The Common Thread of the Tryon Lacemakers

Published 4:39 pm Thursday, December 7, 2017

The most fragile of textile arts binds them together with strength that far surpasses what one would expect from “delicate threads wrapped around air.” Jane Armstrong, retired geriatric social worker; Michelle Chase, elementary school teacher; Linda Sokalski, PhD., retired electrical engineer; and Nora Worthen, retired court reporter, are four of the Tryon Lacemakers. In this local affiliate of the North Carolina Regional Lacers and International Organization of Lacemakers, women and men from many backgrounds have come together to continue a tradition that once fitted caps to Egyptian mummies and employed peasants to fancy the cuffs and collars of ladies and lords.

From the 20 names on the Tryon Lacemakers’ mailing list, a varying mix of three to 12 lacemakers attend regular lacemaking gatherings at Lanier Library and special workshops with renowned teachers such as Louise Colgan from California and Kumiko Nagasaki from Japan. Among the diverse Tryon Lacemakers are a printer, importer, retired CEO of an international manufacturer, and a nurse practitioner, all with a commonality of terminology, tools, and technique.  From my meeting with Jane, Michelle, Linda, and Nora, I would also conclude tenacity as a common thread.


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There is a language of lace with such terms as bobbin, cordonnet, footing, gimp, Torchon, picot, and woof. Jane, organizer of group activities, says, “There are many styles of lace and each has it’s own vocabulary. For example, there’s bobbin lace, needle lace, Burano lace… Take the word bobbin and you have spangled-style Midland bobbins from England, continental-style Bayeaux bobbins from France, and others. There are many lace dictionaries to keep it all straight so no need to remember every word. What to remember is that you can start making lace with just a few basic tools and steps.”


Lace thread is typically cotton today since traditional flax is no longer commercially available. 

A pattern placed over a pillow is a guide to show where to place pins that hold the thread to the pillow while making the lace.  Nora, who started lacemaking in 2013, explains, “You can choose a bolster, cookie-round, domed, or block style pillow.”

The bobbin is a wood dowel lathed with a thicker and thinner end. For every length of thread there is a bobbin at each end. Thread is wound around the thinner ends of the bobbins and forms a loop between the pair. The lacemaker holds the thicker ends while unwinding thread. Linda, a bobbin lacemaker since 1987, notes that bobbins can be mass-produced and strictly utilitarian or be handcrafted and collectible as those made by Nora’s husband. “Each of Richard’s bobbins is a unique combination of shape, color, and motif,” says Jane. “Of course they do the job but I also enjoy looking at them.”  That’s the same appreciation as an avid reader who enjoys a great book bound in tooled leather.

Needlepins separate and group bobbins and thread for organizational simplicity, especially when working with up to 200 bobbins for Danish TØnder lace. A pillow dressing protects lace in progress from dirt and finger oils.  “Let’s not forget the lacemakers mascot,” exclaims Jane. “For good luck, a spiny hedgehog is essential at every project.”  I spotted a variety of them in various degrees of whimsy throughout the work area.


My expression must have reminded Michelle, the teacher, of the occasional uncertainty seen among some of her third graders. Bringing to bear her 30 years of lacemaking, she was not going to let me get away without at least an elementary understanding. “Lacemaking is basically two motions, cross and twist.”

Got it. So far so good.

First, push a pin halfway into a pillow. Next, take one pair of bobbins, loop their thread over the pin, and set them to the left. Then loop the thread of a second pair of bobbins over the pin and set them to the right. Four bobbins are side-by-side, 1, 2, 3, and 4.

“You cross the center bobbins and then twist both pairs of bobbins,” Michelle explains. ”Crossing is always left over right. Twisting is right over left,”  I had to sketch and number that on my notepad to envision the first crossing of 2 over 3.  Next, twisting each pair of bobbins gives a new order of 3, 1, 4, and 2. A pin under the “X” of 3 and 2 holds the thread.

“Got it,” I said with satisfaction.

“Repeat the cross and twist and you’ve finished a whole stitch and made bobbin lace.”

What I readily understood was the virtue of tenacity.


Thinking of a 4-foot-long Norman lace headdress in an 18th century engraving, I felt awe at a lacemaker’s ability to narrow the world to a pin and forget the hours passing pin by pin. I read that a novice lacemaker should feel happy with 10 pins a day. Michelle feels that ¼ inch in length by an inch and a half wide is a productive session and on some days it’s best to postpone until “you feel it.” She notes, “You’ll know when you’re on, you simply get drawn into your own place.” Linda and Nora both agree on the need to concentrate in good light with good magnification. Jane feels that many errors come from a lapse in focus. “Lacemaking is perfection by the inch and the dreaded ‘boing’ of a broken thread is right after you look away.” Married to an Englishman, she has adopted “bloody hell” as a near satisfactory response before pushing on.

“We teach one another,” says Michelle. “We welcome each other’s thoughts and experience, and are eager to demonstrate to one another what we know. I found an instant group of friends.” Jane concurs, “We all love the beauty of what we do, but friendship is the primary reward.” Nora adds, “At home, when I get stuck, I email pictures to Michelle for advice.” Linda concludes, “The joy of accomplishment and seeing others having fun is worth the work.”

Tryon Lacemakers welcome anyone interested in the beauty of lace. Gatherings are the fourth Saturday of the month, January through October, in the good light of the LeDuc Room at Lanier Library, 72 Chestnut Street, Tryon, N.C. For details, contact Jane Armstrong, •

A photo waits in all things, all places, and everyone with a passion has a story to be told. That’s the perspective Vince Verrecchio, lightly retired ad agency creative director, brings as a writer and photographer contributing to Foothills Magazine. He can be reached at