Making a bolster pillow for bobbin lace

(Check here for how to make a flat, block lace pillow).

I am Italian, and while the first type of bobbin lace I started studying is in the British tradition (Bucks, Beds, torchon), which is typically the “palms down” type, worked on a cookie (or flat) pillow (of course there are exceptions – Honiton pillows are not cookies but look more like a drum, and bolster pillows are used in the UK too, but not as frequently as far as I can tell), I always wanted to get back to my own traditions – Italian laces are typically of the brade lace type (Cantù, Goriziano, and Ligure to name just a few) but not only (Aquilano). The overwhelming majority of Italian laces are however done on a bolster apart from some notable exceptions (e.g. the tradition in at least some areas in Tuscany seems to be cookie pillows, I’ve seen some really huge ones!).

The diameter of these changes too – Gorizian lace (which is related to Idrija – geographically they are not too far from one another) is done on smaller diameter pillows, about 18-20cm, while Cantù lace is done on 25cm diameter pillows.

Fillings and shapes are different too – Cantù pillows have a hollow centre:

and are typically filled with straw like materials or linen flax, while Gorizian lace bolsters are full and filled with sawdust. Boltsers from Cogne are filled with felt and woollens, and are even “hollower” than Cantù ones:

and I am sure there are many other types (the ones in these pictures are nicked by the Tombolo e disegni website – an amazing store where you can find anything lace related that you can think of: if it exists, they stock it – and deliver worldwide!).

Some bolsters are gorgeous displays of beautiful wood craftmanship, like the ones from the Piedmont region of Val Varaita (just have a look at these, to die for!), not to mention the bobbins themselves, which can also be very intricately decorated – the weight on the bottom of the bobbins gives you an idea of the thickness of the thread to be used. These are different from bolsters for needle lace, which have to be softer as the actual pattern is kept above the bolster from a roller pin like implement that keeps the right tension – but to regulate tension the bolster is softer. A lacemaker from the Museo del Pizzo di Burano told me her bolster was filled with tastowels and suchlike.

Bolsters and bobbins can be a thing of beauty – what about this one?

(picture from here) and frankly I could quite easily fill my house with all sorts of bolsters and supports, and spend my days looking at them…. but I digress

So, what did I do? I wanted a 25cm diameter bolster, packed hard with straw. This is because I find the crunch of straw under the pressure of the pins enormously satisfying, and since you’ll be spending hours at your bolster, why not enjoy every single second?

If you do go the straw route, be aware of the following:

  1. whatever you think, the pillow will take much more straw than you think. Think of the dimensions you like, calculate the corresponding volume, then check the weight of the chopped, compressed, dust extracted straw you buy. You want to keep the same proportions with your bolster – indeed such a pity they don’t sell straw in cylinders, as covering that would give you your pillow! This is really important, as to make sure your pillow is
  2. even if you get dust extracted straw, there will be dust generated in the process, so make sure you cover your mouth and eyes – in these post covid times I found FFP2 masks to do the job remarkably well!
  3. even if you are careful, there will be stray straw going around – so
  4. be patient and be strong: allow quite a bit of time for the filling (two hours isn’t unreasonable), and be prepared for a full body workout and a lot of sweat. Buy a ready made pillow otherwise, as the risk is to end up with a substandard product after a lot of effort, which would be a pity. The good thing is that you can always reopen the pillow and get some more straw in.

So, here are my supplies:

  • 2 x 25cm/10″ diameter strong round disks (some sources suggest using cardboard) that will form the ends of your bolster – I wanted wood ones, but in the end it was too easy to get a pair of extra strong MDF cake bases from Lakeland, thin but really sturdy, you will need something to withstand pressure.
  • straw – I went for barley straw, which is the tradition in the UK, and got some chopped, dust extracted, compressed one (3kg), to avoid having to chop it myself (smaller bits pack more tightly).
  • fabric: some heavy calico or heavy (say curtain weight) cotton for the actual pillow, and some lighter fabric for the removable cover.
  • 6mm or 8mm cotton drawstring cord
  • a mallet, or a heavy rolling pin, or a cricket bat, or whatever will allow you to bash the straw.

To begin with, I found it rather useful to have a look at this video, just to see from beginning to end how it would have to be:

How to make a straw filled bolster – he uses cardboard as ends

Then it was time to get started – but how much straw did I need? The guy in the video mentions “a third of a bale of straw” but surely it depends on how big your bolster, and I wanted to be sure I ended up with the right density. I needed to do some homework…

Some pillow math – how much straw?

The pillow must be dense – since the barley straw I bought felt quite right, I calculated its density, so as to replicate the same for my pillow.

The 3kg package measured 18 x 28 x 45cm=22,680 cubic cm. This means that each cubic cm weighed 3,000g/22,680=0.132g.

I wanted my pillow to be 30cm wide – with 25cm diameter, its finished volume would be 12.5 x 12.5 x 3.14 x 30cm=14,718.75 cubic cm. Hence to obtain the same density as the bale I bought, I needed 0.132 x 14,718.75=1.943kg of straw.

I cut two 60cm x 90cm (i.e. 24″ x 36″) rectangles out of each of the two fabrics, and sew two cylinders out of each, allowing for a doubled up hem as casing for the drawstring. I sewed the seam along the length of the casing three times with silk thread, the strongest natural thread (I think) as I did not want to go down the polyester route. That seam has to take a lot of pressure, not just while stuffing, but also for the lifetime of the pillow. I also made sure that the diameter of the casing was snug around the end disks.

I pulled the drawstring so as to leave about 5cm opening (I allowed 10cm overall with the base) put one disk in, put everything into a large moving cardboard box to contain the mess, and got into stuffing the pillowcase.

Stuffing the pillow – note how the seam is pulling out at the base, where I have compressed more.

I had to stab the straw with a carving knife every so often to ensure I packed it tightly. The hardest part was towards the end, as I had to put in the other end, draw in as much as possible, and check the length of the pillow to be just 30cm, to make sure I had packed it right.

Once the pillow was done (which is quite a workout), I had to get rid of the bumps, so as to have as much of a smooth surface as it is possible with straw. So I took the thick rolling pin you can see in the picture above, and went to work on it. I literally rolled the side (with considerable force) until it looked reasonably smooth. That takes a while, too.

In the end the total weight of this pillow, including fabric and ends, is 2,114 grams so about 150g more than the straw I wanted to put in, which makes me think that I got the density about right, though possibly there is a bit less straw than I wanted. But I am pretty happy with the results, and working on it is quite a joy!

This was in fact my second pillow, the first one I think needs a bit more straw and a bit more bashing, so perfect activity when you have some steam to let off, perhaps on a rainy day…

Making a block pillow for bobbin lace

(Check here for how to make a bolster pillow for bobbin lace)

Block pillows are very useful for bobbin lace done on a flat (i.e. non bolster) pillow, as it allows the lacemaker to progress the lace without having to “move up”: once your lace occupies most of the pillow, you have to unpin and move the whole thing up/sideways to continue, say you are working on a tablecloth or anything larger than a motif.

For me the drawback is that blocks are typically made of foam, and after a while all the pinning makes them go soft, not to mention that I’d like as much as possible to stick to natural materials.

I had come across a German lace supplier selling felt block pillows: beautiful, but very expensive, and on top of that the covering seemed to be held by glue, so I wasn’t too convinced I’d be happy afterwards. And so it was that I set out to make my own, and here is how I did.

First of all I ordered 50cm of this 100% wool industrial felt: it is denoted as “soft” for industrial purposes, but it is in fact pretty stiff, and I do mean stiff! But my expert lacemaking friends tells me that pillows must be stiff to hold the pins well, so why not?!

Before ordering I had tested on a sample that it would be stiff enough to hold the pins, but also soft enough not to be impenetrable (they kindly sent me a small sample, which was enough for testing). The “0.18 density” denomination means that it weighs 0.18g/cm³. So the whole 180cm wide piece I ordered (which came rolled up) weighs 180×1.2x50x0.18/1000=1.944kg. I should add that this was by far the cheapest 100% wool felt I could find, and in the right density (most others were denser, and I was afraid pins just won’t go in), and the people there couldn’t have been more helpful (and my guess is that mine was a tiny purchase from their point of view).

I made the blocks by dividing the 180cm wide strip into four pieces. I then put three of them one atop the other and cut through. To cut through this dense felt you will need a cutter – this video was very useful for me to figure out how to cut the felt:

How to cut through thick felt – video by The Felt Store

It is worth investing in a good cutter with a suitably long blade (as in the video) – mine has a short blade, so it did take a bit of extra work.

The felt blocks are cut!

The blocks aren’t exactly identical (thanks to the cutter and my “skills”): I thought the covering would take care of that, but I kept track of the original position when I cut just in case. The blocks are laid on the uncut fourth piece.

To cover the blocks I used strips of calico and of close weave quilting cotton. I washed them first, just to be sure that especially the cotton would not run off any dye. Before cutting any pieces I “starched the hell out of them”, following the expert advice of a very accomplished quilter friend of mine. Just a couple of points to note with starching:

1. I put the piece of fabric to be ironed flat on a tiled floor and sprayed it with starch to make sure it was evenly covered in starch. Any starch ending up on the floor will make it very slippery, so make sure to clean it up very carefully;

2. if you starch while ironing, be aware that any starch ending up on your ironing board may be burnt by the iron if it comes in direct contact, so again do wipe it out

3. iron without steam.

The starching makes the fabric very crisp and stiff, making it really easy to cut. It also removes the need to zigzag at the cut.

I first cut a template in tracing paper, checking that it would accommodate each block, then cut the fabric.

The template should of course include a a seam allowance. I cut both calico and cover cotton of the same side, of course bear in mind that the covering cotton will have to also accommodate the thickness of the calico.

Fabric ready for stitching

Again following the advice of my seamstress friend, I stitched the strips of fabric around the blocks using slip stitch. I found this video really useful to figure out the slip stitch, though unlike the video I had a seam allowance on both ends being stitched together:

How to sew slip stich/ladder stitch (video by J. A. Milton

My stitches were of course also much closer, I’d say about 3-4mm. I took an amount of thread equal to three times the length to stitch. Not sure what the size of my needle was though.

Stitching the cover so that it fits snugly means you have to pull the thread a lot, so I used silk sewing thread (Gütermann S303), which comes in many shades. I happened to have already the exact shades I needed, though with slip stitch the stitching should be invisible, so it should not really matter.

For each block, I started by stitching a tube (along the long side – my blocks are not square) with the calico: I made the the seam allowance so that it would fit the block snugly, but I stitched the fabric without the block inside, so that I could press the inside seams flat. I then slipped the block inside, so that the seam would be in the middle of a side. I pressed a seam allowance of about 5mm to cover the other two short sides, stitching it all along, then tucking the two corners inside. I pressed with the hot iron all around the block.

I repeated the same process with the cover fabric, wrapping it over the calico.

Of course there is nothing preventing using the sewing machine for two out of the three seams required for each cover, which is what I ended up doing after sewing both covers for the first two blocks.

And then it is done!

All is left for me to do is to add a strap all around to tighten up and minimise the (unavoidable) gaps.

Still to come, how I made a bolster bobbin lace pillow!

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