Accepted Paper:

Tellings: Reconstructing the Repertoire of Songs used in English Lace Schools  
David Hopkin (Hertford College, University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

Tells were counting rhymes which controled the work pace in English lace schools, and allowed apprentices to express themselves. But while we have texts, we don't have tunes, and we don't know the rhythm employed. We work with singers and lacemakers to reconstruct this practice.

Paper long abstract:

This presentation concerns a Knowledge Exchange project at Oxford University. See:

No nineteenth-century European lacemaker has left an account of her own life. However, lacemakers sang while they worked, and these songs were recorded by folklorists. Some songs were sung for entertainment, but others, in particular those used in Flemish and German lace-schools, provided a work rhythm. Such 'Tellingen' and 'Klöppellieder' have a particular form - counting pins placed in a pillow - and they comment on the work process and the life experiences of the apprentices. Through their collective performance they became 'broken' to the trade.

English lacemakers also had a comparable repertoire of 'tells' made up of bits of ballads, prayers and improvisations. Some of the Flemish and English tells are so similar they may be considered the same song. Tells provide access to the visceral history of hunger, exhaustion, domestic violence, physical and sexual abuse which was so often lacemakers' lot.

However there was no sustained attempt to collect English lacemakers' tells. Local antiquarians sometimes noted the words, but they seldom took down the music. There are approximately seventy known English tells, but only three have tunes.

Our first aim is to reconstruct these tells by recovering their tunes - not impossible given that tells borrowed elements of better known songs. It also means finding their rhythm, by applying them to the lace production process. For this I would bring singers together with contemporary lacemakers from the Lace Research Network.


Panel P042
Knowing by singing: song, acoustic ecologies and the overflow of meaning