Jackie Oates on new album Needle Pin, Needle Pin, her lacemaking radio ballad and ‘dreamlike sadness’

Folk Witness has been talking to Jackie Oates about her new album, made with ‘Squeezy’ John Spiers, which explores ‘lace telling’ – songs sung by the lacemakers of the south Midlands – as well as relevant tunes and songs. Click here to read the first part of the interview, in which she tells us about working with Spiers, the intense recording session and her memories of the Congleton Carnival.

Part two, in which Jackie tells us more about the history of lace telling, making a radio ballad and playing it live, is below. And we already know what her favourite sandwich is, so read on to find out her cheese of choice…

Folk Witness: How did you become interested in lacemaking, and lace telling? 

Jackie Oates: I became an ‘Artist in Residence’ at the Museum of English Rural Life in Reading during 2018. It was quite a dream job for me. It felt very poignant because my mum had lived in the very building where the museum is housed during the 1970s when she was a student at Reading University, and when the building was known as St Andrew’s Hall. My mum talked of her time there with such fondness. And sadly I wasn’t able to share this experience with her, as she had already entered into what was then a ‘slow unravelling’.

I knew I would have to create a new piece of music for the museum as part of that residency, and so I began visiting every week, and spending time in the library there. It took a long time to focus in on a specific area, and I had no idea that would become lacemaking! However I had a bit of a ‘lightning strike’ moment during the summer of 2018.

I am very motivated to link my traditional music to biographical elements of my life, even though I wouldn’t call myself a songwriter. During the summer of 2018 I was expecting my second child, and my brother and I were plunged into a slightly apocalyptically odd situation. We realised we were going to have to clear our family home in Stafford – which was full to the rafters with stuff that had accumulated over the decades. It was an impossible task and I only really found the last burst of energy through the deadline of Paddy’s birth looming, and of not wanting to be away from my husband and little girl for too long. Because of this general mood I had to part with car bootfuls of family history that I would have preferred to muse over slowly. And I lost two very precious things amongst the purge – a book, ‘Cattern Cakes and Lace’, and a set of lacemakers’ bobbins.

Fast-forward a few weeks, and I went to the museum for a late-night event, with my two-week-old baby in tow. Professor David Hopkin was leading a guided tour of the museum on the theme of lacemakers’ tells. There was a little nook where you could decorate your own cattern cake! And this is when everything came flooding into the light. I knew that I recognised both the cattern cakes and the lacemakers’ bobbins.  I knew that I had always wondered whether English women had their own traditional of ‘waulking songs’. I realised that the answer was to hone in on the lace, the stories, and the songs.

What made you decide to make the radio ballad?

I really enjoyed the mood that myself and Richard Evans created through Lullabies – and that each song has an eeriness to it. I initially saw my lace recording as a sequel to Lullabies. Richard came to visit, and we sat down and plotted – and it became apparent that we wanted to create a ‘story cassette’ type piece – akin to that of Puddle Lane or Under Milk Wood. Including spoken word and narrative would enable us to convey so much more about the lives of bobbin lacemakers. And also to create a mood – a sort of dreamlike sadness.

How did the live performances go?

It was a very intense experience! I managed to create the radio ballad over the course of a few months, with a newborn baby and a three-year-old constantly disturbing the peace. I remembered how research and writing involves 80% reading and then the creative element comes very suddenly right at the last moment. And so I read through a lot of books and articles and I could never be sure if the words that I was writing were mine. I pulled the piece together and wrote the piano parts myself, and notated everything as time is so very short and limited when you’re trying to rehearse with a band. We managed to pull together a 40-minute-long piece with no gaps, in costume, with cattern cakes for the audience and a lace exhibition during the interval! I was so proud of what we’d achieved. For the second and third performance we scaled the band down, from a six-piece to a trio. I really enjoyed seeing how the audience changed for these ‘lace’ gigs – and how many craftspeople came along.

I imagine the lace tells appealing to your melancholy side…

Yes, I like the fact that the girls used their singing as an outlet to vent about the hardships of their lives, and in doing so – we can get an insight into the daily trials and tribulations they faced. I see the Lady All Skin and Bone as a metaphor that stretches beyond its relevance as a lacemakers’ song. It is a sad reality but a necessary one.

How do they differ as work songs from, say, sea shanties?

Lace songs are similar in their function to that of a sea shanty as they contain instructions. There is a theory that the lacemakers would carry about their rows of lace in time to their singing, and that there would be a pause at the end of a line, so that everyone could catch up!

However, the lace tells were much less well-documented than sea shanties and other work songs. The tunes were seldom collected. It was assumed that they were often constructed from popular songs of the day – for example Long Lankin – and the odd word was changed to match the task. ‘Nineteen’ crops up a lot, as do local place names. A lot of nursery rhymes originated from lace tells, such as ‘Jack be nimble, Jack be quick’.

Why is pin counting important?

Pin counting is very, very important in lacemaking. Lacemakers followed a very specific pattern and were instructed to make certain types of lace for a set use – for example lace edging for tablecloths. They had to stick their pins in certain points of the parchment and would use hundreds of pins. If they did not count properly their lace would not be very good and they would get into a lot of trouble!

You’re an accomplished knitter – have you tried lacemaking too?

Oh yes! I have a lacemaking kit, but the pillow is made of polystyrene and so it’s proven quite tricky to teach myself. I would really like to get stuck in once I have a bit of spare time and space to drop pins and make a mess and spread out a bit.

The album is made of two discrete parts, yet it all seems to work together as a whole…

Thankyou! John was instrumental in forming the lace ballad, as we constructed a lot of the musical elements together last year, around the same time that we were developing duo material. Both parts come from the same point in time really and the only change in each half of the album is the piano and the mood!

What’s next for you? Are you and John going on tour?

I have had a quiet few weeks hand-stamping albums but I am about to travel to Mallorca for a couple of gigs with Mike Cosgrave, and I think Rosie Hood and Elly Lucas will also be on the bill [sadly, since this interview these gigs were cancelled]. After that John and I embark on a number of gigs across the year [please check with relevant venues].

Finally – and it doesn’t have to be from Cheshire – what’s your favourite cheese?

I love cheese, and aside from the standard cheddar, I am a big fan of Applewood and also brie.

Needle Pin, Needle Pin is available now, via BandcampKeep in touch with Folk Witness via Facebook and/or Twitter.

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