SCA period lace bobbins

I've been making lace bobbins off and on for a long time now. I started because I wanted interesting bobbins, but didn't want to pay the rather high prices for them. Plain wooden or plastic ones are available rather cheaply but are boring.

Of course, if you make lace bobbins, and you are in the SCA, sooner or later you want to make period ones. That is a bit trickier.
From what I have gathered so far, there are no extant pre-1650 lace bobbins in England. There are at least two (maybe five?)that were recovered off the Batavia, a Dutch East Indies ship sunk off the coast of Australia in 1629, but so far I haven't found any others that can be firmly dated before 1650.

Batavia Bobbins

I have a picture of some purportedly from Venice in the 16-17th c., but haven't been able to get any more info so far.
As of April, 2006, I have an email from a nice person in Germany who says that these bobbins are Danish, and were excavated in the 1960's in Copenhagen. The one on the far left is bone and dates from approximately 1550, the next one over is wood and dates from approximately 1570, and the others are from about 1630 or later. The picture is published in Tornehave's "Danske frihåndskniplinger", which I will be looking at in the near future to corroborate!
Thank you to those of you who write!!!

16-17th Century Venice Bobbins


I have an article from The Netherlands on a lace bobbin found in Middleburg. It is dated to "probably the 1st half of the 17th c".

bobbin from Middleburg, The Netherlands

In shape it is similar to "England's oldest bobbin?". The original is dated to the end of the 1600's or beginning of the 1700's. Below is a wooden copy.

Wooden copy of England's oldest Bobbin

Even so, these are not really SCA ":period". There are very few pictures of people using lace bobbins, and most of those are out of SCA period too. I have one from 1561, from the Nuw Modelbuch

Picture of the lacemakers from the Nuw Modelbuch, 1561

and the rest are 1620's and beyond.

Detail of lacemaker from cover of Gardening with Silk and Gold
From the dust jacket of Gardening with Silk and Gold

detail of the Lacemaker by Jan Vermeer Detail of the Lacemaker by Nicholas Maes Detail for the Lacemaker by Caspar Netscher, 1664
The Lacemaker by Jan Vermeer
The Lacemaker by Nicholas Maes
The lacemaker by Caspar Netscher, 1664

What is this thing that sprang fully formed into the world in the 1500's?
"Everyone knows" that bobbin lace is period and began in the 1500's. It seems to have no precedent. It just became, and was fully formed when it became popular.
Now that CAN'T be right.
Where could it have come from?
Making cords?
Honestly, this isn't a history of bobbin lace article. What could be the antecedents for bobbins? Thread reels , macrame thread holders, tapestry weaving bobbins , and cord making holders ? There were bobbins found on board the Mary Rose(see bottom of article). Some lace makers are of the opinion that they are lace bobbins, but why would lace bobbins be on a War Ship? Could the bobbins be for holding thread for another use? Who uses thread on a Warship? Sailors use thread. What else is on board the Mary Rose? Archers. Do archers use thread?
Well, yes they do. Bow strings, fletching arrows, repairing sails and clothing, making ropes and cordage. Even the masts were wrapped with cordage to help prevent breakage or in the event of cannon hits to keep them from coming down as easily. Much thread and cordage is used on a warship.

The Mary Rose website does not show pictures of the bobbins on board but it does give sizes and materials used . By the way, in the artifact database the only "lace" is for the string type.

Anyone who has knotted, macramed, or made cordage, knows that you have to do "something" with all that thread or it will turn into a hopeless mess in very short order. The simplest methods are to wind a ball or "butterfly" or wind it onto a bobbin or reel.

So, I think that the idea of bobbins came with the lace and probably pre-dated it.

The two "period" shapes I've been able to discern for lace bobbins are still in use today. One we call "continental" and the other is a type of "english", but not the East Midlands (skinny with spangles) type. East Midlands is the type most americans think of when they think "English", but there are a number of popular styles from England. (see appendix "toward a standard nomenclature. . .") I have made some of each type that I have been able to document to period or nearly so, and also brought some of the modern types folk use in the SCA.

There is quite a bit of speculation about bone in bobbin lace. It is actually called bone lace in some places, and there are those that say chicken wing or leg bones, or sheep foot bones are the original bobbins. There are also those that say that the bones in question are really fish rib bones used instead of pins. Either could be true.
You can certainly wind thread on a chicken bone and it works fine as a thread reel or holder. My question is, "Would they have done this"? Would someone making lace use plain bones for bobbins? I think you would have to be REALLY poverty stricken, and lace makers weren't. Lace making was considered a good way to make a living.
Part of the "reason" given for the bobbin's shape is you put the thread on the top part and still have a handle to keep your fingers off the thread. This keeps the lace cleaner. Bones don't further this goal. If you were really poor, you could take little sticks and hand carve the thread groove on top with a knife and use them as bobbins. Completely free. You might be too poor to eat a chicken that lays eggs to get the bones.

As far as fish rib bones for pins are concerned, it is possible, maybe even more likely than using bones for the bobbins. Pins were individually made one at a time in period and therefore relatively expensive, but metal pins were available, I have an extant one here. In each of the paintings, apparently metal pins are being used. I've found a bit of info on pins used in bobbin lace making but that is a topic for further study.

I suspect that it could be called bone lace because so many bobbins were made of bone. Thin bobbins are easily made from large bones, and if you want bulbous ones you can cast pewter onto the "stick" or add a bead to the end.
I have made up some "continental style" bobbins using dowel stock available from any craft or hardware store and wooden beads. They were easy to make with materials that are commonly available today.
I chose to make my bobbins for this competition from wood harvested from my estates. I had my husband use his chainsaw to cut a few windfall (snowfall?) branches into pieces I could manage, then split the logs into billets of a reasonable size for turning. I brought these inside for a while to dry and then turned them on my lathe. I used apple, cherry, walnut, plum, maple and dogwood . These woods would have been available to a country person in period, and a city person might have had fair access also. They are good non-sticky hardwoods with a nice grain for turning. Oak is yucky. I decided to use both the heart wood and the sap wood of the woods I had, partly to see if there was much difference between them in working, and also to see the difference in colors. The pictures of bobbins show them as various colored from honey to black. This could be a finish but is more likely to be the color of the wood. As I understand it, finishes were often not used on furniture, so there is good reason to think that they would not be used on bobbins. I have found that plain beeswax applied to bobbins makes a perfectly good finish and with regular use, hand oils, even from the cleanest hands will "finish" wood. Wood will darken with exposure to light and air and hands over time, so the black ones could be walnut or an imported wood or even just "artistic license".

A bobbin turner in SCA period might have worked exclusively in bobbins, or he more probably would have been a general wood turner making various things from beads to chairs. There isn't anything really specialized in turning bobbins except for the fact that they are so small. They take a light touch; they are very easy to break while turning. Our bobbin turner would have turned on a spring pole lathe rather than the fancy electric one I have. Maybe someday I'll build a spring pole lathe. It would be interesting to try to turn bobbins on one.

Here are the bobbins I made.

two wooden bobbins after the style of England's Oldest Bobbin

Two wooden bobbins turned to simulate "England's oldest bobbin".
Cherry and dogwood.

wooden bobbins after the style of the bobbin found in a rubbish tip

Bobbins turned to simulate those found in the rubbish tip in the Netherlands.
Two walnut, three dogwood and four cherry.

four wooden bobbins after the style of those found on the Batavia

Bobbins turned to simulate the pear shaped ones found on the Batavia.
Two apple, one walnut and one apple.

eight wooden bobbins after the style of those found on the Batavia

Bobbins turned to simulate the round ended ones found on the Batavia.
Three walnut, one apple, two walnut.

Bibliography and works cited

Beck, Thomasina
Embroidered Gardens, the Viking Press, NY, 1979

Beck, Thomasina
Gardening with Silk and Gold

Blandford, Percy W.
Wood Turning, Foyles Handbooks, London, 1976

Fuhrmann, Brigitabr> Bobbin Lace, Dover Publications, NY 1976br>
Howes, F.N.
Vegetable Gums and Resins
Chronica Botanica Company, Waltham MA, 1949

Ras, Riny,
"Bobbins, archeological find", Kantbrief 2/03 pg 25

Smith, Cyril Stanley, and Hawthorne, John G. translators and editors
Mappae Clavicula, American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, 1974

On Divers Arts, Translated from the Latin with introduction and notes by John G. Hawthorne and Cyril Stanley Smith, Dover Publications, Inc. New York, 1979

Underhill, Roy
The Woodright's Workbook, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill and London, 1986


I visited these websites in the winter/spring of 2003-4 and used info on them that was available at that time. No guarantees as to whether they are still in existance.
44 Historical Varnishes and Polishes

The Batavia, Re-visited

The Bobbin

The Bobbin

Bobbin Lace email

Bobbins Historical Continental Lace Bobbins Spangles and Beads Bobbin Making

Bones Used as Bobbins, Fish Bones Used as Pins!

Early Wood Lathes

East Midlands Spangled Bobbins

English Lace Bobbins and Their History

Fancy Turned Lace Bobbins

Introduction to Bobbin Lace
Taught By: THL Gweniver Kenwyn of Roseveth
I found the pictures of 16th and 17th century bobbins here, but have been unable to email the author to get further information. The bobbins are the right shape and so could be period, but I have no idea where and when they are from!

The Mary Rose website

Medieval and Renaissance Lathes

More on Bobbin Shapes

Non East midlands bobbins

Northshield A&S - Bobbin Lace

Pins in History and Lace Making A short review

Resins and Varnishes

Tapestry bobbins

Towards a standard nomenclature for describing lace bobbins

Towards a standard nomenclature for describing lace bobbins

Varnishing Your Paintings

Web Gallery of Art

Whipcord Braiding Bobbins

Bobbins found on the "Mary Rose"

72A0158 found starboard scour, stern, bobbin ss11
81A1433 found upper deck, stern, bobbin, material ash, body, end, stopper extant U09
81A3312 found orlop deck, stern, bobbin, material willow, pentagons at ends and in center
81A4334 found upper deck, stern, bobbin, material willow, body, end, end(Fry*06) L0115, D0025-40, U09
81A4335 found upper deck stern, bobbin, material alder, stopper (chamfered end drilled) L0037 D0012, U09
81A0043 found upper deck mid-ships, bobbin, material scots pine, complete, x-section circular, shape cone, notched at base, L0095 W0017, U05
81A2535 found main deck stern, chalk-line reel, material alder, L00563 D0014-55, M09
81A5686 found main deck stern, chalk-line reel, material ash, L0065 D0015-33

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