The lace-maker: ‘We make something that the Chinese can’t copy’

Tessa Waugh meets Cluny Lace, the only company flying the flag for British lace.

Ilkeston in Derbyshire might be the historic centre of British lace-making, but, nowadays, there’s only one company flying the flag for this highly decorative textile. Cluny Lace, belonging to the Mason family, has an impressive pedigree reaching back to before the Industrial Revolution and Charles Mason represents the ninth generation of his family to run the firm.

‘We make something that the Chinese can’t copy,’ he explains. ‘Ilkeston specialised in geometrical-style laces called Cluny and our pattern archive runs into the thousands, some of which were designed by my grandfather, Francis Bowler Mason, and his father, Frank Maltby Mason. Many were inspired by old, handmade patterns.’

‘Mender’ Gail Whitby repairing the lace. ©Richard Cannon/Country Life Picture Library

At the heart of the business are the Leavers lace machines, which revolutionised the industry by producing lace that was as close to handmade as a machine can get. It performs two functions: one is to twist the threads (mostly Egyptian cotton now, although, in the past, silk and linen were used) to form a net and the second is to add pattern, turning a basic net into exquisite lace.

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Although the majority of the world’s lace production now happens in Asia, there’s still a demand for the British product. ‘We have sold to most of the international fashion houses over the years,’ asserts Mr Mason. ‘The Duchess of Cambridge wore Cluny lace on her wedding day, as did her bridesmaids.’ Perhaps it will make another appearance at Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding on May 19?