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Heathcoat’s Bobbinet : John Heathcoat’s lace-making machine created thousands of jobs, and gave ordinary people clothes they could never have dreamt of.
Heathcoat’s Bobbinet

Based on ‘Self-Help’, by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

The industrial revolution improved the living standards of the poor not by robbing Peter to pay Paul, but by making Peter’s luxuries so cheap that Paul could afford them too. This win-win arrangement was made possible by the self-sacrifice and determination of inventors like John Heathcoat (1783-1861).

IT was the dream of most framesmiths at the turn of the nineteenth century to make machines that could mimic hand-made lace, but it required a dextrous twisting of the threads that they could not reproduce.

At sixteen, apprentice framesmith John Heathcoat was no different – except that in 1806, after eight years of heartbreaking trial and error, he laid a slip of strong, fine ‘bobbinet’, a machine-made tulle barely distinguishable from hand-made lace, on his wife’s lap.* By 1816, he had fifty-five machines at work.

John’s first factories in Nottingham and Loughborough were destroyed by traditional lace-makers, and his patents were infringed by rivals. The law came to his defence, however, and he moved his business to Tiverton in Devon, where the people were rewarded with two thousand jobs, a church, and £6000 invested in local schools;** across the country, meanwhile, the price for a square yard of tulle dropped from £5 to 5d, making a luxury item available to anyone.***

* Tulle (pronounced ‘tool’) is named after the French city. It is a strong, lightweight netting typically used for bridal wear, as well as ball-gowns, ballet costumes and decorative ribbon.

* Approximately half a million pounds today. See Measuring Worth.

** A fall from about £420 per square yard to about £1.70 today, which according to Smiles took place gradually over a twenty-five year period. See Measuring Worth.

Based on ‘Self-Help’, by Samuel Smiles (1812-1904).

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Picture: © Fanny Schertzer, Wikimedia Commons. Licence: CC-BY-SA 3.0. View original
Spanish ballerina Clara Soley dances in Adolphe Adam’s ‘Giselle’ at the Prix de Lausanne in 2010. Heathcoat Fabrics in Tiverton, Devon, continues to supply machine-made tulle fabrics to the world’s leading ballet companies. Today’s process has not greatly altered since Heathcoat patented his machine in 1809.

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