Malmesbury - History
Malmesbury lace was once renowned nationwide for its quality and unique characteristics, and at one stage formed a major part of the town’s trade and economy.
The earliest record of lacemaking in the Malmesbury area dates back to the English Civil War (1642-48), and in the late 17th century there was mention of at least one lace school (in Marlborough). Lacemaking became even more prominent after Charles II’s 1672 declaration allowing Dutch artisans to settle in England. Many of these individuals would have settled in Wiltshire, especially those with skills in weaving, and Dutch influence certainly had a refining influence on the existing lacemaking. In fact, by 1795, Malmesbury inhabitants claimed that they could earn more by lacemaking than they could by working at a factory. However, by 1826 the hand lace industry was declining, due to the introduction of machinery. Whereas in 1851 Malmesbury had 150 adult lacemakers, by 1881 it had only 11 such individuals.
Yet there were attempts to revive the practice, namely the efforts of Lady Suffolk who in 1907, realising that lacemaking in Malmesbury was in danger of disappearing completely, set up a lace school held in the Kings Arms Hotel. The class saw children and young women coming from a wide area to partake in lacemaking. By 1908 it had 30 pupils, with more waiting to join, and two teachers. It is unknown when the class closed but it was certainly before the 1920’s, when the Kings Arms changed hands.
While lacemaking is no longer a full-time profession in Malmesbury, it is still practiced by some individuals and demonstrations are given every Monday in Athelstan Museum.
Blanchard, Joan., Malmesbury Lace (B.T. Batsford Limited, London: 1990).