Charles Mason is the last of the lace makers. He has inherited a family business that’s had to confront technological change, globalisation and the credit crunch recession.
“We’ve been making lace for up to 9 generations. We can trace our roots back to the stocking frame manufacturing days. We’re the last ones left in the UK. We’ve been the last ones left for maybe 15 years.”
Cluny are taking a huge gamble based on the higher quality of their lace. The “Leavers” machines that they use have their origins in the 19th century and can produce lace of such intricacy that it still cannot be copied by modern machinery. 99% of the world’s lace is now produced on high speed “Raschel” machines. So can a potential 1% market share ever be enough to sustain a business? For many years Cluny tried to answer this question by making lace on both types of machinery.
Says Sheila Mason: “We actually kept parallel to the Leavers machines our Raschel machines, we had a large modern Raschel machinery, absolutely fantastic for high speed production but we couldn’t compete on price. We certainly couldn’t compete on wages from the low- cost countries where the World Bank was proposing to set up this machinery. I mean Mr Blair for example just decided that textiles was a low tech industry which could go abroad. I mean the whole of that trade was taken over by the Far East.”
With no government subsidy, Cluny were eventually priced out by foreign competitors. Cluny defied conventional wisdom and sold off their modern equipment. It was an incredible gamble.
“Yes it was a risk, a very great risk,” says Sheila, “but we had no option. If we had kept that Raschel plant I don’t think the Leavers would have been here today.”
Cluny lace looked to the past to secure their future; to establish a unique position in the market place. A niche brand in a globalised world. Using antique machinery and a highly specialised workforce, they rely on processes over 100 years old.
Ian Emm is the very last Jacquard card puncher left in the UK. With demand dwindling, he now works from home.
“Virtually all these cards in here I’ve done over the years. These are the Singer sewing machines. Same principal as a sewing machine at home and these yet again are getting on for about 100 years old. Even this has a rhythm to it. The majority of the time I’m just pedalling bang, bang, bang, bang so I have Ipod on and I listen to dance music because it’s got a bumpa, bumpa, bumpa beat and I can relate to that when I’m working.”
The factory itself is run by ‘twisthands’. Polly explains: “The fabric is actually twisted not knitted, that’s why we’re called twisthands. A twisthand’s job is to keep a machine running with a high quality, making high quality lace. Each machine is different. That’s the top of the tree the twisthand. If you haven’t got your twisthand you haven’t got a business. The twisthand will make it, then it goes to a mender who will mend it if it needs to be mended.”
The Nottingham lace industry could once sustain an assembly line of thousands, with many opportunities for female workers. Hundreds of women worked in the mending rooms alone. Today at Cluny’s there is only one mender left.
When I first started here, there was quite a lot worked here and over the years it’s slowly dwindled down. It’s sort of strange how many people have come and gone sort of thing and yet you’re still here and you’re thinking thank goodness for that. I used to work at another lace factory but they shut down.”
Who buys quality lace nowadays? Charles says it’s mainly the big fashion houses. “The main buyers are the haute couture houses, Dolce Gabanna in Italy for example, Etro in Italy, Christian Dior in France. In the UK Paul Smith has been a valued customer for a long time. Vivienne Westwood is another.”
Did Cluny do the right thing to commit to an ageing process and dwindling skill base? Perhaps the answer lies in the story of their last main, local competitor, Birkins, which tried to keep pace with the Chinese industry.
Birkins closed in 2005. Polly went out to train the Chinese to work the machinery. “I’d worked for the Birkin’s factory for about 40 years. When Birkins packed up they were dismantling the machines in Borrowash and reassembling them in China then training up the personnel to work them. Everybody was asked if they wanted to put their name forward and certain people did… They just employed us basically to take the machines out there and train up the personnel.”
Cluny’s dwindling skill base may be the biggest threat to its future… Even if they make it through the recession, they may not have enough skilled workers to operate the complex machinery in the years to come. “Unfortunately three-quarters of the people here will be retiring in 5 years,” says Charles.
Getting the old machinery repaired is a constant problem. and another is dyeing. “The other thing, we have no dye works in this country for lace,” says Sheila. “Every bit of lace that leaves this factory is dyed in France. If that Calais goes for example the whole of lace in Western Europe is almost finished. It’s a very fragile balance, the whole time.”
The future is unpredictable. But despite the changes he has seen in the lace trade, Charles Mason firmly believes his unorthodox answer to globalization can pay off.
For information on the Jacquard weaving process, go here. Other sources on English lace making are the Museum of Science and Industry Textiles Gallery, and the lace making page of Cowper & Newton Heritage Museum.