Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the market town of Honiton was well-known for producing lace.
The art is rumoured to have been brought to Honiton by Flemish refugees who came to the town in the late 16th century.
At any rate, a thriving lace trade began in the town from around 1620 onwards. Honiton lace, a type of bobbin lace became known for its scrollwork and depictions of sprigs of daisies, acorns, roses, butterflies and other natural features which were created separately and then sewn into the net ground of the piece.
In 1683, the trade was given a particular boost by the news that Anne, the younger sister of King Charles II was to marry Prince George of Denmark.
The young princess, who would later become Queen Anne (she was played as she was in later life by Olivia Colman in the 2018 film, The Favourite) required a wedding dress made of lace.
You may also want to watch:
Some have since joked that creating such a dress must have been a large-scale operation as portraits usually show Queen Anne to have been a very overweight figure. In fact, this development arose later: at the time of the Royal Wedding, Anne was still young and slim. Either way, Anne’s wedding was a major shot in the arm for the lace trade.
Perhaps we should not romanticise the days of hand lacemaking. It was a skilled but painfully slow process. Many lacemakers worked for long hours in bad, poorly lit conditions for very low pay, often damaging their eyesight in the process and the industry was reliant on child labour.
In the 19th century, the invention of the lacemaking machine seemed to render handmade lace obsolete. Machines rapidly boosted lace production, increasing supply and meeting demand, triggering a slump.
By Royal Appointment
Then, a ray of light: in 1840, the young Queen Victoria married Prince Albert. Once again, a Royal wedding came to the rescue of Honiton lace.
Victoria chose a white wedding dress, designed by the Scots artist William Dyce made from heavy silk satin to wear for her big day. This was unusual for the time and in fact seems to have started the whole tradition of white weddings. Until then, most women usually wore dresses with colours on for their wedding day.
The satin gown was made from fabric woven in the east London area of Spitalfields. But, more importantly, it was trimmed with a deep flounce and trimmings of lace made in Honiton and Beer. The Queen insisted handmade rather than machine lace be used.
As the Queen herself wrote in her journal: “I wore a white satin dress, with a deep flounce of Honiton lace, an imitation of an old design. My jewels were my Turkish diamond necklace and earrings and dear Albert’s beautiful sapphire brooch.”
Victoria’s endorsement of Honiton lace went a long away. Photography was only in its infancy in 1840 and so no photos of the wedding itself were taken. But newspaper coverage and general communications were much better than they were in Anne’s day and news of the wedding dress’s success revived the industry.
The Queen occasionally allowed herself to be photographed in aspects of her wedding garb throughout the rest of her life. On her death in 1901, she was buried wearing her wedding veil.
In time, fashions changed again. The industry was hit hard by the 1880 Education Act which made it compulsory for all children up to the age of ten to go to school.
Previously, industries such as lace had been reliant on child labour. In 1821, it is estimated that 49% of the entire workforce (lace-related or not) were under twenty. Those days were increasingly becoming a thing of the past.
Today, the days of large-scale manufacturing of lace are long gone. But lace will probably always be synonymous with Honiton in the public mind.