What: A Lace Life: The Alwynne Crowsen Collection
Where and when: Objectspace, 8 Ponsonby Rd, Auckland, to May 17
And: Jeweller Joanna Campbell and artist Kim Meek discuss the exhibition, noon, Saturday May 3; Crowsen identifies laces at the gallery, noon, Saturday May 17
Alwynne Crowsen started making lace in 1966 after reading a magazine article saying bobbin lace-making could not be self-taught. "I saw that as a challenge. I like a challenge," says the West Auckland grandmother, whose knowledge of lace can now be called encyclopaedic.
During the past four decades, she has tracked down books and samples of vanishing styles and techniques, and produced example pieces she meticulously files in a cabinet in her basement. "I like learning the different countries' laces, the techniques used. You'd be surprised how different they are," the 80-year-old confides, as we walk among her collection laid out in cabinets in Objectspace in Auckland's Ponsonby Rd.
"This is Irish crochet. It's got all those little 3D flowers," she says, pointing to an exquisite white collar. "This is Venetian needle lace. That's creative bobbin lace. That's Flanders and this is Halas lace which is done with a needle."
And so on and on, dozens of names and styles, thread knotted around thread in complex mathematical equations, tensions balanced, a single line looping into other dimensions.
Feeling a technical void in my understanding, I ask what seems an obvious question about the fourth dimension: how long did a piece take to make?
"I don't know," she says. "I never counted the hours and I had a lot of children so I had to do everything in spare minutes."
Six children in fact, with all that that entails. "One thing that is really good about bobbin lace, you can stop, and two hours later just pick it up and go on. With some things like knotted lace, you have to get to the end of a row before you put it down."
Objectspace director Philip Clarke says Crowsen is in her own category as a maker. Her expertise is such that she could not be considered an amateur and her methodical approach to creation and collection means she has taken on many of the functions of a curator.
Since 2004, she has been the volunteer curator of lace at the Auckland War Memorial Museum. She is also an innovator, developing her own techniques and patterns, such as the weta in Honiton lace, the technique chosen for Queen Victoria's wedding dress.
Soon after picking up her needle, Crowsen co-founded the Auckland Embroiderers and Lace Makers Guild. She started teaching WEA classes in 1975 and still teaches three night classes a week at Rutherford and Lynfield colleges, and Titirangi Community House.
Curator Anna Miles said when Crowsen started making lace, the craft was almost lost, killed by mechanisation and women's changing expectations. One of the few books Crowsen could find was a 19th century text on an Austrian lace-maker, written in French, from which she painstakingly translated instructions.
"She is a pioneer in the lace-making revival," says Miles. "Alwynne's lace-making proceeded according to the information that became available and the exhibition is an accurate record of the lace knowledge that has surfaced since she started."
That meant sometimes doing samples of styles she wasn't particularly taken with, like tatting or some of the modern experiments of others. In the back room at Objectspace are examples of lace-making pillows and collections of bobbins. "My husband taught me and all my children how to use the lathe, because I always needed more bobbins," she says.
There are also antique bobbins, bone bobbins, ones done for different styles of lace. Crowsen adds tokens and beads to the bottom of some of her bobbins, to prevent them rolling over each other. Bobbins for tape laces and Honiton have pointed ends, so they don't catch when the lace-maker is sewing together pieces of lace. "These were done by travelling peddlers," she says, pointing to an ancient stick. "They had a peddle lathe on their cart, and they would go round the different lace-makers and make bobbins."
There have been times when the effort of such fine work has hurt physically. "My hands started to ache and they diagnosed rheumatoid arthritis. The doctor said, 'You have to give up lace', and I said no. When I went back, he changed his tune and said you need to do something with lots of exercise. I thought I'd learn the tenor recorder, which stretches my small hands, so I went to Saturday morning class for a half a year and then got a proper teacher. I don't do it now, but I don't have trouble with my hands any more."
She became interested in sewing in the 1950s and made her dress for her wedding in 1955 to Hylton Crowsen, a South African plasterer working in London. The newlyweds set off to see the world, arriving in New Zealand after a short spell working in Canada.
She admits to a sense of satisfaction when a piece of lace is finished. "It's great until you look closely and see all those things you didn't do right, so you have to do another bit better. That's part of what makes handmade lace more interesting than its machine-made copy, the human error that creeps in over the hours and weeks it takes to produce.
"You must not rely on that; you must endeavour to do it perfectly. I am not giving up until my memory goes."