The craft of lace making is irrevocably linked with the heritage of Bedfordshire. Though the origins of the craft in this region can never be pinpointed with exactitude, it is possible that it was introduced by no less a personage than Queen Katherine of Aragon, first wife of Henry VIII.
The Queen was imprisoned at Ampthill, while Henry's obedient officials instituted divorce proceedings against her. Legend has it that Katherine herself taught lace making to the inhabitants of the village.
The first Bedfordshire lace was worked in the "Point-Ground" style, where pattern and ground were created together.
By the late 16th century lace making began to be taught to children in Workhouses, on the theory that they should contribute something to the cost of their board and lodging. In the 18th and 19th centuries, lace schools taught the skill to poor children, who produced work for sale to lace dealers. Though the theory behind the teaching of useful skills might have been laudable, in practice the children were badly abused and paid a pittance for their labour.
English lace was less expensive than the continental equivalent, though often of a less intricate or skillful design. Bedfordshire lace was the product of "cottage industry"; that is, pieces were produced by workers at home, and sold to dealers for distribution around the country.
Then in 1809 John Heathcoat invented a "bobbin net" machine to automate the making of ground, which could then be enhanced with decorative design by hand. This was the beginning of end for cottage lace making, and further refinements of the automation process allowed the entire piece of lace to be produced by machine.
Throughout the Victorian period the lot of Bedfordshire lace makers worsened. They responded by producing cheaper and coarser styles, such as "torchon" and "Maltese" lace, but this only delayed the inevitable. Finally, after WWI, an influx of skilled refugee lace makers from Belgium created an over-supply of hands for the available work.
Lace making in Bedfordshire has dwindled from an industry involving thousands of highly skilled workers to a hobby enjoyed by only a few.
Major exhibitions of Bedfordshire lace can be viewed at the Bedford Museum and the Cecil Higgins Art Gallery in Bedford.