Nos 50 – 56 High Street

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Nos 50 – 56 High Street, 2014

The Lace Factory was the last example of a commercial attempt locally to keep the lace industry viable, in spite of the changing economic climate and the vagaries of fashion. It was built by a slightly eccentric character, one Harry Armstrong, who hailed from Stoke Goldington. He employed George Knight to build him in 1928 ‘something the like of which Olney had not seen before’. The site in the High Street was vacant as the buildings had been destroyed by fire in 1924, Being the time of the ‘Great Depression’, it was made mostly with second hand materials.

The only ‘new material’ was the carving on the façade, which originally included three huge carvings over the front door of a bobbin winder, candle-stool and a bobbin stand. As these were completely unsupported over the door of the flat-roof front extension they were soon taken down for safety reasons and given to one of Harry’s lady friends. They were rediscovered in her former garden and the Cowper and Newton Museum acquired them and placed them in the courtyard, where they can be seen today.

The Lace Factory soon after the large Lace Carvings of a Bobbin Winder, Candle Light and Bobbin Stand were erected above the front door.

Lace itself was never made on this site. The building was used as offices and as a warehouse, where lace was sewn onto garments or any article that Harry thought could be adorned with lace! It was then packed up into parcels which were sent out worldwide. The lace was made by women in their homes and brought into the Lace Factory for sale, or collected by agents in local villages. Out of their earnings the lacemakers had to buy the thread for the next week’s work!

An Olney Lacemaker c.1930, Mrs Mary Wooding, who lived in Osborn’s Court opposite the Lace Factory

Harry advertised his business in women’s magazines and by sending out postcards touting for business from individual women or women’s groups. A response would result in the dispatch of a parcel of lace ‘on appro’ (approval). Prospective purchasers were given a month to pay up or return the goods. The late Cis Elderton who worked in the office for him said they lost very few parcels. People were honest in those days!
Click to see Cis talking about the prices paid by Harry Armstrong per yard of lace.

Harry was quite a character as he traded as ‘Mrs Armstrong’, believing women were more likely to buy lace from another woman! Sadly, he died at the early age of 56 while on a business trip to Scotland in 1943.

Thereafter lacemaking in Olney, as a business, was only carried on by a few older women who made lace for gifts.

An example follows of a pattern together with the finished lace item produced in Olney.

A ‘pattern’ or ‘pricking’ drawn on glazed card over which the lace was worked.
The finished Lace Collar with a nine-pin edging, square ‘leaves’ and a ‘plait and picot’ ground.

Lacemaking enjoyed a revival in Olney in the 1970s, following a national resurgence of the craft in the 1950s and 60s through the efforts of the Women’s Institute and local adult education classes, when the once traditional cottage industry became a leisure time craft. The ‘Olney Lace Circle’ was formed in the 1970s and continues lacemaking today, still as a  leisure time activity.

Considerably more information on thehistory of lacemaking in Olney is contained in Elizabeth Knight’s articles reproduced on this website.

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