Science and Heritage Programme

Nottingham Lace: Capturing and Representing Knowledge in People, Machines and Documents

Nottingham Trent University

Award Holder - Professor Tom Fisher


Nottingham Lace: Capturing and Representing Knowledge in People, Machines and Documents

This work brings together academics in History and Design with textile industry and museum specialists to develop and test  methods of capturing and disseminating specific aspects of the Leavers process developed in Nottingham in the early C19 to replicate the qualities of handmade lace.

The intention of the project is to develop and test robust and valid methods to capture three forms of knowledge: in the documentary record, in the remaining machinery and in the tacit knowledge of the surviving craftspeople. The further intention is to develop and test methods of representing this knowledge that exists in compounds of things and people, which make it accessible to a range of users, including museum curators, historians of technology, textile design practitioners and, potentially, future manufacturers.  The methods will be developed  and tested by focusing on the resource that exists in the sole remaining business in England producing Leavers lace, Cluny Lace at Ilkeston, Derbyshire. 

The project will document what is an imminently redundant technology by capturing both the aspects of the technical specifications of the Leavers manufacturing technology and the tacit knowledge of the remaining  craftspeople at Cluny Lace. The equipment will be documented through access to historical plans, archive and contemporary photography and patents, through contact with existing partners (from the previous Science & Heritage Research Cluster 'Understanding Complex Structures') as well as new collaborators.  

The research process focuses on specific aspects of the Leavers process, through which it will develop a procedure that can be extended in future work to other aspects of the process. Of the three sources of knowledge about the process, it is the remaining craftspeople that is the most fragile because both documents and machines endure.  The process will therefore start with the remaining crafts people at Cluny Lace, using interview and observation to identify specific aspects of the process that can be tracked back through the design of the machines into patent and design registration records. The exploration of the craftspeople's tacit knowledge will draw on methods from social science that extend beyond direct interview to use video observation and analysis that can capture proprioceptive/ kinaesthetic knowledge.  This part of the work will draw on precedents in the analysis of dance  and sport.  The subsequent phases of the work will follow the leads provided by this work with people to represent and analyse the aspects of the machinery relevant to it, using 3D computer animation.  Both these phases of the work will be underpinned and informed by work that traces the relevant innovations in machinery, production technique and textile design in patent records and the Board of Trade Design Registration scheme held at The National Archive. 

Work that follows this project will be able to reiterate this process in the other direction - starting with the documents, moving to the machines and then to the people. A re-assessment of the material history of the UK textile industry is timely in the light of the rapid development of the Chinese and Indian economies which may mean that textile production returns to the UK over coming years.    


Bridging the divide between academic researchers, practitioners, the museums and commercial sectors, the work directly impacts on participating institutions and public discourse. The museums sector will benefit directly from research outputs that will enable engagement with new and future audiences by representing knowledge of the Leavers process, the work promising indirect impact on UK and international textile museums, facilitating new ways of envisioning similar redundant, historical technology. The work will directly impact on the RAs, broadening their experience.
Strong cross-disciplinary participation externally, and internally through dissemination event will ensure impacts on a broad range of participants including academics in the history of technology, craft, textiles and material culture as well as artists, designers, other practitioners and students. Indirect impact on citizens of Nottingham and the region will transpire through influence on public discourse about our industrial heritage. The centrality of lace in Nottingham's manufacturing history means the research outcomes will confirm the region's past identity, and support the city's curation of its heritage tourism with significant economic benefit. The research will impact on Cluny Lace, highlighting the idiosyncratic and specialist nature of their manufacturing to a wider audience, through new tools that promote understanding of its uniqueness, which will be available to the company after the project for PR purposes.

These impacts will influence the participating institutions and researchers through their participation, enhancing and developing specialist research skills through a range of historical/technical, ethnographic and creative design methods. Formal publication in both academic and professional journals will impact on the broader academic and practitioner community along with the dissemination event, that will present and put into context the work to give the various groups access to the results and methods. The implications of the results for the museum community will be presented by focusing on the representations of the Leavers process, and their relationship to the insights derived from the ethnographic and historical work. Public discourse will be influenced by promoting the work through NTU's press office to generate print and media coverage, locally, nationally and internationally, building on strong interest in local and regional industrial heritage. The work will use novel methods to convey information about material exhibits that are largely static - it will humanise the machinery, telling the stories of ordinary men and women in their working environment through visualisations, narratives and display, providing general audiences with new knowledge by reanimating what was once the region's most significant industry. The 3D animation of the Leavers process and the testimonies collected in the ethnographic work will impact on public education through the participating institutions, particularly the museums. NCMG will draw on the results in planned future exhibitions about the textile industry.

This will impact on public wellbeing through pride in the community's industrial past, for those directly involved in it and for new and future generations who have limited direct access to the region's most significant industry, and the experiences of visitors to, and therefore on tourism in Nottingham through the participation of NCMG. The practitioner community will benefit from insights into the embodied knowledge in the relationship between creative practice and production techniques reliant on compounds of machine and human, which may be transferrable to contemporary practice. The research will impact on the commercial partner's understanding of their history, with the potential for future commercial opportunity.