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Waterfront Festival

We Take a Trip to Cluny Lace, the Last Traditional Lace Maker in the UK

19 March 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
photos: Georgianna Scurfield

It probably isn’t too much of a stretch to say that lace put Nottingham on the map, the industry reaching its height in the 1890s. But today just one traditional lace manufacturer survives. Utilising the same Leavers machines used in the 1840s, Cluny Lace in Ilkeston has been run by a member of the Mason family for over three centuries. Lizzy O’Riordan visited the factory to talk to Kate Knight and learn more about their history, the intricate process of creating Leavers lace, and how it feels to be the last traditional lace maker in the UK…

If you drive out towards the edge of Nottingham, you might find yourself in Ilkeston. With its biggest claim to fame coming as the birthplace of actor Robert Lindsay, it’s an unassuming place, making it hard for modern visitors to believe that this town was once a thriving area for British industry - home to coal, iron, and textile jobs alike. At its height in the 1890s, the lace industry employed over 25,000 people, mostly women - when the entire city’s population was a little over 200,000, exporting famous Nottingham lace all over Europe, North and South America, and as far away as Egypt and India. Now, like so many small towns in the Midlands and further north, it exists as a remnant of its past self; the once vibrant industrial buildings replaced with blocks of flats, fast food restaurants or bingo halls.

Turn on to Belper Street, though, and you’ll find something different. You’ll hear the faint murmur of machinery, then you’ll look up and see a tall brick factory. Tucked away on a suburban street, you’ll find the last traditional lace maker in the UK - a business lost in time, Cluny Lace. Run by the Mason family since the 1730s, Cluny are some of the most important manufacturers left in Britain. Creating lace for fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana, Alexander McQueen, Burberry, and Christian Dior, Cluny are famous for their Leavers lace - a delicate patterned lace made using a Leavers machine.

This area used to be full of lace-making factories, but slowly they disappeared, leaving only one behind. Still using the same machine as when they began, Cluny’s longevity lies in its commitment to traditional methods. Their lace is produced by twisting the thread, resulting in a high-quality lace that won’t unravel when cut. “Designed in 1814, and never bettered, we use the same machine now that you would have seen a hundred years ago,” says Kate Knight, Head of Sales and my tour guide for the day. “The lace we make is pretty unique. It's the best of the best quality you can get.”

They've got a real metronomic, heartbeat-like quality to them. They make the building come alive - especially when they're running on all three floors

The old Victorian machines are striking, loud enough to shake the building with their rhythmic, mesmeric chugging. Made of heavy metal, it’s surprising to see the daintiness of the lace they create, and there’s something beautiful in the juxtaposition. “Driving in in the morning, there's nothing better than to pull up outside and hear the building alive with the sound of machines running,” Kate says. “They've got a real metronomic, heartbeat-like quality to them. They make the building come alive - especially when they're running on all three floors. It feels like you're coming into a place with a history and a life of its own.”

Kate talks about the factory as though it was another person, and in many ways, it does feel like that. Having played such an important part in local history, its past is almost palpable from inside the building. “Within a generation ago, perhaps two generations ago, most people in Nottingham and the surrounding areas would have had some connection to lace,” Kate tells me. “Working in a lace factory was a well-respected job. There were even pubs in Ilkeston with rooms for Twist Hands only.

“In this town alone there were forty or fifty other manufacturers like us, all making lace and specialising in a Cluny style of lace local to this area. Ilkeston would have very much been known as a lace making hub,” Kate says. So much so that in the height of the lace making industry, Cluny put blinds on their bottom floor windows so fellow lace makers wouldn’t peer in and steal their designs.

It's certainly sad to be the last one in Ilkeston, and if you then extend it to be the last ones in the UK, it's a pretty gutting demise for what was once an amazing industry

In many ways, Cluny is still thriving. Alongside working with the aforementioned fashion houses, their lace was also used on the Duchess of Cambridge’s wedding dress, and Princess Diana’s before that. But being the last ones left comes with a series of challenges. “As the other lacemakers go, so do all the other ancillary trades. There’s no dye works left in this country to dye our lace; it now goes to France who support a very much diminished lace trade there as well,” Kate says. “It’s also a lonely position in that there's no one to talk with for advice. Often you could perhaps thrash out a solution to a problem, but we have to work all of that out by ourselves.

“It's certainly sad to be the last one in Ilkeston, and if you then extend it to be the last ones in the UK, it's a pretty gutting demise for what was once an amazing industry,” she continues. “I like to think that in the future we'll still be here churning out our lace. Who knows? But that’s what we’d like, to still be making lace. That would be nice.”

Despite the uncertain future, there seems to be a strong sense of pride among the lace makers. “I think like most people who've worked here, the lace does get into your blood and into your skin somehow,” Kate muses. “We're not churning out plastic ducks or something that doesn't mean anything. It's a product that is the best of the best, and something that we're all proud of. We're just the latest in a long line of people making lace, and it's lovely to be able to make it in the same way that they did then.” 

You can learn more about Cluny Lace at their website

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