Josephine Dowell believes that it’s possible to learn the ancient art of bobbin lace in merely one week. Considering all its spangles, bobbins, threads, pins, and seemingly complicated, mind-bending pattern process, it’s hard not to be a little bit skeptical of her claim.
However, Josephine knows it’s possible. She knows because she did just that.
For the 86-year-old, “all her life” goes back to when she was merely four years old. “My mother was an embroiderer, and I wanted to do that, too,” she says. “So she showed me how to embroider. And she crocheted and she taught me how to crochet. My grandmother taught me to knit, and an aunt that tatted taught me to tat. I got interested in weaving several years ago, and learned to weave from a lady in Ozark. And then I ran into (someone who did) bobbin lace, and I wanted to do that, too.”
So when she had the chance to take a lace-making class while out in West Virginia, she jumped at the chance. Now nearly 25 years later, it’s safe to say that the week-long course, while effective, simply wasn’t enough. “I was so fascinated with bobbin lace that I’ve been doing it ever since.”
As she talks, Josephine is busy with her latest creation. “This is hairpin lace,” she says of her work. “But I just love doing the bobbin lace. It’s just so fascinating and the history of lace is really, really interesting.”
Josephine’s lace-making skills in action
That history she’s referring isn’t local. While other types of lace — such as tatting — were commonplace in the Ozarks, bobbin lace was much more rare. Although she doesn’t know for sure why that was the case, she does have a theory.
“To tat, you just need a shuttle and thread,” she says, noting that other types of lace required additional supplies, such as a pillow and bobbins. While some projects can be done with as few as four bobbins, the number can escalate quickly. Josephine recalls one project where she used 50 pairs — translating into 100 bobbins in total. “And it was just a little tiny thing, too,” she says “It just depends on your pattern.” Perhaps those supplies were things that many penny-thrifty locals thought were extravagant or simply weren’t able to afford. “I don’t know if that’s why it was done less. You know, having to have all the equipment.”
So instead, the history that fascinates Josephine is European. She notes that some of the techniques go back around 500 years, and that the threads played a significant role in the social system of the day. “They made laws about how much you could wear or own,” she says. “It was considered your wealth at one time. How much lace you had.”
But how does one actually go about turning tiny threads into works of art? Josephine says it’s quite simple. “You use four bobbins at a time (and) you use ‘em in pairs,” she says, pointing to her pattern, another necessary element of any lace creation. “See all those dots? Those are pinholes and that shows you where to put your pins after you make a stitch. The arrangement of the pinholes create the pattern.”
It’s clear that Josephine has a gift with threads — but she’s also an excellent teacher. Perhaps that stems from her study of art education at what was then Southwest Missouri State College. However, that’s not been her only profession. She was also a nurse.
It was the latter which introduced her to a textile-loving friend — one who is talented enough to pull grand champion in the Ozark Empire Fair’s needlepoint division — who has stuck by her side for 55 years. But this person is a little closer than just a friend. He’s Josephine’s husband.
“I married into the place,” jokes 82-year-old Larry, who is from northern Missouri. The couple met when Larry, a medical student, came to Springfield to complete a summer stint at what was then Burge Hospital. “(Josephine) was in a scrub dress when I arrived,” Larry recalls. “(It was) love at first sight, I think.” And it didn’t take Josephine long to catch up. “When I went back to school in the fall, she went along,” he says.
Although resistant at first, Josephine’s love of threads eventually rubbed off on Larry. “She was always nagging me to do some kind of needlework,” says Larry. Finally, a gift of “Needlepoint for Men,” a book by pro-football player Rosey Grier, convinced him to give it a shot. “Forty years ago, she got me the book and got me started. And I’ve been at it ever since. I’ve been doing needlepoint longer than she’s been doing lace.”
Because of Larry’s 35-year career as a general practitioner, the couple and their two children moved various places over the years. Southwest Missouri, however, called them home in 1977. The couple lived in Strafford until two years ago, when they relocated to the Maranatha Village Retirement Community. But that hasn’t kept them from demonstrating their skills, just as they’ve been doing for years at countless craft fairs — as well as at the Ozark Empire Fair, where they’ve been mainstay demonstrators for nearly two decades.
But those events aren’t the couple’s only appearance in the local lace-making scene: There’s also Lacemakers of the Ozarks, a group which Josephine has been a part of from its inception. The group — which normally has around 20 participants — meets monthly to make lace. And you’re invited!
Want to learn more? Lacemakers of the Ozarks meets on the fourth Saturday of every month from 10 a.m. until 2 p.m. at Springfield’s Midtown Carnegie Branch Library. There’s a break for lunch at noon, but otherwise it’s a time filled with lots of lacemaking, friends and fun.