The story of English lace spans centuries and covers the origins of fashion and the industrial revolution. It’s a story of progress, of modernity and of inventions that helped revolutionise the way we work, dress and live today.
The documentary begins in the 16th Century with the origins of lace as a decorative fabric worn by the rich and powerful to demonstrate their status at the peak of society. Royals like Queen Elizabeth 1st used lace to demonstrate power and prestige to her subjects and the world at large. This patronage created large native industries in handmade lace. As demand for fashionable clothes and interior furnishings grew, so did the lace industry, setting the scene for a series of remarkable inventions – centred mainly in Nottinghamshire – that would go on to create entirely new industries that employed hundreds of thousands of people. These new industries brought fashionable clothing to a much wider section of the population and saw new jobs established for designers, engineers, manufacturers and merchants who served a thriving domestic market. It’s the story of progress and modernity as many of the new lace firms took their goods and services abroad as the business of lace went global.
England’s unique contribution to the story of lace saw the creation of machines and businesses that enabled this fashionable textile to be used not just by the ruling elites but also the middle classes and later the population at large. It was the wealth from this new industry that allowed tens of thousands of men and women to escape poverty and build many of the modern towns and cities that we live in today. The film will show how the demand for fashion, coupled with technical innovation, drove the industry forward. During the reign of Queen Victoria the industry’s new found wealth was paying for new roads, railways and civic amenities, it helped to provide clean water, gas and power and some of the first housing for workers. In Nottingham it directly employed one third of the working population; indirectly one half of the city’s men and women could be found working in the lace industries.
The film also covers the 20th century, when lace fell out of fashion after World War One. The collapse of the global trading system following the war and the crash of 1929 meant that the lace industry didn’t really revive until after World War Two. When it did pick up the fashion was for artificial fibres which favoured a new type of machine made in Germany, which replaced Britain as the place to develop, build and sell textile machines. As global trade really took off in the 1990s, the centre of gravity in textile production moved away from Europe to the Far East.
The film documents the move of manufacturing to the Far East and Latin America and the catastrophic impact this has had on Nottingham and the small towns and villages that surround it. Today there is still a strong demand for lace but only a few firms remain in the western world with the ability to manufacture it. The great firms that used to make lace for the mass market have gone forever.
Yet whilst the infrastructure for mass manufacture in the western world has pretty much gone, there remain a small number of specialist high end lace makers who create beautiful and unique fabrics for designers and specialist shops. But it’s a precarious existence that relies on the continuing ability of a small number of experienced lace makers to source yarns, find and retain skilled staff and dye and sell their products in a highly volatile and competitive market. Those that survive tend to rely on their own finances and business networks. But the ability to shape the future has now gone to companies based overseas.