2017-18: Tellings: Reconstructing the Repertoire of Songs used in English Lace Schools

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'Tellings: Reconstructing the Repertoire of Songs used in English Lace Schools'


Knowledge Exchange Fellow:
Professor David Hopkin   |   Faculty of History   |   University of Oxford

Partner Organisation:
Museum of English Rural Life


The aim of this project was to reconstruct the lace ‘tells’ used in nineteenth-century Midlands lace schools as a way of controlling the pace of work. In the era of commercial handmade lace, most English lacemakers attended such a school from age six to twelve.  Lacemaking, although skilled, was associated with poverty and long hours, and the schools were notorious for their brutal work ethic. The tells were sung as the apprentice lacemakers placed pins in the pattern on their pillow, and they commented directly on their sufferings, as well as other aspects of the girls’ lives. They sang out their resentments against their parents and lace mistresses who profited from their work. Yet through their collective performance they accepted the discipline and were ‘broken’ to the trade. There are about seventy extant texts of tells, but only three have the music to accompany them. Our first aim was to match texts to tunes, for which we involved professional folk singers. As tells were often built from fragments of other texts such as ballads, hymns and prayers, this may be feasible. Our second aim was to see whether practicing lacemakers could make tells fit with the rhythm of their work. How quick would one have to be? A collaborative performance would bring this together, involving both musicians and lacemakers at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading. Through recordings the aim was to resurrect the experience of a lace school, and restore voices to the tens of thousands of girls and women who passed through this institution. 

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