Lace For Your Life

Lace For Your Life
by Phyllis Irene Radford

Ribbons and lace adorn little girl clothing and big girl finery. For centuries, lace has defined elegance.

When I was in grade school, I watched a film strip about Spain for social studies. The only thing I remember about that film strip – indeed for much of that entire year – was the image of a little girl making lace. She used about a dozen threads wound onto cards and she wove those threads rapidly into a pattern unique to her family that had been passed from generation to generation.

I was fascinated. The images stayed with me to this day, several decades later. The idea of creating beautiful fabric from air and thread remains a passion.

Without realizing it, I embarked upon a life long quest to make lace within a year of watching that film strip. Embroidery, knitting, crocheting, and sewing became a part of my everyday life.

And then one magical summer at a county fair I found a doily on exhibit made of tatted lace. Despite the efforts of crossword puzzle designers to teach us otherwise, tatting is just one form of lace making. It closely resembles macramé in structure, a series of double half hitches built onto a drawstring. I studied that doily for as long as my mother and sister would allow. Serendipitously, a month later my local community school offered a class in tatting.

My mother gave me her mother’s tatting shuttle as a reward for completing the class. Of all the family heirlooms, I value this one the most. Let my sister have the diamonds, I got the tatting shuttle.

Thirty years later I still treasure that shuttle though I don’t use it any more. It’s made of celluloid to look like ivory and becoming quite fragile. About 2.5 inches long, it has a little pick on one end. That’s unusual for the time period it must have been made. Sometimes I think that shuttle taught me to tat. I’ve won numerous county, state and international prizes for the lace I’ve made with that shuttle.

Here’s a photo of some snowflakes I made as hostess gifts one Christmas season.

tatted snowflakes

My love of tatting led me the Portland Lace Society in Portland, Oregon. Within a year of joining I discovered bobbin lace. This form of lace is what the little Spanish girl wove. She had her threads wound onto cards, most styles use bobbins, little spindles of wood, some with a circle of beads on the bottom to keep the bobbins from rolling and over-twisting the threads. This of course leads to collecting both bobbins and beads. But that’s another story. The weight of the beads adds tension to the thread and keeps the pattern even. To keep the entire mass of threads and bobbins organized we work upon a pillow. Not just any throw pillow found on a sofa – though those will work – we have special pillows filled with straw or wool, or exotic forms of Styrofoam that forgives you for sticking pins into it, and covered in sturdy twill or upholstery velvet. We weave the threads without a loom. Pins stuck into the pillow anchor the pattern until completion. See the picture above for an idea of what it looks like in progress.

work in progress

The black silk fan pictured here is Chantilly lace. I needed 120 PAIRS of bobbins to complete. This style averages about 1 square inch per hour. That doesn’t count the time spent undoing the work to correct a mistake.


I can crochet lace, I can knit lace. I’ve made needle lace and netted lace. The last form is actually the same technique as making a fish net, but the threads and needles are hundreds of times smaller.

Complicated? You bet your sweet tushy it is. And that’s the joy of making lace. An intellectual challenge, an exercise in patience – and frustration. It’s a puzzle that requires complete concentration. I often fall into a deep meditation trance while lacing, counting the twists and crosses, placing the pins, listening to the faint click as bobbins and beads touch each other…

Like any art, the satisfaction comes from the doing. The finished project is the bonus.

But then the object of our journey through life is the journey, the process, and not getting to the end in a hurry.

And so my first mystery story, which starts today on the Book View Cafe celebrates lace in all of its lovely, graceful forms.


About Phyllis Irene Radford

Irene Radford has been writing stories ever since she figured out what a pencil was for. A member of an endangered species—a native Oregonian who lives in Oregon—she and her husband make their home in Welches, Oregon where deer, bears, coyotes, hawks, owls, and woodpeckers feed regularly on their back deck. A museum trained historian, Irene has spent many hours prowling pioneer cemeteries deepening her connections to the past. Raised in a military family she grew up all over the US and learned early on that books are friends that don’t get left behind with a move. Her interests and reading range from ancient history, to spiritual meditations, to space stations, and a whole lot in between. Mostly Irene writes fantasy and historical fantasy including the best-selling Dragon Nimbus Series and the masterwork Merlin’s Descendants series. In other lifetimes she writes urban fantasy as P.R. Frost or Phyllis Ames, and space opera as C.F. Bentley. Later this year she ventures into Steampunk as someone else. If you wish information on the latest releases from Ms Radford, under any of her pen names, you can subscribe to her newsletter: Promises of no spam, merely occasional updates and news of personal appearances.


Lace For Your Life — 7 Comments

  1. Those are gorgeous pieces! I crochet with thread (self-taught), which is much easier to undo (if needed) than bobbin lace…. One of these days I hope to bend my mind around tatting.

    The story hasn’t shown up yet on the New This Week page, but I look forward to reading it.

  2. Yow, those are beautiful! I can knit lace, which (whatever else you can say about it) is at least easy to take apart again. For speed and volume, knitting lace is the way to go — I have knitted lace dresses for myself without too much trouble. At one square inch an hour, I would never progress beyond thong bikinis.

  3. Your Chantilly lace fan is absolutely gorgeous! WOW! That’s inspiring! Now, THAT’s some bobbin lace! Love it. Your tatting is lovely, too! 🙂

  4. As always, I am stunned by their beauty and coveting the ornaments. I bought a bookmark and one tiny snowflake at a festival. The artist admitted she didn’t make much on the stuff — too time intensive — but she loved doing it, so that was where the overflow was going!

    I haven’t been paying attention at LJ, so I will be very jealous if you had another drawing for a bookmark and I missed it.