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Bobbin lace equipment - Pillow

The two most expensive pieces of equipment for bobbin lacemakers are the pillow and the bobbins. You can buy these from bobbin lace equipment suppliers - click here for some British suppliers or try searching on the internet. A warning - it is possible to get lacemaking 'kits'. I am not convinced that this is always a sensible thing to do. Sometimes the cost is more than getting the items separately, and you have to put up with whatever you are given. However, there are beginner pillows which are good value - just check against other pillows to compare the price.

A lace pillow is somewhere to pin a pattern on, stick pins into, and lie bobbins on. Bobbin lace used to be called pillow lace (as opposed to other lace such as needlepoint or needle lace), which shows that the pillow has always been an essential part of the craft.

While it is called a pillow, do not think of something soft and squashy! It is hard because this will hold the pins steady. When working lace, your pillow can rest on your knee. This means that either you must sit in a low chair, or rest your feet on something, so your knees are straight, or sloping towards your body. Otherwise the pillow will slip off and the bobbins will not hang straight. You can also have the pillow on a table (it may help to prop up the pillow slightly so it tilts towards you), or on a special stand. All these can be seen in old paintings of lacemakers. I prefer having the pillow on my knees.

Picture of pillow

Modern pillows are often can be made of expanded polystyrene, which is cheap and takes pins well. They will have a fabric cover, usually blue, for some reason! Simple modern pillows may be flat on top, or slightly domed. A common pillow is called a cookie pillow from the shape, which is round, and domed on top. The photo above shows one of these with pattern, thread, pins and bobbins. The pattern is pinned securely to the pillow before you start working the lace. These pillows are cheap and effective. They are light, and can make a reasonable piece of lace, with all the bobbins that such lace needs. They are not good for long pieces of lace. Still, I recommend this pillow to start on, so you can find out if you really are a lacemaker.

Picture of pillow

The problem with making long pieces of lace is that sooner or later, you run out of pillow. I have seen an explanation of how you can try to move your entire lace work, in progress, with all its pins, further up the pillow. I tried it once - never again! I prefer using another type of pillow, called a roller pillow. The photo above shows an old pillow, stuffed with straw, I think. The bobbins lie on the main part of the pillow. The roller is quite small, and the only part of the pillow where pins are stuck in. The pattern is pinned right round the roller and joined to the start, so it is a continuous loop. When working the lace, the roller can rotate, so the pattern slips under the roller, while the worked lace hangs down the back (see right). The pattern may be longer than the roller, so then it is pinned only where it is worked, not right along its length as in a cookie pillow. As the roller brings more pattern into play, the worked part has the pins removed and new pins put in to steady the unworked part of the pattern. This technique means that there is no limit as to how long a piece of lace is (apart from the amount of thread wound onto your bobbins!)

Picture of pillow

Another type of pillow which has become popular is a block pillow, as above. This is another expanded polystyrene pillow, but set in a wooden frame. It is still fairly light. There are four removable blocks, two square, and two half blocks, which can be rearranged as you please. You can see a half block removed, above.

There are two advantages to this pillow. You can pin a long pattern on it, and as you work down the line of blocks, you can, at intervals, take a block off the top, and push it in at the bottom, moving the other blocks up. This does not disturb the pins too much, as they are firmly pushed into one (or more) of the blocks that are moved. You can even work lace that goes round a corner, as long as you manage to position the pattern so the corner happens within a square block. That would involved lifting the whole block up, with the pins and threads and bobbins, turning it, and putting it back again. Tricky, but doable. I did wonder, when I started using this pillow, what would happen as I work downwards, off one block and onto the next. Would the pins tend to slip into the gap, and not stick properly? They can, but you can angle them slightly to push into one or other of the blocks, so that is OK.

I mentioned two advantages. The other advantage is that you can buy replacement blocks (rather than a whole new pillow) when the polystyrene gets worn out.

Picture of pillow

It is also possible to buy a roller block to fit in this pillow. The photo shows the block, not in use, but it just replaces one of the square blocks. So then the pillow acts like a roller pillow.

Pictures of pillow

Here is another type of pillow, called a bolster pillow. There is a modern example on the left, and a Victorian painting of an English lacemaker on the right. The advantage of this type of pillow is that it is possible to pin a pattern right round it (like the roller) and carry on working a piece of lace as long as you want. It might also be possible to make one yourself, although I haven't, and don't know what the problems might be. I have tried using such a pillow, though, and found it hard to use, since all the bobbins tended to run together, and it was hard to find which bobbin to lift over another. I think that lacemakers who use this type of pillow (and prefer it to any other) make lace stitches by holding the four bobbins in their hands, doing twists by manipulating the bobbins in their fingers, and crosses by swapping between the two hands. Click here for more on this. The different lace traditions make lace in different ways, and we all tend to find one way easier than another. Try different techniques out, and see which you prefer.

In Malta, they have a very long, thin bolster pillow which they hold the other way, working down its length.

It is possible to make your own pillow. Click here for some ideas.

Paintings of lacemakers

These are two famous paintings - by Caspar Netscher, painted in 1662, on the left, and by Vermeer, painted around 1669-1671. They are both Flemish (Dutch). The lacemaker on the left has the pillow on her lap. She is probably resting her feet on a stool, but this is hidden by her skirt. The lacemaker on the right has the pillow on a stand. The pillows have a wooden frame, and are slightly domed.

Ceylon Lacemakers by Edward Atkinson Hornel

This is by Edward Atkinson Hornel, a Scottish painter, in 1908 and it is called Ceylon Lacemakers. They are resting their pillows on the ground, and if you look carefully, they are roller pillows.

Hunting of the Snark - beaver lacemaker

This looks more modern - a cookie pillow. However, it is a contemporary illustration to the "Hunting of the Snark" by Lewis Carroll, published in 1876, so it is unlikely to be expanded polystyrene! The beaver (!) is using a table.

The Dutch for lace pillow is Kantkloskussen and the German is Kloppelkissen.