Contributor: Susan Reynolds
Location: Cowper and Newton Museum, Olney, UK
Description: When we admire the portrait of Mary Unwin (1724-1796) in her lace cap and that of her friend the poet William Cowper (1731-1800) with the lace ruffles at his cuffs that are held in the Cowper and Newton Museum in Olney, we may wonder not only at the skill required to create such lace but also about the conditions in which it was produced. Although we know that this lace cap (OLNCN:1279) was designed by John Millward, we have no information about the maker who executed it, or any such details for these lace undersleeves (OLNCN:1311) which were not worn by Cowper himself, but are later in date. The names of the traditional local patterns (Buckinghamshire point ground border, Bucks point crown) have survived, but those of the craftswomen who worked them have not. All too often these enchanting gossamer-like webs of delicate thread were the results of hours of painstaking and painful labour which was poorly rewarded and took a heavy toll of the maker’s health. With only a rushlight or tallow dip for illumination in their cottages, the lace-makers of Olney either worked by daylight or risked lasting damage to their eyesight.
This lace serves as a reminder of Cowper’s sympathy and support for the local lace-workers and their plight expressed in his letters and verse.