Lacemaking was an important part of the economy of the county of Northampton, basically employing women and children. Northampton lace (“pillow lace”) had a simple design, which allowed it to be copied in Nottingham machines, which explains the migration to Nottingham during the nineteenth century. In 1800, in the whole country, there were about 150,000 persons engaged in pillow lace. The women generally earned 1s. a day. At its maximum, in Northampton it employed 9,000 to 10,000 women, boys and girls, earning from 1s. 6d. to 2s. a day. Often the wife in lace making earned more than the husband in some other occupation (Greenfield, 1998, p. 35).
In Nottingham in 1797, according to Sir Frederick Eden, the weavers earned 8s. to 10s. and some up to 40s., the lace-workers 20s. to 40s.
In 1831, in the industry of spinning cotton thread for manual lace work, there were 608,000 spinning spindles and 251,000 doubling spindles, the half of which were in or near Nottingham. There were 3,500 adults in spinning, earning from 8 shillings to 2 pounds weekly, and 3,900 children, earning 2s. 6d. to 7s. weekly (Felkin, 1867, p. 170).In 1808, John Heathcote had invented the bobbin net machine, which was able to manufacture lace on an apparatus similar to a stocking frame, but with bobbins which could be moved around each other.
From 1820 to 1860, the hand-operated lace frames were gradually replaced by steam-driven, factory-based machines (see BBC, the Nottingham Lace Industry, http://www.bbc.co.uk/legacies/work/england/nottingham, commentary by Sheila A. Mason).
In 1862, the machine lace industry was very large, particularly in Nottingham. There were 3,500 bobbin machines making lace. There was a large labour force, the wages were high, and “overtime is paid for”:
“That there were at that time 2000 English frames making silk lace goods, viz. bobbin net fancies 1030 all Levers except 44 pushers, 370 plain, making 250 to 350 racks a-week of Illusion, Mechlin, Chantilly, &c.; and 600 warp (out of 1000) making plain lace goods on 200 or so, and the rest fancy goods, instead of as formerly employed on Jacquarded shawls, manillas, etc. These are now superseded by the cheaper goods produced at Lyons. The total demand for English silk net was described as not good, being met by superior and cheaper goods from France. The English machines produce an annual value varying from £480 to £1200 each, according to the kind of goods. The warp workmen gain from 16s. to £ 1. 10s. a-week; pushers £1. 5s. a-week, Levers’ fancies £ 1. 16s. to £2, requiring the best hands.”
“There were about 1540 English bobbin new frames making cotton lace; of these 750 made plain, and 700 fancy goods, and 90 curtains, and there were 300 warp machines making fancy goods. The machines cost on an average £ 230 each without Jacquard apparatus. They may work 15 to 20 years, but usually require repairs in 10 years. Each machine may produce £ 480 to £ 720 per annum, wages paid vary from 18s. to £ 1. 15s. sometimes however rising to £ 2. 10s. a-week. They averaged £ 1. 8s. The finishing adds according to stiffening 15s. to £ 1. 15s. to the rough cost: This rough cost consists of 70 per cent. yarn; 15 wages, and 15 for capital, expenses, &c. Stiff dressing may increase the weight of a cotton piece of net threefold of more. Half the entire production was as that time exported leaving half to enter into home consumption.”
(Felkin, 1867, pp. 398-399)
The pillow lace industry in the villages lost volume, and had practically disappeared by 1860.
There was much exploitation of the little girls, who worked long hours and for little money, in “schools” where the owners were able to sell the product at a good price. A number of the women above 40 years suffered from functional blindness, from having to look very closely at the fine work of the threads.