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I am often asked about the use of the lucet by 15th century silkwomen. The short answer is that we have no evidence that it was a tool that was used at this time.

There is evidence that the lucet, or other pronged implement for making cords of some type, was used in the centuries before and after the 15th; archaeological finds suggest that its use waned sometime in the late 12th or early 13th centuries, whilst secondary sources point to a renewal in the techniques in the 17th century.

Secondary sources

Information about the lucet seems quite rare. The majority of sources which mention either the tool or the technique quote Sylvia Groves [1]. She states:

 "In medieval times horn-books, pen-cases, pincushions, pomanders and many objects of everyday use hung from the waist suspended by cords. Hooks and eyes and metal fasteners [...] did not become generally available until the late Georgian era, so that both under and outer garments had to be laced up or gathered in with cords, or 'chains' as they were then termed.
     The closure of bags and purses presented another and more difficult problem; money was often carried in a silk purse contained in an outer bag of leather drawn up or tied round with string or laces.
     All of these cords had, of course to be made by hand, usually on a simple, but very essential, implement known as a Lucet. [...] (use of which died out by about 1830) [...]
     In some forms of needlework the tool may still be employed with advantage; to those entrusted with the repair of old costumes or ecclesiastical embroideries it may be of particular value."

The book shows illustrations of later lucets and gives the alternative name of chain-fork (and hay-fork in Europe).

Although helpful in establishing what the lucet is - and giving good instructions on its use, it does not refer to any medieval or earlier examples directly, not does it refer to any extant or recovered lucetted cords. Grove’s sources are not clear, and points such as the use of hooks and eyes during the medieval period can now be disputed.

Another source [2]which shows examples of later lucets also quotes Groves, and gives the alternative names of lutal and lyre.

The Textile Institute [3] gives the following definition:

"Lucet; chain-fork
     A lyre shaped hand tool of ancient origin, some 70cm to 150 cm long, made from thin, rigid materials such as wood, horn, ivory, etc. It was used for making square knotted cords with low stretch and good strength characteristics, and was widely used until the advent of the industrial revolution when the manufacture of cords and laces became a machine operation."

Unfortunately, the term 'ancient' is not very helpful!

The Oxford English Dictionary states that it is an obsolete term in this form ("a lady's lace loom") with the earliest written example from about 1650.

Primary sources

Numerous finds, particularly from the Viking period, have been classified as ‘lucets’.  The majority are two-pronged, usually made of bone, with the prongs being  smoothed.  MacGregor [4] mentions other finds, including three twelfth century ones:

"Blomqvist and Martensson (1963) have published a double-pointed implement cut from the shaft of a long bone which they identify as a thread-twister (see also Graham-Campbell 1980). Although not identical to the find mentioned above, somewhat similar objects have been recovered from late Saxon Thetford, Norfolk (unpublished) and from twelfth century contexts at Castle Acre, Norfolk (Margeson in Coad and Streeter, 1982), Waltham Abbey, Essex (Higgins, 1976) and Aardenburg in the Netherlands (Trimpe-Burger, 1966). Two others are in the British Museum (unpublished). Plaited yarns could have been produced from threads attached to the terminal points and drawn through the tubular shaft of bone. This function has recently been confirmed by Elisabeth Crowfoot (in Coad and Streeter 1982*), who suggested the term 'lucet'."

Later lucets date from the Georgian and Victorian periods, and are usually found in collections of sewing materials. By this later period, they are being made from various different materials, including ivory and wood.

The lucet cord

Unfortunately, the majority of cords and laces which exist on extant items (such as purses or ecclesiastical  items) have not been examined in order to identify how they have been made. This is a trend which is changing however;  more textile historians are looking at the ‘extras’ which decorate textiles, and noting structures. I have not yet come across an item which has been identified as having been made using this technique, although my research is far from complete.

My own observations into the structure of the lucet cord and other forms of braiding have shown various similarities between cords made using different techniques. Many of these similarities would make identifying a technique superficially quite difficult.

Visually, the lucet cord, 5-loop round fingerloop braid, and 8-strand plait all resemble each other. When making a single colour lace by each of these methods using the same material, very slight differences are seen in the structure -

The lucet cord, being made of one element and by forming knots, tends to be tighter and smaller in its cross section than the other two laces.

The 8 strand plait tends to appear somewhat rounder than the other two.

All are square laces.

braid comparison

If the ends of the lace are not visible (for instance when they are encased in aiglets or a tassel), then it is very difficult to determine the technique used in any one lace. It would be nearly impossible to compare two different laces using different weights of thread, even if one was known to be a fingerloop braid. Multi-colour laces would, of course, be easier to study; the pattern made by the use of colour would help to determine the method used.

Of the three, the 8-strand plait is the most time consuming for an individual to make, whilst the fingerloop braid is probably the quickest. Both the 8-strand and the fingerloop braid have limitations in the length which can be easily obtained. For a long lace, the 8-strand would require the use of bobbins, whilst the fingerloop requires a second person to maintain the tension. Both of these also require careful pre-measuring of the warp to achieve any particularly long lace; this in itself creates its own problems. The lucet cord, on the other hand, is the easiest method by which to create a very long lace, without pre-measuring, and without help.

Conclusion

It seems at least possible that the use of the lucet continued during the period for which there is no evidence; perhaps as a skill that was used domestically, as opposed to one employed by professional silk workers. If this is the case, further study could show that some extant cords have been made using this technique. It is just as likely that this technique was kept alive elsewhere (meaning not in England) and when fashions changed , Englishwomen learnt the technique anew. Until extensive study is made on the various cords, braids and laces that do survive, both in England and in Europe, this question cannot be positively answered.

Bibliography/notes

[1] Sylvia Groves
The History of Needlework Tools and Accessories
Hamlyn Publishing Group Ltd, Middlesex
1966, republished 1973

[2] Gay Ann Rogers
An Illustrated History of Needlework Tools
John Murray
1983

[3] The Textile Institute
Textile Terms and Definitions 8th Edition
1986

[4] Arthur MacGregor
Bone, Antler, Ivory and Horn: The Technology of Skeletal Materials since the Roman Period.
London/Totowa NJ: Croom Helm/Barnes and Noble, 1985

With special thanks to Carolyn Priest-Dorman for supplying early references. 


This article first appeared on the Soper Lane website


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Gina-B Silkworks designs and produces a variety of craft kits, books, DVDs and other items with an emphasis on handwork & passementerie (textile trimmings). We also stock a range of tools & materials for these crafts. Gina also makes bespoke items to commission.
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