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Bobbin lace - Sewing lace onto fabric

Bobbin lace is fun to make, but obviously you would like to use the finished product. Traditionally, lace was used to trim clothes or other fabric.

Making the lace and sewing it onto fabric are two separate steps. For the sewing, you naturally need a needle and thread. It makes sense to use the same thread that you used to make the lace, but this is not essential. Try to match colour, though.

A straight-forward strip can be used to trim the edge of an existing garment. Or you can work a specific shape, such as a square, or circle, with a hole in the centre. This hole can then be filled with fabric such as cotton, to make a mat or handkerchief. A third possibility is a triangle, which can be sewn onto the corner of a handkerchief or lace, or replace the corner.

picture of lace

A strip of lace suitable to sew onto fabric has two edges, a headside, which is decorative, usually wavy or frilly, and a straight edge or footside. If you wish to sew the lace onto the fabric so the lace projects beyond the fabric, then you sew into the footside. The footside is designed to be straight, and strong. The passives which run parallel to the edge provide much of this strength. It is best to push the needle through the pinholes in the lace when sewing. The design of lace means that the threads running from pinholes distribute their stress to the rest of the lace evenly. This makes the sewing strong, and won't distort the lace if it is pulled accidentally away from the fabric. If you sew into the lace at random, you may pick up just one thread, and this can then be pulled away from the rest of the lace and coggle the pattern or even break the thread.

picture of lace

It is possible to sew the lace on top of the fabric, so the fabric shows through the gaps in the lace. From old paintings, this seems to have been a fashion at one time, and I find it attractive, although it is not done much now. If you wish to do this, sew the footside to the edge of the garment, then smooth the lace flat, pin it if necessary, and make enough stitches to keep it flat, either along the headside, or within the lace as you choose. Aim for pin holes, though, as these are the strong points of the lace.

These are flat sewings. Many people think of lace as 'frilly', and want it gathered rather than flat. In fact, headsides are frequently floppier than footsides, and may wave naturally anyway. I have heard beginners bewail this! If you want more gathering, then you can run a thread through the footside, pull it into a gather, then sew the result onto your fabric. In the past, handkerchiefs were trimmed with straight strips by gathering the lace at the corners. If you do this, then remember to smooth the lace to make sure that the gather is enough to allow the headside to go right round the corner, and not try to take a short-cut! This gathering technique takes a lot of lace, and makes a bulky corner.

Gathering lace round a corner

The preferred modern technique is to use a pattern with flat corners, so the whole piece is worked as a mat with a hole in the centre.

picture of lace

This is a surprisingly easy technique to learn, and fun! It does have one drawback. If you trim a handkerchief with a strip, then there are pillows which allow you to make as long a piece of lace as you wish, such as a block pillow, a roller pillow or a bolster. But these only allow you to work a long piece in one direction. These 'mats with a hole in' require four possible directions, as you keep turning the pillow. So there are two possible solutions to this problem. Either you have a large enough pillow to work the whole pattern on (and remember, you need room for the bobbins as well.) Or you might be able to use a block pillow with some forward planning. Blocks within the pillow are square, and so can be turned within the pillow. You might be able to do this, but only if the whole corner is on a single block. If it is spread over two blocks, then you won't be able to turn them both. And this is not just true of the first turn, which you can see as you pin the pattern. It must be true of all four turns!

People do talk of 'moving the lace up a pillow'. This means lifting all the pins off the pillow while still in the lace, and carefully shifting lace, pattern, pins and bobbins up a few inches. I tried it once. Never again! I went and bought a roller pillow instead. And I admit I only make mats small enough to fit on my pillow.

Having made your 'mat with a hole in', you now need to sew it onto the fabric. I have found that the best way to do this not to try to cut the fabric to fit the hole. Instead, lay the fabric flat and lay the lace on top, showing its best side. (Lace is supposed to be the same on both sides, but sometimes one side looks better!) Pin them if necessary. Then sew the footside (round the hole) onto the fabric. There is no sense of a hem yet, just the lace sewn on top of the fabric (aiming for pin holes as usual). Turn everything over, and carefully trim the fabric outside the sewing line, allowing extra for whatever you think suitable for a hem. Then turn over the surplus fabric so the crease line runs right by the footside, and hem the fabric. You can get a very neat join in this way (and I am not a naturally neat sewer!) The hemming will tend to show through the fabric, so match the thread in this case to the fabric rather than the lace.

picture of lace

There is another type of sewing done with lace, which is the opposite of the lace with a hole, and that is an insertion. Here, it is the fabric which has the hole, and the lace fills the hole.

picture of lace

An insertion has two footsides. Putting lace insertions as decorations in garments is perhaps rather old-fashioned. The sewing technique is similar to above, although I don't seem to have followed it in the photo!

It is also possible to sew a lace edging onto fabric, so that the edge of the fabric goes up to the outer edge of the lace rather than the inner.

Picture of lace

A triangle of lace may be part of a strip of lace or a corner. (Click here for the strip triangle and here for the corner triangle.) Once you have made the triangle, then it is sewn onto the fabric in the same way as an edge, except you must choose the right edge to sew! It can be sewn directly onto the corner of the fabric, or replace a corner.

Sewing on a triangle Sewing on a triangle

If you wish to replace a corner, then fold the corner over, sew the lace to the folded edge, then trim the excess from the fabric and hem it. This makes a neat, and accurate, join.

Here are some examples of triangles sewn onto fabric in different ways:

Picture of lace