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The history of bobbin lacemaking in Germany

Bobbin lace has existed for about 500 years. The first evidence we have came from Italy and Flanders but soon bobbin lacemaking was known in France, Spain and Portugal, and in Germany too, people began to make bobbin lace.

Barbara Uthmann statueAccording to legend, bobbin lacemaking came to the German Erzgebirge in around 1560 because a refugee from Brabant found a room in the house of the family Uthmann in Annaberg. She is said to have had her lace pillow with her and to have taught Frau Uthmann how to make bobbin lace. Barbara Uthmann is then said to have introduced bobbin lacemaking into the Erzgebirge and invented the bolster-shaped lace pillow which is typically used there.


The statue of Barbara Uthmann on the market place in Annaberg

We know for a fact that in about 1560 Barbara Uthmann ran a bobbin lacemaking workshop in which girls learned to make lace and then produced lace for sale. Barbara Uthmann found markets for the lace and became the employer of 900 lacemakers. She had recognized early on that lacemaking could be an important source of income for miners' families.

For a time, lacemaking was a very important industry in the Erzgebirge. It has been estimated that, in about 1700, 10,000 persons made lace there; in 1785 it was 15,000. Later, and mostly because of poverty, lace was also made on a large scale in other regions of Germany: e.g. in the Harz Mountains, in Plön, Liebenau near Nienburg/Weser, Lügde near Lippe, on the Schwäbische Alb, in Abenberg near Nuremberg.

Handmade bobbin lace was expensive and could be afforded only by the rich. From about 1800 the textile industry produced machine lace which could also be afforded by normal burghers. In the subsequent hundred years the market was divided between machine lace and handmade lace, but the competition with the machines made the lacemakers' earnings very small. Nonetheless, in 1850 there were still more than 50,000 lacemakers in the Erzgebirge. In about 1900 lacemaking schools were founded in many areas with the intention of improving the quality of handmade lace and so making it more competitive; the objective was to counteract the poverty in country areas and reduce migration from the land. The measures were successful in some areas: even as late as in the 1920s, handmade lace wedding dresses were made in the Erzgebirge for export to the USA.

In the 1950s there were very few active lacemakers left in Germany. The women who had once painstakingly earned a small income by lacemaking were glad that they no longer had to do so; their daughters had not learned to make lace. Lacemaking was still taught in only very few of the once numerous lace schools, e.g. in Nordhalben in northern Bavaria.  There were just a few artists who still designed lace, e.g. Leni Mathei in Hamburg and Suse Bernuth in the Upper Palatinate, but almost everywhere lacemaking seemed to be extinct.

And when people began to worry about the demise of this handicraft, it was almost too late. In some areas the last lacemaker had already died.

In the 1970s and 1980s lacemaking experienced a revival, not just in Germany but everywhere in Europe. Now lace was made not of necessity but because people had time for an interesting handicraft. At the beginning, the old patterns were reworked. But soon lacemakers began to design new patterns.

During these years Lace Guilds and Lace Associations were founded in many countries, with the aim of preserving, researching and promoting the old handicraft of bobbin lacemaking. In Germany the impulse to found the Deutscher Klöppelverband came from the lacemaking school in Nordhalben. The Deutscher Klöppelverband now has almost 4000 members and so we can assume that there are more than 10,000 active lacemakers in Germany.

                       
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