3 centuries of Lace history

The Lace Gallery

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3 centuries of Lace history in Nottingham

The current Lace Gallery in Nottingham Castle was created in 2021, but when the Castle first opened for the public, with the name “Museum and Art Gallery” back in 1878, one of its exhibitions was the “Fine Art Lace & Needlework. 

Nottingham Museums have been collecting machine-made and handmade lace, and lace machinery since 1878 when Nottingham Castle Museum and Art Gallery first opened! During the 1890s, a textile gallery was created in what had been the kitchen wing of the Castle, which aimed to showcase the products of Nottingham’s famous lace industry.


When the recent project to refurbish and redisplay Nottingham Castle was first conceived, a lace gallery was reintroduced, to highlight the importance of Nottingham’s Lace Industry to a new generation, because Nottingham is the place where machines to make lace were invented.  


Photograph from the 1920s showing the first lace gallery at the Castle, in the room now occupied by the Rebellion Gallery.  The replica of the famous Bayeux Tapestry that can be seen above the lace samples, around the top of the room, was on loan to the Castle at that time. 

Working with designers Casson Mann, Nottingham Museums’ staff researched, selected objects and stories to create the Lace Gallery to showcase highlights from our collections of Nottingham Lace and Machinery. The Lace and Lace Machinery collections of Nottingham Museums have ‘Designated’ status, awarded by Arts Council England in recognition of the National importance of the collection.

To select all the pieces of lace and objects in the Lace Gallery, the curators had to put their focus, thought, discussion and research into this project. Some items were too fragile to display, so an object’s state of conservation was a consideration. The beautiful dresses and other items of clothing that were selected needed to be supported as if being worn, so the curators had bespoke mannequins made specially to fit the proportions of each garment – with the makers of the mannequins spending some days trying the dresses on mannequin forms. Two shades of grey were chosen for the mannequins, which showed the lace to best effect.   


Wedding dress, 1908-10 (NCM 1980-174/1-2) | Cream silk wedding dress.

Wedding dress, 1879 (NCM 1987-166) | Blue and pink shot silk wedding dress.


As well as dresses, the Lace Gallery contains a brief history of lace machinery in Nottingham. Our oldest and most important machine is John Heathcoat’s model of his 1809 Old Loughborough bobbin net machine [NIM 1964-13], the first purpose built commercial lace machine. This model was used in the 1816 patent trial which found in Heathcoat’s favour. However, because of the constant rounds of litigation this model may have been made and used earlier than this date suggests. 


Heathcoat’s 2nd patent lace machine, 1809 (NIM 1964-13) 

This model was used to demonstrate the unique principles of Heathcoat’s invention in a legal dispute that established his patent. It is probably the oldest lace machine in the world.

John Leavers’ bobbin net machine [NIM 1964-15] dates from around 1828 and it was the development of this machine, with a single layer of thin bobbins, upon which the main lace industry of Nottingham was based. His machine allowed for the later addition of the Jacquard cards that, directly patterned the lace, rather than creating a stable hexagonal net which had to be embroidered by hand. Such a feat could never have been achieved on Heathcoat’s machine as it relied on two tiers of bobbins which moved positions with each forwards and backwards motion of the machine, making it too complex for the people who draughted the designs. 


Model Leavers lace machine, 1828 (NIM 1964-15)

Originally invented by John Leavers in 1813, this is the only twist net machine to retain its inventor’s name. It later became known as the ‘Leavers’ lace machine. A full-size machine is some three meters high and weighs over 10 tons.

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