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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Nottingham

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Black lead and bleaching - the Nottingham lace industry

Lace workers
Workers at Carey's Factories and Dyeworks
© John Harlow
Irregularity of employment and the different rates of pay for different types of net make it extremely difficult to estimate accurately the wages of the lace makers - no two sources agree on the amount and quoted weekly wages for 1812 range from about 13s. 0d. to 30s. – but it's accepted that lace making was a far more profitable occupation than knitting hose. ---+Lace making by steam-powered machines

Twisthand and Levers lace machine
© Cluny Lace Co. Ltd
During the period 1820 to 1860 the hand-operated lace frames were gradually replaced by steam-driven, factory-based machines. Hours were regulated by the steam boiler; power and heat were usually provided between 4 am and midnight Monday to Friday and 4am to 8pm on Saturday. Lace machines required a constant temperature so the factories were heated to between 65 and 70 degrees. A factory containing 100 machines would have about 500 workers.

Lace machine operatives, called 'twisthands', were male and as the machines were lubricated by black lead, (graphite), and oil they often finished work as black as coal miners.

Until the 1920s shift work was a feature of the industry and the twisthand and his mate, known as a 'butty', worked five or six hour shifts of five or six hours a shift; the first man usually working 4am to 9am and 1pm to 6pm and the second man 9am to 1pm and 6pm to midnight. Twisthands were paid by the amount of work produced, not by the hours worked, and take-home pay varied considerably according to the type, width and speed of the machines and the type of lace being produced.

Just before World War I, the average weekly wages of twisthands was estimated at 39s. 6d., the highest in 17 industries, include the silk trade (25s. 8d.) and the hosiery trade (31s. 6d.). Twisthands were regarded as an elite workforce and in Nottingham and the surrounding towns and villages rooms in public houses were often reserved for 'Twisthands Only.'

Words: Sheila A. Mason, BA (Hons), FRSA

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Lace on Women's Hour
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Cluny Lace history
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