris Southard’s book, the other four correspond to the first four exercise in Bridget Cook’s “Torchon Lace Workbook” – with warts and all!

Below the books I am using (there are a couple more that I could not source, but are usually highly recommended: Pamela Nottingham’s “The Technique of Bobbin Lace”, 2001 edition; Betty Alderson’s “Bobbin Lace Without a Teacher”; and Christine Stringett’s “The Torchon Lace Book”). Of those I have, the three I would consider essential are both of Bridget Cook’s and Jan Tregidgo’s book, however I am happy that I have all five:


“The Torchon Lace workbook”, by Bridget M. Cook
An excellent book for beginners, strikes a great balance between thorough instructions and getting you going. Ten increasingly involved exercises covering the all the basic elements, and 27 patterns.

Wonderful diagrams show clearly the interlacing between the treads. Definitely one to have.


“Torchon Lacemaking: A Step-by-Step Guide”, by Jan Tregidgo
Another excellent beginner book, this covers more ground than the previous one, though it proceeds more slowly.

Rather than diagrams, there are a zillion photographs, and each sampler is presented both in white only and in a version with bobbin pairs in many different colours to show the paths clearly.

Another must have.
“Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking”, by Doris Southard
Probably the most old fashioned in terms of teaching style, in that it lacks the detailed photos and diagrams of the previous two books, but it is the only one that ventures into other types of lace.
Another one for the bookshelf!
“Beginner’s guide to bobbin lace”, by Gilian Dye and Adrienne Thunder

The less comprehensive of the four introductory texts listed here. On the plus side, plenty of clear photographs, and several simple patterns for “useful” lace, e.g. scarves.

Only available as paper book.
“Practical Skills in Bobbin Lace”, by Bridget M. Cook
This is most definitely not a beginners book – however this very comprehensive reference book for anything you might need to know, supported by Bridget Cooks crystal clear diagrams, is very useful to have handy even for the beginner, so it is an essential reference also for the beginner.

Stitching a bobbin lace library – The Torchon Lace Workbook by Bridget M. Cook

The Torchon Lace Workbook by Bridget M. Cook

The book consists of two parts: the first part includes 10 progressive exercises that cover all the techniques, while the second part includes 27 patterns, from edgings to collars, mats and bookmarks.
The ten exercises cover half stitch, whole stitch, spiders, rose ground, tallies and leaves, gimps, plaits and picots.

Working through the exercises is helped by the wonderful diagrams, that show clearly the interlacing between the treads. These are so clear, it makes following patterns a breeze. The exercises also use coloured threads, which makes finding your way in the patterns easier.

Indeed the diagrams are pretty integral to each practice piece, as the instructions for the patterns are “essential”. So for instance in Exercise 4 (on spiders), after explaining in detail how to execute a single four legged spider, it assumes the notion of spider is now understood, so that in the next section with a group of 4 two legged spiders there is no mention of twisting threads (for legs) between one small spider and another. Kind of obvious if you think about it, but as a beginner these details are easily missed (ask me how I know…).

I find this book a good compromise between getting you going and covering all the bases, in the sense that the exercises cover most of the skills – however to really cover them all it is necessary to go through the patterns, too, as for instance footsides, fans, corners are not included in the exercises, but they are included in the patters, together with other tips such as adding thread midway through the work and moving up the work on the pillow.

The patterns too are graded by difficulty, and it is possible to move between exercises and patterns in blocks (e.g. the first pattern is recommended after the first three exercises, and so on), and the pattern notes become more succinct as the book progresses.

The prickings seem mostly hand drawn, so it may be better to copy them by hand on graph paper (this is what I have done).

Working through it all will make for a very competent Torchon lacemaker, I am sure!

NOTE: there some little mistakes here and there, e.g. the description of Roseground in Exercise 5 is incorrect (the correct sequence would be to work pairs 3 and 4, 5 and 6, 7 and 8, then 9 and 10). Similarly, in Exercise 6 on gimps, the description is correct, and so are the figures, but the reference is swapped, i.e. the description for the movement from left to right refers to the figure that shows the movement from right to left, and viceversa.

In addition, be aware (I do not think this books mentions it either) that lace is typically worked wrong side up (this is so that knots do not show on the right side). Hence the actual right side is flipped as compared to the side you are working. The finished pictures are printed right side up, hence the appear flipped as compared to the description in the text. For instance in Exercise 4 the pattern asks to hang first 6 bobbin pairs in one colour, then the next set of six bobbin pairs in another colour, but the photograph (which shows the right side) has the colours swapped, so it isn’t a guide to following the pattern.


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Stitching a bobbin lace library – Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking by Doris Southard

Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking by Doris Southard

An excellent book, in addition to ten lessons on the various Torchon techniques, it also has a lesson on working on a flat pillow and a lesson on other types of laces than Torchon.

Important note: One peculiarity of this book is that the stitches are different than in other texts – so the half stitch here is TC (twist, cross), and then she uses cloth or linen stitch for the whole stitch (CTC), and calls “whole stitch” the sequence TCTC. Other texts have the half stitch as CT, and call refer to the sequence CTCT as “whole stitch and twist”. So this different terminology is to bear in mind when jumping between books. One peculiarity of this book is that the stitches are different than in other texts – so the half stitch here is TC (twist, cross), and then she uses cloth or linen stitch for the whole stitch (CTC), and calls “whole stitch” the sequence TCTC. Other texts have the half stitch as CT, and call refer to the sequence CTCT as “whole stitch and twist”. So this different terminology is to bear in mind when jumping between books. It is also unusual in other respects, as for instance tallies are worked using bobbin n4 as weaver, rather than the more usual bobbin 2 or bobbin 3, , though it is not incorrect (at least Cook’s “Practical Skills in Bobbin Lace” states that any bobbin would do).

Each lesson includes multiple samplers, with full instructions. The very many samples mean that progress to the next technique is slow, but nothing prevents jumping ahead!

As compared to my favorite books (The Torchon Lace Workbook: A concise lacemaking course–the basic skills fully explained, with prickings and diagrams for 27 finished lace products. and Torchon Lacemaking: A Step-by-Step Guide) this is a little bit drier, so arguably a bit more old fashioned in terms of teaching style, and visual learners might struggle, but still it is a very good text to have.


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Stitching a bobbin lace library – Beginner’s Guide to Bobbin Lace by Gilian Dye and Adrienne Thunder

Beginner’s Guide to Bobbin Lace by Gilian Dye and Adrienne Thunder

This is a short-but-not-too-short introduction to Torchon lace.

It does not set out to be comprehensive, but to get going as quickly as possible. It covers the core techniques, and does so by means of projects, rather than samplers, illustrated step by step by very clear photographs. Tips and additional information are in the text boxes that pepper the book.

Another plus is that there are several patterns for “useful” laces, including purses and scarves – this alone may make it worth the purchase, though obviously the patterns are not too intricate, in line with the technical content of the book, while still looking good.

It may be most useful for those wishing to try out bobbin lace and figure out quickly whether they like it or not – however delving deeper into the art will require another book.


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Stitching a bobbin lace library – Practical Skills in Bobbin Lace by Bridget M. Cook

Practical Skills in Bobbin Lace by Bridget M. Cook

This must be the most comprehensive reference to lace making – or maybe not, but it is for sure very comprehensive. For each issue there are several alternative solutions, and as other of Ms Cook’s books, the diagrams are excellent and very, very clear.

The ten sections cover:
1. Starts and edges
2. Knots, replacing threads and adding pairs
3. Joining and sewings
4. Connections and crossings
5. Picots, tallies, Venetian cords, plaits and braids
6. Carrying pairs, raised work, fillings
7. Intendation, corners, curves and holes
8. Cordonnet, gimps and beads
9. Completions, endings and finishings
10. Moving up and mounting

An invaluable tool for the self learner, I think this is an essential reference for bobbin lace makers.


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Stitching a bobbin lace library – Torchon Lacemaking: A Step-by-Step Guide by Jan Tregidgo

Torchon Lacemaking: A Step-by-Step Guide by Jan Tregidgo

This beginners book is packed with pictures, with literally are step by step, and uses colour very smartly, in that each bobbin pair uses a different colour, making the path of each super clear. Samples are presented both in “full colour” and in white only version, and this in itself is incredibly useful for the beginner.


This book is the most thorough of the beginner books I have seen (Lessons in Bobbin Lacemaking, The Torchon Lace Workbook and Beginner’s Guide to Bobbin Lace): it includes 25 samplers that cover all sorts of combinations of techniques, and then branches out to more advanced techniques, such as adding beads to pieces (and yes, there are samplers for this too), designing and modifying patterns, joining and mounting pieces, and finally a “troubleshooting” section. However do note that this book does not include tallies and leaves.


Each sampler lists at the beginning the techniques that are explored in the chapter.


While only few of the patterns in the samplers can stand on their own as projects (unless you are really keen on bookmarks), the great variety of combinations provided, plus the chapter on designing your own patterns, mean that imagination is the only limitation once you get a bit of practice under your bobbins. And there are some patterns, like the very pretty coasters of sampler 10, and the mats from the last few samplers.


It may feel like slow going, but in fact as you work your way through the samplers you are shown how to combine various elements, so I expect the move into adapting and designing own patterns will be a natural one (but I haven’t worked my way through this yet).


After working through this book I think I’ll be ready to work any Torchon lace pattern. Definitely one to have.


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