For nearly 50 years, Pat Perryman has been creating beautiful works of art in Honiton lace
Outside, winter is at its height. The leaves have gone from the trees, the east Devon skies are darkening, the light low. Inside a neat home, tucked away from the bustle of daily life, a piece of exquisite lace is slowly being created.
Pat Perryman’s nimble fingers move silently across the curved surface of a blue-clad pillow, weaving bobbins and cotton thread around an array of silver pins. Fraction by fraction, a picture emerges, following the pattern on a card beneath the pins. For hour after patient hour, Pat works towards her finished creation. Eventually, several hundred hours after she started, the work is done, and a new piece of historic Honiton lace is born.
For Pat, making this complex but beautiful piece of lace is a therapeutic labour of love. “If life is stressful, I can sit and do lace and be in another world,” she says. It is something she has been doing for nearly half a century now. Today, she is a seasoned expert, known around the world.
A natural talent
A trained dressmaker, Pat came to lacemaking by chance. In 1969 she joined a class at the local community college. The mother of two young children, it gave her the opportunity to do something away from the house.
Her teacher spotted her innate skill as soon as she started. Three years later, the teacher retired and Pat was running the class. “I was the youngest in the class, both in age and experience,” she says. “I had to go into that class and tell them I was the new teacher. It was daunting.”
In the years since then, she has created a prodigious quantity of work. It ranges from tiny, delicate pieces enclosed in pendants to larger work displayed in frames. The majority of her creations are decorative, although some have practical application. A lace parasol, adorned with 24 different butterflies, is redolent of a more feminine age. A sumptuous lace garter made for the wedding of her granddaughter-in-law took 80 hours of dextrous work. To make a wedding veil could take several years. “If you have a five-year-old daughter, you had better start now,” she says.
A Parliamentary task
In 1980 she was asked to make a new Honiton lace jabot, or ornamental neck frill, for the then Speaker of the House of Commons, George Thomas. The pattern was designed by Honiton School’s art teacher, Tom Griffiths. It depicted a portcullis and crown, the flower emblems of the UK’s four countries, plus images inspired by the Devon landscape. It took Pat many hundreds of hours to make, over three years.
By the time it was finished, a new Speaker, Bernard Weatherill, was in office. He came to Honiton in 1984 to be presented with the jabot. Later that year Pat was invited to the State Opening of Parliament, at which the Speaker wore her unique creation for the first time. At the subsequent reception she was asked to make a pair of matching cuffs. That resulted in a further thousand hours of work over four years.
Project of beauty and skill
Her biggest single project is safely contained in a quilted box. This is an exquisitely beautiful fan, consisting of 11 separate pieces of lace. “I always wanted to make a fan, and I was working on this for about three years,” she says. “I had all sorts of ideas for its design, but was eventually inspired by a piece of lace we have here in Honiton, in Allhallows Museum, called the Treadwin Flounce.
“Mrs Treadwin was a 19th century Honiton lacemaker. She made the flounce for Queen Victoria’s fourth son, Prince Leopold, the Duke of Albany, for his wedding in 1882 to Princess Helena of Waldeck and Pyrmont. The intricate designs in this flounce inspired my fan.”
She has presented her own work to royalty. When Princess Anne visited Honiton in 2005, Pat gave her a piece of lace with an intricate swan design. It had taken her approximately 350 hours to complete. She also gave the Princess a brooch depicting a lace horseshoe with the initial ‘A’ woven in it.
In 2013 Pat achieved the jewel in the crown of her career. She was awarded the British Empire Medal for Services to the Heritage of Lace-Making in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list.
Today, she continues to teach lacemaking classes. She has also had two books published. One is her New Designs in Honiton Lace, created in collaboration with a lacemaking colleague, Cynthia Voysey. The other is Pat Perryman’s Lace Patterns. Both remain in demand.
The future for lace
For almost half a century Pat has inspired many people to take up the threads. She is delighted that the craft is continuing to thrive. “We still have a class on a Saturday morning for children. It is now taught by one of my former child pupils, and it’s rewarding to see the tradition carried on.” Her enthusiasm for the lace is infectious. For her, it is a task of unstinting dedication to creating works of delicate art that will last for centuries.
Creating a picture
Making a new piece of Honiton lace is a long process that starts with a design. “The most challenging part of the process is deciding on the design, then preparing it correctly, so it is ready to start working on,” says Pat. “One of the women I teach is a wonderful artist. If I can’t get a drawing quite right, I pass it to her and she sorts it out for me.”
The design is traced onto tracing paper. Pat then follows this first tracing, putting dots on a second piece around the outline of the design. This second tracing is placed on a piece of oiled Manilla card, a strong card treated with linseed oil. The dots she has made are pierced with a needle, marking the pattern on the card. Pins are placed in the holes on the card, which sits on a lacemaker’s pillow.
Pat has already wound fine, white, two-ply thread on the ends of the bobbins, slim pieces of turned wood. She is now ready to start a process she describes as weaving the thread with pairs of bobbins round the silver-coloured pins.
Each picture is constructed in sections. These vary in size depending on the image that the finished piece depicts. They may be small, just a flower face, or bigger, as with Pat’s fan, which comprises 11 sections in total.
“Once you have the pattern you need to take time to work out the best place to start,” she says. “Experience helps with this, and the creation of the piece becomes instinctive. The first pin is then inserted, a pair of bobbins hung on it and off you go. It’s like anything else where you cease to think about it after a while. I still remember that moment in a class when I suddenly realised it was coming naturally and I didn’t have to think about it.”
Slowly, the picture comes to life beneath her hands. The meticulous intricacy of the work demands a very orderly process. Pat is focused and methodical in her work, totally absorbed in
her detailed creation.
The number of pairs of bobbins in use at any one time is dependent on the width of the design at that point. As the design narrows, fewer threads are needed, and Pat reduces the number of pairs of bobbins. “That’s the freedom of Honiton lace. As I work,
I watch the emerging pattern, not what my hands are doing with the bobbins. That way, I can see any mistake immediately. And I’m always working ‘upside down’, looking at what will be the underside of the finished piece.”
The outlines of the design are created first before the central area is filled in with a criss-cross lacework. This filling is called leadwork, which Pat believes is named after the leaded lights of windows.
When a section is finished, the pins are removed and the lace taken off the card. The finished piece will be the same size as the pattern on the card beneath it. Finally, the different sections are joined to create the finished picture, with the same thread that was used to make the lace.
Contact: Allhallows Museum of Lace and Local Antiquities, www.honitonmuseum.co.uk
Tel 01404 44966
Words: Simone Stanbrook-Byrne Photography: Clive Doyle
CREATING TRADITIONAL TARTAN GARMENTS
Pale winter light streams in through a glass gable-end of an oak-beamed workroom, overlooking Perthshire’s Strathearn Valley and the River Earn. Publications on tailoring, tartan and Scottish history fill a bookcase on the wall. In front of them, lengths of tartan in a variety of colours are spread out on large tables. Behind them finished kilts hang on a rail, waiting to be fitted. Tall spools of green, red, blue and black thread are ready to be used. On the tables lie pincushions and tailoring scissors.
This light, airy space is home to Marion Foster, who makes traditional kilts by hand. She came to kilt making through a love of textiles. “As a teenager I would make all my own clothes, despite it being the jeans era,” she recalls. She made her first kilt when she was 16, for her uniform as a cub scout. “I had no money to buy one, so I thought I would make it. It must have worked as I wore it for quite a while.”
Marion continued making her own clothes, then four years ago, inspired by a course she attended, she started making kilts in her spare time. At the age of 50, she decided it was time for a change. “I still had the energy and felt it was time to follow my passion,” she says. In 2011 she started making her hand-stitched kilts full time under the name of Askival of Strathearn.
Taking the measurements
“Making a kilt takes a lot of time and effort. I stitch every kilt completely by hand and making one from start to finish takes me five full days,” she says.
“When someone comes to me for a new kilt, we first decide on a tartan.” Marion has books of tartans she uses to find specific ones. Once a tartan has been chosen, she commissions the 100 per cent wool fabric from one of five remaining tartan weavers in Scotland.
Each kilt is made of one single length of fabric with two overlapping aprons at the front and pleats at the back. Because of the many folds of the pleats, approximately 32ft (10m) of fabric is used for each garment.
The kilt is shaped to the individual wearer. It should fit snugly into the small of the wearer’s back and then widen, before falling to the middle of the knee. It sits high on the waist, lying smoothly across the abdomen. If someone has a large build, the kilt should fall from the stomach, not lower down. “I think of the wearer’s shape all the time,” she says.
Accurate measurements are crucial to the final fit and hang of the kilt. Marion measures the wearer’s waist, seat and length to the centre of the knee.
Forming the pleats
A tartan may have many colours, some subtle, some more obvious. The way the pleats are created emphasises particular colours in a tartan. “It’s amazing how many colours there can be within the garment,” she says.
A tartan can be folded so the big squares and original tartan design are clearly visible. This is called sett pleating. It can also be folded so it emphasises lines on the tartan, which are a different colour. This is called pleating to the stripe.
Marion calculates how many pleats the kilt needs and their size. She bases this on the measurements she has taken, the individual tartan and how the fabric is going to be folded. Her kilts have between 27 and 34 pleats for an adult male. This is the same for a woman’s dancing kilt, although a woman’s fashion kilts varies widely. These kilts are more like skirts and often have bigger pleats. Standard kilts have pleats that are on average ¾in (2cm) wide on the outside.
After the calculations have been made, Marion cuts the tartan to the right depth. She leaves cutting the length of the fabric until all the different parts of the kilt are marked out. The aprons, or front parts, are marked out first with white chalk. It does not take long to stitch these parts, and the chalk will rub off easily when it is done.
The individual pleats are marked with special white tailor’s wax, which lasts longer. This is important as stitching the pleats takes time and must be done accurately. The marks are made on the front of the fabric, so they can be seen clearly when sewing. Marion folds and stitches every pleat individually as she goes, measuring the width and pinning it in place constantly.
“Every millimetre counts,” she says. “Twenty-seven times one millimetre makes a big difference.”
Because it is hand sewn, she can make sure every bit of fabric is exactly where it should be. Misalignment is prevented, as she can control the bouncy fabric as she sews. It is a slower process, but gives an excellent final product. “I set the standard high,” she says. “It takes me up to a day to sew the pleats.”
The pleats are stitched from the top to roughly a third of the length of the kilt. To keep them in place before the fabric is pressed, temporary basting is added lower down on each pleat.
Lifting the folds
Marion now turns the kilt over. Working on the back, she spends three hours securing each pleat in place with barely visible, small stitches. This extra stitching ensures the pleats are secured higher up, and keeps them from stretching and sagging.
Further support and shaping is provided by stitching linen canvas across the full aprons and the back pleating. It helps preventing the kilt from distorting when the straps used to fasten it are adjusted.
Once the canvas is in place, a special piece of equipment is used to shape the kilt. Called an iron, it consists of a large table with a foot switch to turn on a vacuum. This sucks the fabric to the table, keeping it flat. A steam iron is then used to flatten the pleats and mould the kilt into shape. The table also heats up to help the shaping.
Adding the buckles
Now the 32ft (10m) of fabric has been successfully concertinaed into the garment, it is time for the first fitting. Marion checks to ensure the kilt is fitting correctly and falling as it should. If she is not happy, she alters the stitching to improve the fit.
One of the final steps is to add three metal buckles, the pieces of tartan that hold the belt buckles known as chapes and belt loops. Made of the same tartan as the kilt, the chapes match up with the pattern when attached. The bar of the buckle sits over the join between the third and fourth pleat on either side. The third buckle is placed over the second and third pleat on
the right-hand side.
Marion takes great care in sewing the chapes, which need to match with precision. “It is hard on your fingers,” she says. “I use a very fine needle, but there is still a lot of fabric to go through. It is one of the most difficult things to do neatly.” She uses no thimble as her fingers have become used to the work over the years. She adds a waistband, again aligning it at the front and creating symmetry with the pattern of the tartan at the back.
The kilts are finalised with a black cotton lining. Marion embroiders Askival of Strathearn onto it. She can also add unique embroidery specified by the client, which usually mentions a name, place and year. “Once I’ve done all this, I press it one last time,” she says. At this point the temporary basting which was added to the pleats is removed. Only the final, barely visible minute stitches remain.
Everything is now ready for the final fitting. “The apron should always lie neatly at the sides without rolling or kicking out. There should be no gap between the apron and the pleats, all of which should sit straight at the bottom.”
A kilt has to be comfortable for many occasions. “You should be able to climb a mountain in it if you want,” says Marion. Her final product has approximately 40 hours of work and a great deal of love and care in it. “It’s a truly beautiful garment that can be passed down through generations.”
Words: Marieke McBean Photography: Mark Mainz
This feature about Marion Foster's kilts appeared in the Jan / Feb 2016 issue of LandScape.
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