Lacemaking seems a genteel activity but New Zealand’s best-known lady of the bobbin, Alwynne Crowsen, has a will of steel. She began to teach herself to weave fine cottons into lace in 1966. The Lady magazine, a bible of domesticity, declared it an impossible skill to self-teach but that only spurred her on.
“I liked the idea that you could start with a ball of thread and make it into something beautiful,” she says.
The daughter of a missionary and a librarian, Alwynne was born in 1928 in Istanbul but returned to the UK as an infant. Crafts were not a childhood passion. “Mum encouraged me to knit but I don’t remember loving it.” Her mother died when Alwynne was eight, and “Dad employed a governess to teach me as many handcrafts as she could”.
Embroidery was on the menu, but Alwynne also made a pipe rack for her father, using a fretsaw. “Dad taught me how to use it. He had clever fingers; he was adept at very fine work.”
After school, she went nursing and then worked as a secretary in London, where she fell in love with a dashing South African named Hylton. In search of a better life, the couple came to live on their Henderson Valley farm in 1956.
In those days, the Waitakeres were truly isolated. Seeking information about lacemaking, Alwynne turned to the rural library service. “You could request a book and they’d comb the country for it. It was free too,” she enthuses.
She ordered Pillow Lace – a Practical Handbook and, during the two weeks of her loan, copied out as many patterns as she could. The owner of the shop where she bought her threads introduced her to a lacemaker, who was in a Mt Albert rest home. “When we met, it was the first time I knew I was doing it correctly.”
Nevertheless, Alwynne was haunted by the fact she couldn’t source the right supplies. But when she needed special bobbins Hylton stepped in. “We made our own, using dowel fitted with plastic tube over the top and beads on the bottom to lend the bobbin weight.”
Her first effort in lace was an edging around a handkerchief done in a bobbin lace called Bucks (Buckinghamshire) point ground. In the 40 years since then, Alwynne has devoted herself to mastering lace techniques from around the globe. It’s a demanding pastime, the ethereal beauty of which belies the mental stamina involved. Bobbin lace is particularly detailed – an exacting method of weaving that can use up to 200 bobbins simultaneously.
“Patience, being able to think things out, perseverance and accuracy are required,” explains Alwynne, who helped establish the Embroiderers and Lacemakers Guild in 1970.
These are qualities she obviously has in spades. Examples of her fine legacy of lace are meticulously catalogued in filing cabinets beneath the house, labelled according to lace type: freestyle, duchesse, Bruges, broderie Anglaise, tatting, Rosaline, Binche, Limerick and more.
Her career was also celebrated in a 2008 exhibition entitled A Lace Life: The Alwynne Crowsen Collection at Object-space on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road. Among the works was a Honiton lace weta – an example of her tongue-in-cheek creativity.
The lacemaker finds therapeutic value in her craft – “I don’t watch much television as it’s often violent and spiteful” – and she enjoys passing on her skills; some participants in her classes have been attending for nearly 20 years.
As Alwynne sits at her sewing table, Hylton reads companionably across the room and together they weave the intricate threads of a life richly lived.
Story: Claire McCall
Photographs: Kelley Eeady Loveridge