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


We will attempt 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, therefore, is to match texts to tunes, for which we will call on 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 is to see whether practicing lacemakers can make tells fit with the rhythm of their work. How quick would one have to be? We will bring this together with a performance involving both musicians and lacemakers at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading.  Through recordings we aim 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. 


David Hopkin

Past Events
21/10/2019 07:18:11
List of site pages