Pillow Lace Sign, High St., Ipswich MA

Ipswich Pillow lace

The Pillow Lace plaque is located in front of 5 High Street in Ipswich. In the mid-18th Century a group of Ipswich women started making and selling lace with distinctive patterns. Small round lap pillows were used to pace the bobbins and needles as the lace grew around it. Ipswich lace quickly became very popular and played an important role during the American Revolution. When George Washington visited Ipswich in 1789 he purchased some black silk lace for his wife, Martha.

Bonnie Hurd Smith explains that “The women were doing it while the men were at war, and many men were killed, so their widows needed to make money to support their families.” Ipswich women used lace making as a way to endure. We read in “The Laces of Ipswich.” that a yard of lace “was approximately equal in value to a cord of wood or 16 pounds of sheep’s wool.”

Ipswich Bobbin Lace Pillow at the Smithsonian Museum of American History
Ipswich Bobbin Lace Pillow at the Smithsonian Museum of American History

In its lace making heyday in the late eighteenth century, Ipswich, Massachusetts boasted 600 lace makers in a town of only 601 households. At the height of its popularity the women and girls of Ipswich were producing more than 40,000 yards of lace annually. In the 1820s Ipswich industrialists imported machines from England to mechanize and speed up the operation, and opened a factory on this site. Their efforts destroyed the industry. Lace was now mass-produced and no longer a symbol of wealth.

Read more about the pillow lace industry in Fine Thread, Lace and Hosiery by Jesse Fewkes.

Susan Lord Russell Lakeman in 1903 at the age of 88. Photo is from the book, “The Laces of Ipswich.” courtesy of the Ipswich Museum. Susan Lord Russell Lakeman was born to Mary Sutton and Daniel Russell Sr., who built a house on East Street, still standing. The family included many pillow lace makers, beginning with her grandmother Elizabeth Foster Sutton. Susan Russell was one of the last to witness the pillow lace industry of the 18th Century. She married Ebenezer Lakeman in 1845. Their daughter Susan E. Lakeman kept the oral tradition alive and lectured about the pillow lace industry until her death in 1937.

The Pillow Lace Site has much history attached to it. One of the early owners was Dr. Thomas Berry. He was an active supporter of education and served the colony in many ways. But he was a strong-minded character, and drove around town in a chariot with liveried slaves, frequently dressed in red satin breeches and cape. Citizens would bow respectfully as he passed.

At that time, there was a path that cut across the hill behind his house which led to a spring at the top of the hill. He obtained permission to exclusive use of that spring for his family. He would run up the hill with his children every morning for a cold bath. This regimen failed to save them from the terrible throat distemper epidemic, diphtheria, that swept through eastern Massachusetts between 1727 and 1737. Three of his children died.

Joseph Ross converted the old lace factory on High Street into the “Ross Mansion”, which was torn down in the 1930’s.

Later, the property became the property of the New England Lace Manufacturing Company, another of the Heard family enterprises. They were attempting to use the new knitting machines to make lace. The thread broke frequently, so they decided to try silk. Augustine Heard brought silk worm cocoons into the country secured in the waist bands of Chinese coolies to maintain the needed warmth. Mulberry bushes were planted up the hill to provide food, but the silk threads they produced wouldn’t work either. The enterprise was ended, and the building passed later into the Ross family who converted it to a Federal style mansion, torn down circa 1930.

Sources and further reading:

In The Laces of Ipswich: The Art and Economics of an Early American Industry, 1750-1840, Marta Cotterell Raffel places the Ipswich industry squarely within the wider context of eighteenth-century manufacture, economics, and culture. Identifying what differentiates Ipswich lace from other American or European lace, she explores how lace makers learned their skills, and how they combined a traditional lace making education with attention to market-driven changes in style. Showing how the shawls, bonnets, and capes created by the lace makers often designated the social position or political affiliation of the wearer, she offers a unique and fascinating guide to our material past.

Pillow lace demonstration at 17th Century Days

1 thought on “Ipswich Pillow lace”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s