The delicate fabric of high society

By Denise L’Estrange-Corbet

Its intricacy, expense and craftsmanship once made it a must-have for England’s elite. Denise L’Estrange-Corbet traces the history of Honiton lace, a famous feature of royal births and weddings.

Queen Victoria wore it on her wedding day, so did Princesses Anne and Diana. And every royal baby since the mid-1900s has been christened in it. Honiton lace is as much part of royal wedding tradition as Westminster Abbey.

But whether modern royal Kate Middleton continues with the custom won't be known till the moment she steps from her car and heads up the steps to Westminster Abbey in two week's time.

For the small village in East Devon where Honiton lace has been made since the 16th century it will be an important moment.

It was Queen Victoria who famously put Honiton on the map in 1839 when she commissioned more than 200 lacemakers to create a lace flounce and veil for her wedding dress - keeping them employed for more than nine months.

Such was her love of this particular lace that if you were invited to tea with the Queen and failed to wear Honiton lace she quite simply refused to meet with you. She did this until her death in 1901.

Exactly one year to the day after her wedding to Albert, on February 10, 1841, their first child, the Princess Royal was christened at Buckingham Palace, in a gown trimmed with Honiton lace taken from Queen Victoria's wedding dress. It was the same gown Prince William wore when he was christened and was later photographed in with his mother, Princess Diana.

The gown that so many of the royal children were christened in was eventually retired, due to its fragility, and a complete replica has been made, using recycled Honiton lace taken from Queen Elizabeth II's personal archival collection. It is likely the gown that will be used to christen the first child of William Windsor and Katherine Middleton.

My instructions were to meet "round the back" of the Allhallows Museum in Honiton High Street, by the red door. The museum - which has one of the world's most comprehensive collections of Honiton lace - is closed throughout the winter months, so I was very lucky Honiton's most famous lace maker, Pat Perryman, let me in to view history, and particularly Honiton's royal connections, so close to another royal wedding.

We head upstairs, and sit around a very large square table, facing shelves housing hordes of box files and beneath these, drawers, each intricately labelled with the contents.

Lace making originated in Italy, and can be traced to Honiton as far back as the mid-16th century. Prior to the advent of the camera, paintings were our pictorial knowledge of the time, and rarely is lace recorded in paintings prior to 1610.

Honiton is a small Devonshire town, and lacemaking, which is a type of weaving, was done by not only women at home, but by men, who were used to making their own fishing nets.

When the harsh and bitter winter arrived, with the North Sea winds and rain lashing the rocks, the boats were unable to go out, and the men, too, had to learn to weave to keep the family fed.

Weaving was for the working class, and children from the age of 5 were taught the skill - 12 hour days for these youngsters were not uncommon. As they were so young, Pat tells me, they tended to weave in straight strips, rather than patterns, similar to knitting a scarf as opposed to a jumper, and this is where the term "straight-laced" originated from.

The gentry whiled away their hours working tapestry for pleasure in their well appointed sitting rooms. The poor had no choice but to weave - for a meagre living, in filthy conditions - the white lace collars and intricate pieces which would be worn by the gentry.

Pat is over 70, and tells me that her husband's grandmother was also a Honiton lace maker for a local store, where the storeowners supplied the thread to the makers to ensure consistency in the thread colour and quality of their work. The store owner would supply the maker with just enough thread for the piece they were to make, but if the lace maker was frugal they could keep all the tiny end pieces of the thread, join them together and make a small piece of lace, which they could sell and keep the proceeds from, without the store owner knowing. Pat tells me with a laugh that this was "Granny's gin Money".

Little has changed really - these days the west is using third world countries rather than locals, but still in the same way.

Honiton lace can be traced back as far as 1560, and even though London was where everything happened even then, Honiton thrived due to the fact it was a serge weaving town. It was on the Great West road from London to Plymouth, and the flax to spin the thread was grown close by in the Axminster area, which is famous for its long lasting wool carpets.

The stores in the 19th century sold Honiton lace to the very wealthy for a premium, while children, their mothers and sometimes fathers toiled by candlelight to make the most meagre living. The wealthy of the time, I doubt, gave very little thought to the conditions in which their lace was manufactured under, and were lucky to never know how grubby lace was cleaned prior to being sold. Looking after lace would have been time consuming, and I casually asked Pat how it was kept clean.

"Urine" she replied.

"Sorry?" I said.

"Urine."

Apparently, in the 19th century wooden barrels were placed in the street, and the locals all deposited their urine in the barrel. Stale urine contains ammonia, and if you put your urine in the barrel you were then allowed to use it to wash your sheets and other items. The lace would then be rinsed and dried, and apparently, it came up a treat.

Wealth in the 1700 and early 1800s was shown by the quality and amount of lace you owned and wore, as opposed to the amount of jewellery you had. However, the beginning of the 19th century didn't bode well for the township of Honiton. Superior lace was being manufactured in France and Brussels, and in 1809 John Heathcote from Tiverton in Devon invented a machine-made bobbin net, and progressed to making lace by machine. Things were looking dire for this small town.

But as the industrial revolution gained momentum, nobody realised a young princess had been reading about the effects of industry on small English artisans, and when she later became the Queen of England, things would change for Honiton.

In March 1839, the 20-year-old Queen Victoria commissioned more than 200 lace makers from Honiton to work on a large flounce for her. It is not known whether she had marriage in mind at the time, as she did not propose to Albert until October that year.

The lace flounce they made, which formed part of Victoria's wedding dress, measured four yards long and three-quarters of a yard in depth, and her veil was made in the same design and kept the lace-makers working for six weeks alone.

The dress was made of Spitalfields satin, and the lace flounce covering the skirt and veil cost £1000 in 1839. But, as Pat explained to me, one square inch of Honiton lace takes 10 hours upwards to produce so when you consider the amount of Honiton lace seen in paintings, the wealth of the person at the time is mind boggling.

Prior to Victoria being on the throne, King William IV's wife, Queen Adelaide, was also an admirer and owner of the lace. And if the portrait of her by Sir William Beechley, circa 1831, is a Honiton lace gown, it would be the equivalent of wearing 25 gold and diamond encrusted Rolex watches up your arm while sitting atop a Maybach luxury car.

Queen Elizabeth II didn't have Honiton lace on her wedding gown, as she was married soon after the war, but Princess Anne and Princess Alice both did. Pat also made and presented Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer with the Prince of Wales Feathers made in Honiton lace as a wedding gift to the couple, and it was reported Diana wore Honiton lace on her wedding outfit.

After 22 years of marriage, which produced nine children, Prince Albert died in 1861, and Victoria went into mourning. Mourning in the Victorian period was long - a widow was in mourning for her husband for two-and-a-half years while a widower would mourn his wife for just three months, as it was felt he needed to find a wife for the children, so that he could return to work.

With Albert's death, the buttery-coloured cotton lace of Honiton was now no longer in vogue, as tradition dictated Victoria had to wear black.

Black cotton lace, as with black cotton, faded easily, so the lace makers started weaving in black silk. Victoria once again set a fashion trend. Victoria was neither fashionable nor particularly attractive, but she was the Queen of England, and there were few role models to look up to.

Lacemaking, however, did eventually fall out of vogue - by 1889 the Honiton lace makers were down from 2500 to just 250 and by 1939 just nine.

Pat Perryman had no particular interest in lace making. She was a dressmaker and it was a friend who encouraged her to attend an evening class at the local Devon County school which piqued her interest. Two and a half years later, the teacher left and Pat, who was the youngest and newest student in class, was asked to take over. She was unsure of how the other much more experienced students would feel about this, but she was welcomed.

She sat me down to give me what she considered a quick and easy lesson, but which left me more muddled than I have been in a long time.

Honiton lace is worked on a "demonstration pillow" filled with barley straw. You start with a template of the design - this can be a photocopy of an insect or similar - then you tracewheel this pattern on to paper. The pattern of the item is then completely pinned to the pillow, and you start with two pairs of wooden bobbins. You can have as many pairs of bobbins as you like, depending on the intricacy of the design, and Pat told me not to look at the bobbins, but on the lace you are making. She likens it to driving a car - "you look at the road, and not at what your feet are doing" - which makes perfect sense, except by then I was already completely lost and waiting to crash.

The thread now used is Egyptian cotton imported from Bruges, as are the fine stainless pins. Thread manufacturing in England shut up shop 10 years ago.

Pat also holds an impressive collection of various bobbins at the museum, which were made from local woods or animal bones, and the owner's name or words were sometimes carved into them.

Most of the lace makers were illiterate, and one bobbin which caught my eye and my heart, was pricked with the words "I wants a husband".

In 1981 Pat was asked to make the jabot for the Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas. This took her 500 hours, over a period of two years. She was then invited to the State Opening of Parliament where Bernard Weatherill asked her to create a pair of matching cuffs, each of which took 500 hours to make. However, today's Speaker of the House, John Bercow, has caused quite a furore in England on returning his jabot and cuffs to Honiton, saying he prefers to wear a suit rather than the traditional outfit.

If the Queen wore a pair of Calvin Klein jeans and T-shirt at the State Opening of Parliament, I would demand she was sent to the Tower, as pomp, ceremony and history are what royal England is about. Would the upcoming royal wedding be reaching such fever pitch if Wills and Kate were to get hitched at Caxton Hall, followed by an Indian takeaway from the Bengal Tiger? I think not.

I looked around the shop within the museum, where you can buy small pieces of relatively well- priced Honiton lace. However, if you were to purchase a collar, it would set you back between £1000 and £2000 (NZ$2090-$4180). Pat explained that lace is not used by designers today as they would want a quick turnaround, and it would take more than a year to make a limited amount. When Queen Victoria died in 1901 her Honiton lace was valued at £76,000.

So will Kate be wearing Honiton lace? In today's economic climate, no matter how rosy tinted our specs were for a royal wedding, the public purse would not want to fork out for 200 people to be kept working for nine months solid on a Honiton lace flounce for the princess bride's dress. In fact, there are no longer 200 people who still have this skill, and Pat, even though she still works every day on lace making, says she would no longer want to part with any of her pieces as they are so costly.

However, with the wonderful advent of the words "vintage clothing", I wonder whether Kate will have some vintage Honiton lace on her dress, borrowed from her future in laws' rather large collection squirrelled away in the vaults of Windsor Castle.

Denise L'Estrange-Corbet flew to London with Virgin Atlantic and stayed at the Langham Hotel, London.

- NZ Herald