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Amongst the curious things that people are now collecting are the bobbins used in lace-making, in the counties of Northamptonshire, Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Devonshire. There is no particular art concerned in a collection of this kind, but a great deal of pleasure may be taken in gathering together lace bobbins, arranging them in groups, and exhibiting them in cases, and when a substantial collection is made, one is almost sure to find a market for it. The better the collection is, the better grouped and arranged, the higher the price to be obtained. There is also the amusement of trying to decipher the inscriptions upon the bobbins, and some pleasure in admiring the dexterity with which they were made, besides the joy of being able to get hold of bobbins entirely different from any that have been seen before, and the satisfaction of finding some dated or named, or with special historic interest.
Bobbins are made of all sorts of material, from gold and silver down to wood, bone, brass, ivory and pewter. The majority, of course, are of wood, and then, as has been pointed out by the leading writer on the subject, Mr. Wright, there are all varieties of wood, boxwood, ebony, maple, cherry, etc. Sometimes the wooden ones are decorated with little bits of metal, sometimes in the hollows of them there are smaller tiny bobbins, or beads, or shots. Occasionally they are dated, generally early in the nineteenth century, and sometimes they have names upon them.
Amongst bone and metal bobbins there is great variety, and the utmost ingenuity was applied in making these quaint little objects. They were often used in connection with rustic courtships, and were gifts to the favoured maid, that she might use them on her lace cushion, and think of the donor, and in that case, they have delightful inscriptions upon them, somewhat resembling the little mottoes that used to be found in old-fashioned crackers. Perhaps some of them were actually the means of courting, and they bear such statements as "Let me have the wedding-day, my dear," "Sweet love, be mine," "Meet me by moonlight alone," "Love, when will you marry me?" and so on. In others, perhaps, the statement is not quite so definite. "I long to see my love once more," "I had a mother once like you," "Love me for ever," "Heartsunited must live contented, ďand occasionally, perhaps, a bobbin is returned, on which the girl herself has made some sort of reply,
as bobbins have been found bearing such inscriptions as " Kiss me quick, and don't be shy," " Love me till the day I die," " I love you," or the simple words, "Fancy me," or, still shorter, the single word "Yes," and these love-making bobbins form quite a pretty collection by themselves.
There are the series that Mr. Wright calls "puzzle bobbins," on which the inscriptions are in a sort of cipher, not easy to determine, or in which verses of Scripture are quoted, which appear to have a double meaning, and give the information from a shy lover that was intended. Those that have names upon them are of great interest, because, in some cases, the descendants of the persons who marked their names on old bobbins, can be found still pursuing the picturesque occupation that their grandparents pursued in earlier days, and quite interesting little groups might be made with bobbins that have the names of lace-making villages upon them. There are several, for instance, that are marked as belonging to Olney in Buckinghamshire, others to Cranfield in Bedfordshire, and yet others to places in Northamptonshire and Oxfordshire, where lacemaking has been carried on for many a long day, and is still pursued.
Another group may be made of bobbins which relate to important national events, as, for instance, those which commemorate the coronation of Queen Victoria, the various troubles in the Crimea, the Battle of Waterloo, and local events, such as local murders, trials, executions, elections and transportations. Sometimes the bobbins contain quite long inscriptions, generally from the Bible, because the lacemakers were a religious people, and well acquainted with Scripture, and one also finds quotations from hymns or popular songs. Little bits of the songs that were sung while people were making their lace appear upon these bobbins, and sometimes some humorous comic statements.
Then there are the bobbins that are to be found in sets, which are very rare. There is a set in the possession of one of the lacemakers which commemorates the birth of her grandmother and her great-aunts, each being marked with the name of one particular child, and the date of birth. Another set of three commemorates the birth of a set of triplets, and the name of each child appears on the set of bobbins. In another museum there is a set of twelve bobbins each of which is inscribed with a portion of the Lord's Prayer. The alphabet and long lists of numerals are to be found, and occasionally information that they were intended as presents to particular persons, or names of special people connected with the village where they are made, or with the district, such for example as Wesley, Bunyan, or Nelson.
They may be grouped according to the beads which form part of their decoration, and sometimes these beads are of considerable beauty; some little bits of Bristol glass are to be found on one bobbin, another is adorned with some beautiful Egyptian mummy beads, which must have been brought home by some explorer, others, perhaps the gift of a sailor, are adorned with some seeds, generally of a bright colour, and from such distant places as Patagonia, New Guinea, Southern Australia. Then there are the quaint patterns that are peculiar to a certain district. Little floral emblems that are favoured by the lacemakers, and one of the great aims of the collector is to get what is called a series of bobbins, that is to say, a set of twelve, often were carved in similar fashion, in order to be kept together by the lacemaker whose good fortune it was to receive them. The whole set used in Devonshire on a lace pillow was about twenty-four, but there has never yet been a set of twenty-four bobbins discovered alike, or even resembling one another, and it is probable that the ingenious person would find his patience overpowered by the effort of making so many. Sometimes, in a village, may be found an old woman who has been a beauty in her day, and she may possess a series of bobbins given her by the boys who paid her attention in the days gone past. One writer refers to such a person, and the bobbin she prized most read :
"When this you see, remember me, And bear me in your mind,
For all the world is naught to me So long as you are kind."
History is very much made up of little sidelights which give, in indirect fashion, information about the people of a village, and in gathering up this information collectors of bobbins are doing good service, because these inscribed bobbins will disappear, people will buy their bobbins from the manufacturer, or from his agent, and the old idea of carving them in the place will pass away. Local museums are therefore glad to obtain collections of bobbins that were used in the district, and to find on the bobbins little scraps of information about the patterns used in the lace itself and the lacemaker.
To the tourist the collection of bobbins will be found an interesting hobby. He will not be able to purchase all those that he covets, but a little strategy may be practised, and often a lacemaker is glad to exchange some bobbins for a coin of the realm.
The collector should be advised to note carefully the name of the place where the bobbin was obtained, and he will find that there are characteristics to be found on different bobbins, that have come from a particular part of the country
Hardly any two bobbins can be found alike. Moreover, there is comparatively little forgery in these dainty objects, and the forgeries can generally be detected by the mechanical manner in which they are turned out.