Made In Rhode Island: Making Lace On Leavers Looms

May 22, 2014

Some businesses’ bottom lines rise and fall with the stock market, others with trends in popular culture. Take the fashion industry. The lace on Kate Middleton’s wedding gown sparked a trend that is being felt here in Rhode Island.

Wall Street is not what York Roberts keeps an eye on. You won’t catch him monitoring the business cable channels for the latest ups and downs in the stock market. Nope. Roberts is more likely to be watching the E! Entertainment channel for what’s hot on the red carpet.

Workers at Leavers Lace in West Greenwich work on machines that are more than 100 years old.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

“We watch the Golden Globes, we watch what’s going on in Hollywood, what’s going on in the fashion industry and what you see on TV,” said Roberts. “And right now, you see a lot of lace.”

The plant manager at Leavers Lace, Roberts is a 4th generation lace worker. “Worked for my grandfather, my father and learned my trade through them and I love it.”

Leavers lace is unique because it looks handmade. The machines make it that way. Invented in England more than 100 years ago, leavers looms and patterns are still at work here in West Greenwich.

It all starts in a quiet room where the bobbins are wound. Dozens of white threads stretch from racks of yarn half-way across the room into a comb on a table where a pair of patient hands winds the strands onto bobbins.

“Very patient, very patient,” said Roberts. “I’ve grown a lot of patience. If you’re not patient in this business then it’s not for you. When you’re dealing with machines that are over 100 years old something’s going to happen, something’s going to break and you just have to have patience or they’ll get the better of you.”

A worker threads yarn onto a bobbin. The bobbin will then head to the looms to become lace.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

From there, it’s on to the leavers looms.

Roberts guesses that his hulking, black machines were built anywhere from 1895 to 1925. Leavers looms were the first lace machines to take over from handmade. So what once took months or a year by hand now takes about an hour.

“It’s threaded up with over 16-k individual thread and the yarn is on spools underneath the machine that run up through a guide and then when they get where the bobbin and carriage is that’s where the jack-card takes over,” said Roberts.

York Roberts has 13 leavers looms in his shop in West Greenwich.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

That Jacquard is the pattern. It works by moving rectangular, metal sheets filled with seemingly random holes that look like punch cards. “It’s very similar to the early stages of computers here everything works off of punch cards.”

The metal sheets are joined together to make a sheet that rolls around at the end of the machine. This is what tells the machine what pattern to make. “This system we’ve used, we’ve been using for over 150 years, so I can safely say we were here before the computer was or IBM.”

Once the lace is made, Roberts’ wife Laurie stretches is out along a wall in a well lit room. She’s looking for flaws. She marks any imperfections with a wooden clothes pin then mends them on a sewing machine.

Laurie Roberts inspects every yard of lace before it goes out the doors of Leavers Lace.
Credit Catherine Welch / RIPR

This is how it’s done.

Most of Roberts’ employees have worked at Leavers Lace for a long time. But when he needs new people, it’s hard to find them.

“It’s hard to get people in the industry when you say we’re the only one,” said Roberts. “But we’ll always be here as long as there are people who can handle the machines and handle this business.”

Right now business is good. Leavers Lace supplies Ann Taylor, J-Crew and other retail stores. But Roberts knows what’s in one day is out the next, and said the lace business is not for the faint of heart.

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