War gives man love of lace

July 22, 1992|By Linda Lowe Morris | Linda Lowe Morris,Staff Writer

In the dim light of the sacristy of Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Joseph Stricklen slowly unfurls a roll of blue cloth. Wrapped protectively within that plain length of blue is a piece of linen edged in the most delicate white lace.

Mr. Stricklen, 74, moves his fingertips over the lace edges and calls out the names: "The borders here are Torchon lace. The four corners are Maltese lace and the large cross is Honiton."

He knows every inch of the cloth, every stitch of the lace because he spent hundreds, perhaps thousands, of hours making it, his fingers rapidly plaiting threads held by dozens of wooden bobbins.

He brings guests to the church because after more than 40 years as a lacemaker, he has little to show for all of his work. Nearly as fast as he makes it, he gives it away -- to friends, to family and to his church, Emmanuel, where he is a member of the altar guild.

"I haven't kept too much of it myself, not having the need for it," he says with a shrug.

Lacemaking -- in the styles in which Mr. Stricklen works -- is basically a process of plaiting threads. The bobbins hold the threads tight. The finished plaits are held in place with pins, then sewn together according to a pattern.

Mr. Stricklen, who lives in the Mount Vernon area, works primarily in the style of bobbin lace called Honiton. Because of its delicacy and intricacy, Honiton has been called one of the finest laces in the world. Named for the town of Honiton in Devonshire, England, it has been used in English royal wedding gowns for many years, including those for Queen Victoria and Princess Diana.

The making of handmade lace was a cottage industry in Europe from the 1500s through World War II. After the war, laces were increasingly made by machine and the production of handmade lace dwindled.

Recently, however, lacemaking has been revived as a hobby. Currently, there are 150 members in the Chesapeake Region Lace Guild, which includes lacemakers from Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Washington, D.C. Of those 150 members, only two or three are men, according to member Mary Lou Kueker, a lace expert from Laurel. Mr. Stricklen, who is only slightly familiar with the group, is not one of the members.

His introduction to lace came during World War II when he was in the U.S. Army, stationed in England in the months before the D-Day invasion of France. His unit, the 42nd Field Artillery of the 4th Division, assembled in Honiton.

One day while shopping for a gift for his mother, he saw a beautiful collar made of Honiton lace. He bought the collar, which even then cost $50, but, because of tight security and censorship prior to D-Day, he couldn't tell her its history for fear of revealing his unit's location. "I couldn't tell her what kind of lace it was because I was stationed right there," he says.

At about the same time, he met and courted a girl from the town. In 1947, she came to Baltimore and they were married.

"She came over and couldn't stand the climate here, the Baltimore humid summers," he says. "I took her back to Honiton and it was then that I learned to make Honiton lace."

When his mother-in-law began studying lacemaking at evening classes in Honiton, he became fascinated by the lace. "I got the bobbins and what-not and started going to class," he recalls.

His wife died in 1955 and he returned to Baltimore, taking a job with the Maryland Department of Employment Security. He continued making lace as a hobby and added two more styles, Torchon ("that's French for dishcloth," he says) and Maltese laces. He spent a week in Malta to study Maltese lace.

"A lady 85 years old took me to the lace shop that she had worked in," he says.

Mr. Stricklen, who has been retired for the past 10 years, always has a number of projects going at the same time.

"I am one of these people that cannot work on one thing," he says. "My wife's mother always said to me: 'You should only have one thing going at a time.' But I'm afraid I can't do that. Variety is the spice of life and the spice of working."

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