CANTU BOBBIN LACE:  Memories of Mary McPeek

Cantu bobbin lace, and this piece most specifically, is a favorite lace of mine because it everyway and always reminds me of Mary McPeek.

Cantu  length559

For those of you who never knew Mary, she was a lace treasure in Michigan in the last years of the twentieth century.  She also was the moving force behind the 1986 set of lace stamps.

lace stamps560

A particularly wonderful memory of Mary was the Great Lakes Lace Group meeting when the stamp design was presented.  In a room of a few hundred lacemakers, Mary was asked to stand.  Then those she personally taught to make lace stood.  Then those who were taught by those now standing.  And eventually nearly the whole room was standing.  An inspiring legacy.

Another legacy was her love for Cantu bobbin lace.  My introduction to Cantu was at an International Old Lacers (now International Organization of Lace) convention.  It was one of my first forays into selling antique lace.  One of the first questions from a shopper was “do you have any Cantu?”  She was taking Mary’s Cantu class, and  curious to find old examples to study.  In those early days, I knew very little, and had no idea what Cantu was.  I stuttered my apologies, and said look and see.  Maybe I do, maybe I don’t. Have no clue what it is.

Fortunately I did not try to fake knowledge because a bit later, a sweet grandmotherly lady stopped by, and began rummaging through my lace.  She pulled out a placemat and exclaimed “what a lovely piece of Cantu!”  That was the beginning of my education into Cantu bobbin lace.  Mary then introduced herself and her ideas about Cantu.

Fast forward a year.  By then, I was well acquainted with Mary, and invited her to visit me and see my Milanese lace.  

I also showed her a long length of Cantu bobbin lace, of which the piece shown here is my last fragment. It is an unusually small-scale example, and that fascinated Mary. 

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Compare, for example, this small-scale piece with the a section of the piece shown draped over Mary's book at the end of this article:

Two Cantu sizes549

At that time, I had a very impressive length, more than any one person would ever need, and cut off a pattern repeat for Mary.  Side note:  I almost never cut off samples.  Part of the whole aura of antique lace is its opulence, and only great lengths can convey that.  But this was a special case.  Mary was not only a teacher, but she was researching old techniques and passing them on.  Here was an opportunity for that small pattern repeat to carry on a special tradition.  Obviously I broke that rule again when the original long length was sold.  I kept a pattern repeat for myself!

Also, that little gift to Mary was perhaps a small apology for almost cooking her while we had tea, seated around my dining room table.  I had a brand new skylight in my kitchen and didn't notice the shard of direct sunlight that came through the skylight and focused on Mary.  Too polite to complain, she sat and sweated near onto fainting.  Eventually someone noticed her misery, and asked if she was feeling unwell.  She meekly and politely mentioned the sun's laser beam scorching her head, and said that perhaps could she change chairs?  

This letter from Mary shows some of her thoughts and insights into lace, her insatiable curiosity about the sources of ideas and the evolution of lace, and what made some lace better than other lace.  

McPeek Letterhilite2

As Mary commented, the scrolls and tendrils are often the background, but an opulent and bold one.  Look also for critters and birds of all types in Cantu.

Cantu rucantu runner bfl557

I also like her comment about Rococo bobbin lace.  "... looks like a simplified, cheapened, hurried up Cantu."  Elegance of technique was always her goal.  Mary was aiming to have no cut-out pairs, no added-in pairs.

There is of course some very lovely Rococo lace, but Mary was correct that the fewer cuts and knots in a piece of the lace the more integrity it has over time.  Cuts and knots eventually unravel; continuous lace does not.  

Rococo bow green tufts

Note the many cut tufts marked in green in this bit of Rococo bobbin lace. Carryovers also mar the back of Rococo.  Cantu is essentially the same front and back.

Her comment about Italian Rosaline also is interesting.  Mary always recognized that lacemaking techniques had to grow and evolve in order to live and thrive.  A wonderful aspect of lacemaking is that the early laces, especially Milanese, are a wellspring of ideas.  Milanese was constantly evolving because it was being invented in those early decades.  I still maintain that everything we know of techniques even today was already done at some point in early Milanese and Italian laces.  It's just a matter of finding pieces in museums, flea markets, and collections.

Evidence that lace continued to evolve shows up in the lace in the corner of the handkerchief labeled "Made in Italy for Lord and Taylor" in the accompanying article.  This kind of lace, not Cantu, appears to be the real Italian Rosaline, a hybrid between the Belgian Rosaline and Italiian Cantu.

Every individual piece of lace is what it is, and often does not fall neatly into a category that can be precisely labeled.  That for some is scary and off-putting, discouraging them from collecting.  For others, that is the unending joy of lacemaking.

I'm firmly in the latter camp.

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Search out if you can a copy of Mary McPeek's little book, Studies in Cantu Bobbin Lace.  It is not only a way to learn a lovely lacemaking craft, but a chance to meet and get to know a truly lovely lady. Go back and take another look at her letter above.  Follow Mary's example -- examine lace carefully under a glass, and learn.


June 25, 2013

Comment added: 6/26/13

Hi Elizabeth

I just read your story on Mary McPeek.  As this is one of the earlier laces I learned from her, I truly understood her theories and her mild manner.  I will always remember her response when a mistake was noted back in the lace.  the question was "Do I really have to go back and take it out?"

Her answer, "Well, you can spend a little time going back now, or spend the rest of your life looking at your mistakes,  your choice."

Barbara Bulgarelli

Comment added July 1, 2013

Hi Elizabeth – I just wanted to make an amusing comment about Mary McPeek’s class on Cantu held at the Ithaca Lace Weekend many years ago.

I had contacted her prior to the class and had purchased a reel of thread from Holly van Sciver, so when I turned up early in class all my bobbins were wound.  Others in the class weren’t so prepared and Mary had provided a reel of thread for them to use.  As I was ready, I went back to the sales room for a quick wander around.  Horror of horrors, when I got back to class other students had unwound all my nicely prepared bobbins and rewound them with Mary’s thread.  One big problem was that as they had been rewound by several people, they were wound in different directions and were wound, mostly, with a blob of thread at the top of the neck and not spread out along the length of the neck like I prefer.  I struggled on during the class and had to keep stopping to rewind this bobbin or that.  I thoroughly enjoyed what I learned and have made more, but I’m sad that I could never finish the first piece because there was insufficient thread and, of course, I had no access to any more.  I had bought ecru and Mary’s thread was a sort of light tan and a different weight.



Did you know that Mary made little origami boxes out of old envelopes and card for each of the students.  I don’t know if she did it for all classes, but she did for ours.  I still have it somewhere.

 Malvary Cole, Ottawa, Canada

(Attached photo is the piece Malvary made in class.  It is a great way to see the construction of that lace.)


I currently have antique napkins with both rococo and Cantu lace availble for sale at

I wish I had a good piece to offer for lacemakers on COPY THIS.

All I have is an old photo of a small doily which I no longer own, and cannot take closer, more detailed images.  If this overview helps anyone do something fun, go for it, and please let me know your results.

Cantu leaf doily558      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014