Crochet Cabin Lace
Crochet lace is one of many forms of lace, some dating back through the centuries. Crochet lace is made using thread (usually cotton) and a crochet hook. Different thread sizes and thicknesses and different hook sizes will result in a tighter or looser, finer or larger lace. Each type of lace also has many variations within its ‘type’.
Cabin lace was produced by boatwomen to decorate and personalise the cabins of their narrowboats and horse-drawn working boats dating, I believe, from the late 1800s, when many families moved onto their boats during times of hardship, to the present day. The consensus of those writing about Cabin Lace seems to be that the boatwomen would have copied pieces of contemporary lace that house dwellers used to edge pillowcases, table and tray cloths, and other household items. Many of the boatwomen were not able to read and created their lace by copying samples and adding their own designs. The lace would be used to decorate the spaces between ceiling and walls, shelf edges, to make curtain ‘pelmets’, and to decorate curtain edges, and it appears, virtually anywhere it would provide decoration. Cotton thread, coarser than that traditionally used for household linens, was often used so it would endure the washing and boiling needed to clean it of the dust and soot from the stove, cooking and cargo being carried.
It seems to be a tradition among current cabin lace workers to show where a pattern came from and how or why they have given it a name. Janet Reeve, in her pattern book ’Cabin Crochet of the Inland Waterways’ describes how crochet workers often referred to the patterns given to them by other women by the name of those women. Other lace has been named after the boat it decorated.
Currently, lace is often used as a window dressing on Narrowboats. My work is mainly sold to boat owners. Meeting boat owners face-to-face enables me to discuss their ideas with them, adapting or designing patterns for lace and porthole covers to match their boat name or theme, or to fit non-standard size windows. A new departure for me is take part in the 'Pop-in' shop at 3 Market Place, North Walsham, Norfolk. The Waterways Craft Guild provides an accreditation scheme to maintain the standards, support and encourage this wonderful tradition. Their website shows six accredited Cabin Lace Makers, but not all of these sell their lace professionally, and not everyone selling lace is accredited (http://www.waterwayscraftguild.org.uk/costume.html).
My fascination began with seeing the window lace and porthole covers on passing Narrowboats during a holiday on one. My brother and sister-in-law own a narrowboat and wanted me to make some shelf-edging lace for their cabin when I shared my thoughts about making-to-order with them. After contact with a ‘Master’ in the craft of Cabin Lace and some research, my work and the shop began. However, because fine work is quite labour intensive, I earn very little at present. Like many other artisans starting out, I think I also undervalued my work and have slowly increased my prices. Since starting out I have also started selling cotton, crochet hooks, patterns and developing my own patterns for sale to encourage others to keep this traditional canal craft alive, and to support my business. I have also branched out into making other items, such as my own design cushion kit, a Christmas Banner, and Bride's Purse, which still uses the finer cotton not so commonly used today. My plans for the future are to tutor crochet classes for beginners, and provide online tutorials for the same and in Cabin Crochet, for the growing numbers of narrowboat owners who want to decorate their boat in a traditional manner.
By Sarah Welsh, Senior Journeyman in the art of Cabin Crochet