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Needlepin, stitch upon stitch

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It was the year Nan Spencer was for marrying Tom Darby, though his parents didn't agree, nor hers neither. I'd already learnt my narrow edgings, hour after hour of the Pea and the Ninepin and the Spider, and I'd almost mastered the Plaited Star and the Double Ring: old Mistress Betsy promised I should soon start on the intricacies of the Running River. (Not so old as that, now I think on it, for she was only twenty, but twenty is a great age when you're six, quite too old to want to run and play. I mind, too, my mother and my aunts were given to prophesying her an old maid, which I took to mean she was already old, when they meant only she was a sight too choosy.)

There were always people in and out, wanting to talk to Betsy. We made it into a little work rhyme, the two of us:

                                                  Up the street and down the street
                                                  A lad for every lass
                                                  Knocking at the door today
                                                  Let the first one in.

And so forth with let the first two in, and the first three and so on for the full count. It wasn't very good, but it was the first one I had any part in making, and I was very proud of it. As you can tell, there were a lot of courting couples who wanted Betsy's advice for one thing or another, so I got round to expecting that was what everyone wanted when they came to visit, Betsy welcoming them in with a smile as she pricked out her pattern with pins, and the pretty bobbins flashing to and fro, the mottoes on them picked out in bright colours (I wish to wed the lad I love; forsake me never; luck is with my love and me and all the rest).

I liked those bobbins best, the ones about love, because they were always so colourful and pretty, but not so delicate I daren't touch them. Some of the others in Betsy's box were carved and pierced all around, cut with windows into a hollow shaft in which another baby bobbin lay caged, and one had yet another miniature inside the baby: they were very fine, but I was sure they'd break if I so much as breathed on them. I thought it must be magic that allowed the bobbin maker to carve them like that, because no one could be so skilled, but Betsy only laughed and said the bone was soft when new, so that the window could be stretched wider, and if the bone wasn't new, it could be boiled to refresh it. That was her first lesson to me, to know the natural properties of things before I thought of magic.

The bobbins I used were plain wood ones, suitable for the school-room. I had two good ones already, laid by against the day I would be able to use them. There was one my father had had made the day I was born, with my name and the name of our town and the date, all laid out in a straight line; I preferred it when the words went round and round in spirals, because it was prettier (if the carver had the skill to keep his curve even), but I loved that bobbin because it was mine and could never be used by anyone else. I had another one, too, that had been made for a friend of my mother's: it was the custom, when a lacemaker died, to share out her bobbins among her friends (except her birth one, of course, if she had one). My mother having no talent for weaving, for all that she'd been so close to Granny Spencer, she'd passed her bobbin on to me. It didn't have any inscription, but the spangle (which is the weight that holds it in place on the pillow and also keeps the thread taut) had an army uniform button in place of one of the beads: one of Granny Spencer's sons had gone off to be a soldier, and she'd had the bobbin made after he'd died, to remember him. It wasn't a sad bobbin, like some of the memento ones I'd seen, but an angry one, because she hadn't wanted him to go, but to me it always had an air of adventure as well, because the button was from someone who'd wanted to leave town and see the world. I used to take it out and look at it and wonder where that button had been, and how many miles it had travelled.

Mistress Betsy had even more adventurous ones, with foreign beads, or seedpods, or little brass weights, but she kept those locked up and I wasn't supposed to know about them. It was important to design a bobbin carefully, because you'd have it all your life, so it had to speak to you just right. It didn't have to say anything good, mind: it could be something you regretted just as well as something you hoped for or something that brought you joy, but it couldn't be something you were indifferent to, not if you were going to work properly with it. That was why bobbins could only be passed on to someone who'd been close to their previous owner. Training bobbins were different, of course, but then no one expected you to weave anything special with them. They were just for practice. That was another lesson, that you had to spend a lot of time just practicing before you could do anything that required skill: there are lots of stories about fairy bargains that let you spin straw into gold, or feathers into silk, but there's no way to make lace without knowing what you're doing.

I didn't think anything of it, the first time he came in. We'd been singing The Cuckoo with Thirty Wives, and I was a little sad someone had interrupted, because I wanted to know about the later wives, but I wasn't surprised, because it was a long song and Betsy was very popular, so we never got very far through it. He wasn't a tall man, and not nearly so muscular as most of the farm lads, but there was something about him, a presence, like you might not want to get in a fight with him, and he had a way of moving, graceful but very quick, that was a bit out of the ordinary. He had red hair, too, which wasn't all that unusual, but it looked better on him than it did on Carrot-Top Will or little freckled Murcy Hart.

I guessed he had some sweetheart he wanted Betsy to make a Valentine for, so I didn't pay much attention, not until Betsy went all quiet and thoughtful, and said maybe, and she'd have to think on it, and come back tomorrow. She stayed quiet, too, the rest of the day, and we didn't go back to singing the cuckoo song, even though nobody else came by for quite some time, and we might have got up even to the nineteenth or twentieth wife.

He did come back the next day, and I paid him more mind, because he'd upset Betsy. He caught me looking at him and called me a pretty little lass, which would have pleased me from anyone else, but somehow even though he had a friendly smile, the longer he looked at me, the more uncomfortable I felt. He must have known something about lace, because he was telling Betsy not only what he wanted, but how she should make it, and I hadn't even heard of some of the designs he asked for.

It wasn't strange for a man to know a little bit about lace, because young boys were sometimes sent to lace school with their sisters, mostly to keep them out of mischief, and some of them got to be very good on the practice needles, although it was a rare man who went on to making real lace, but there was no doubt I was going to be a proper lacemaker, so I reckoned I already knew more than anyone who wasn't would have picked up, and he couldn't be a lacemaker himself, because men were so rare I would have heard of him already, and because he wouldn't be after anyone else's work if he could do for himself. Of course the bobbin makers were almost all men, and no one could say they didn't know a lot about lace, particularly the good ones, who made special bobbins to order rather than ordinary sets that would never amount to much without outside help. (Nan Spencer was particularly good at that – she could take the plainest bobbin, and associate it with something important, or make a spangle from bits that hadn't looked anything in the bead box, but were just right when she put it all together.) He didn't have the look of a bobbin maker, though – they were quiet, calm men, sometimes very ingenious, but never with the sort of fierce quickness he had.

It was a relief when he left, but to my surprise Betsy didn't start on making whatever it was he'd wanted, but went back to doing practice drills with me, and not the sort with funny songs either, but the serious ones that needed concentration, so I had quite a headache by evening. I didn't see him again for some time, and I didn't see Betsy working on anything for him, although since I was hardworking (and very keen not to get spanked by my mother) I came on time every morning and stayed until dusk, which didn't leave any other time for her to work unobserved. I'd been told, you see, that it was forbidden to work by candlelight except between Tanders Day and Candlemas, and being very young I thought that meant that no one ever did. I learnt better, of course, and when my sister Jane's youngest was born, that lay so badly, I'm not ashamed to say I stayed up all night myself, though it was a month past Candlemas.

Time passed and I began to forget about him, particularly when Betsy let me start on the Running River, which made me feel very grown up, but he hadn't forgotten about us, and the next time he came round Betsy had just gone out, leaving me alone. He knocked on the door as brisk as anything, and in a lacemaker's rhythm at that (it was the 'Knock, knock at your door / Does your little dog bite' one, which I'd always liked till then). I wanted very much for him to go away, because I had good instincts, and I was afraid to be alone with him when I was so little and weak.

If I'd been better at the Running River, I'd have tried that, but I was still learning it and didn't think I could carry it off, so I stuck to the Town Trot, which I knew well, and did length after length of it, thinking as hard as I could about him trotting away, and counting under my breath a new tell I made up (though I didn't have the training to make it from scratch, and had to base it on the 'If you won't give us a holiday' one all lace students tease their teachers with):

                                                  Pardon, mistress, pardon, master,
                                                  Pardon for a pin;
                                                  If I'm not who you are looking for
                                                  I needn't let you in.

I only had practice needles, and the Town Trot is nothing much even with proper bobbins, so I could hardly believe it when it worked, and he left without coming in. I suppose perhaps he would have gone anyway, but at the time I thought I'd done it, and I'd have been cock-a-hoop with pride if I hadn't been exhausted and frightened: at six, you still expect they'll always be adults around to look after you, and even though I was determined to be a lacemaker, I'd never really thought how it meant having to rely on yourself. (It would be a good few years yet before I realised it also meant being the one other people relied on. That's a hard lesson, and one that comes when you think you're a lacemaker already. It's especially hard if you learn at the same time that you're never quite as good as you think you are, or at any rate never quite as good as you need to be.)

Betsy had her own problems right then, because the Darbys had come in, wanting her to make a nice bit of wedding lace for Tom, something for an obedient, well-off, respectable girl to wear, the sort whose father owned a nice bit of land and was as prosperous as they were. It was a perfectly reasonable request, and they offered to pay very well for it, but Betsy was friends with Nan and turned them down, which made them very angry. They said lacemakers were all alike, and that Nan had trapped Tom, which was a great insult, because we wouldn't stoop to such a thing, and besides, Nan was quick-fingered and clever, better even than Betsy, and if she'd wanted to entangle someone, she could have done better than Tom, whose parents weren't that rich. Still, they were rich enough to make a fuss.

Nan's own parents weren't any happier, not only because they didn't want to anger the Darbys, but because they didn't think much of Tom. He was a quiet boy, not dull or lazy or weak, but not clever enough to go away to study either, or hardworking enough to do more than was expected of him, or particularly talented in any way anyone could see. There was no telling Nan, though, there never was, not once she made up her mind.

The other excitement, which was almost enough to take people's minds clean off Nan and Tom, was news of a highwayman who'd held up two coaches on the road to town. There were as many stories about him as there were storytellers. Some said he was a sailor, who'd given up the sea for love of a local girl, but knew no trade but piracy. Some said he was a disgraced nobleman, for the fine lace edging on his shirts. Some said he was no highwayman at all, but part of a smuggling ring, and the coaches had passed by at the wrong time, and risked seeing something they shouldn't. All in all, it was a good story, whoever was telling it, and I took particular delight in those versions where one of the coachmen shot at him and the bullet turned aside (although in all truth, little Sam Tarry couldn't shoot straight enough to hit a cow, much less a man), or the clouds cleared, letting the moonlight fall across his face, but even so no one could make out who he was, or remember later what he'd looked like.

Betsy was still making lace for the man with red hair. He didn't come round anymore, but sometimes she'd slip away to the edge of the woods to give him a package, all neatly wrapped up the way she wrapped lace. She thought I didn't see her, but I did. I was very quiet in those days, and good at being overlooked. I was also very curious, and even though I was scared, I still wanted to know what he did with the lace, for he never wore any himself. That was why I followed him one evening, to see where he went with it. My heart was in my throat the whole time, and I was sure at any moment he was going to turn round and catch me, but I was too stubborn to give up and go back while I still could.

Eventually we reached a half-hidden path that wound steeply down into a little dene. I knew it well, because I used to play there with my sisters, exploring, before I was old enough to be sent to learn lacemaking. There was a big tree that grew out over the dene, and I scrambled up into its branches, so I could look down and see what he was doing while staying safely hidden myself. He'd been walking in darkness, but now he lit a lantern, and then I was even more afraid, for I'd thought he was alone, but by the lantern light I saw he'd met up with someone else, a stranger I'd never seen before.

The stranger was dressed all in black, except for the lace, which was very white. I had to look hard to make out his features, but when I concentrated I could see dark hair and a handsome face, suntanned and cheerful. He took the package carefully, like it was something very precious, and stowed it away in a bag he had with him. Then the two of them fell to digging, almost directly beneath where I was sitting. I thought my last hour had come, and that they knew I was watching and were digging me a grave, but in fact they were digging up a box that had been buried there, not very much larger than a bobbin box, and edged with iron bands. They seemed very pleased with it, and blowing out the lantern they went off together, the dark haired man with his bag and the red haired man carrying the box. Well, my courage was right at an end, having thought they were going to kill me and bury me there, and I didn't dare go any further. I didn't dare come down for some time, either, in case they were waiting for me, and when I did pull myself together and climb down, I ended up running most of the way home, so I got in trouble not only for being late to dinner but also for being all dishevelled, and with a rip in my dress where it had caught on a branch.

I didn't tell anyone what I'd seen, because I thought it might make trouble for Betsy, as it would have done, but other people had eyes too, and soon the story was going round that it was smuggling for sure the stranger was at, and not just wool or liquor or something of that kind, evading taxes, but other things, the sort we don't talk about, the sort that would bring the witchfinders to town, asking who went out at night, and how far they might be travelling. No one wanted that, officers from out of town coming here, making a fuss and disturbing everyone, when we got along perfectly well on our own. So it was important that we did get along on our own, and more and more men started going out along the road at night in groups, with nets and traps and special candles, looking to catch the stranger before he could bring trouble down on us all.

They caught him in the end, of course. I mean the dark haired one – I think red head could have slipped away from almost anything, except maybe a pack of hounds, and I might have put money on him even then. We all went up to the big Town to see him hanged, and a very fine figure he cut, still in his black and his lace, and something of a mystery too, for he wouldn't say who he was nor name his accomplices. By the tan on his face, he must have spent time somewhere hotter and sunnier than England ever was, and his shirt was sewn with layer upon layer of Bee-Skep lace and Zigzag – he would no more say where he had come by it than he would name his fellows. Still, the lace went some way to explaining why I'd had to try so hard to make out his looks, and why he'd been so hard to catch. (The Zigzag was easy to understand; it was the Bee-Skep that had puzzled me when red head asked for it, not only because I hadn't heard of it before, but because I couldn't conceive of its purpose. Honeycomb lace is for sweetness, but what is the point of weaving a beehive design? Later one of the bobbin makers explained to me that smugglers often use real bee-skep baskets as disguises, covering their heads and peering out the little holes made for the bees to enter by.) There were little love-knots too, scattered through the design, but no one thought they were hard to explain, for he was a well favoured young man, though it was little enough good it had done him in the end.

That was where I got my third good bobbin. They always made bobbins for hangings, because even cheap bobbins, turned out quickly in great numbers by poor carvers, had a kind of power, what with the excitement of the crowd, and a man dying. My father bought me one, and I use it still, although I never turned out half such fine work with it as Betsy wove with hers.

My fourth bobbin came soon after. It was what we called a ham-bobbin, which is to say one done to commemorate a marriage: a good ham would be bought, and after the wedding guests had eaten it, the bone would be given to a bobbin maker to make into mementos, which would later be given to important guests. There were many fine hams at the Darby wedding, enough that there was a bobbin to spare for me, even though I was only an apprentice.

I never saw a bride wear such a quantity of fine lace: the Darbys had gone even as far as the City, looking for lacemakers, and it must have cost them a pretty penny, but it was certainly lovely to look at, and Tom seemed happy enough to go along with what they wanted in the end. He made a good husband, too, over the years: steady, dependable and kind, just as Nan had predicted.

As for Nan herself, she danced at the wedding with every man in turn, except the groom, and I felt very sorry for her, for all she held her head high and braved it out. She didn't stay single long, though, for soon enough she was going around with the man with red hair. I tried to warn her away, but she only laughed and ruffled my hair:

“I'm no little hen,” she said, “to go fearing the fox.” (That was my nickname back then, Henny or Little Hen.) “He'll wander off and leave me in time, I expect, but I'm not the sort he'd harm, and if I can't have a reliable man, I'd as soon have one who's fun.”

As I said, there was no arguing with Nan when she had her mind made up, so there was nothing I or anyone else could do, and soon enough there was another marriage, not in church like Tom's, but the old way, in the greenwood, so there was no bobbin from that one. And I must admit Nan was right again, for I never heard he raised a hand to her or made her cry, though as the children got older we saw less and less of him, and in the end nothing at all, and no one knew where he'd gone off to. They were fine, strong babes, though, quick and sharp and clever, and their red hair suited them as well as it had done him. But not a one of them was a lacemaker. They all understood lace, mind, maybe better than anyone else I've known, but they could no more weave it themselves than could the beasts of the wood.

For myself, things went on much as they had, practicing from sun-up to sundown, with tip and stitch turn over and get to the field by one, until I had all the basic stitches at my command, and was starting to make proper tells of my own, and even beginning to think of one day laying out my own designs. Betsy saved up for almost a year and bought herself some new bobbins, the very slender sort, unornamented but perfectly turned, which are known as Old Maid bobbins. With no spangle, they can be used for the finest work, where the weight of the spangle would break the thread, and any ornament catch it, but they are very hard to use, for that same smoothness and lack of weight means they slip easily and don't want to stay in line. I prefer other lacework, where the interest lies in the design, but if you wanted a delicate lace, as insubstantial, fleeting and lovely as snow in summer, or first love with no time to grow old, it's Betsy you'd be wanting.