A bobbin is a usually a spindle or cylinder, with or without top and bottom caps, on which yarn or thread is wound to avoid the thread becoming tangled. Bobbins are typically found in sewing machines, although the modern style ones are small metal ones normally called spools.
The name ‘Bobbin’ comes from the French ‘bobine’, meaning a “small instrument used in sewing,” which shares a Latin root with babble, for the sound it makes while unspooling. Bobbins and the machinery they ran on were some of the greatest inventions of the Victorian Era.
Originally created to manage the piles of thread and yarn that would be mechanically woven into cloth, bobbins helped to revolutionize textile manufacturing. Some wooden thread spools can be as old as 100 years, while others will only be close to 50 years old since they stopped being made in the early 70s.
Bobbins vary in shape and size, depending on the style of bobbin driver in the machine it is to be used in. Long, narrow bobbins were used in early transverse shuttle and vibrating shuttle machines. These earlier movements were rendered obsolete by the invention of the rotary hook and the shuttle hook, which run faster and quieter with less air resistance. These shorter, wider bobbins (known as ‘cotton reels’) are familiar to modern sewers, as the rotary/shuttle hook remains in use on modern machines essentially unchanged.
Bobbin Lace requires the winding of yarn onto a temporary storage spindle made of wood (or, in earlier times, bone). Exotic woods are extremely popular with contemporary lace makers. Many lace designs require dozens of bobbins at any one time.
The present day lock stitch sewing machine, invented and developed in the 18th and 19th centuries, forms a stitch with two threads: one passed through a needle and another from a bobbin (or spool). Each thread stays on the same side of the material being sewn, interlacing with the other thread at each needle hole thanks to the machine’s movement. Tension of the bobbin thread is maintained with a bobbin case, a metal enclosure with a leaf spring which keeps the thread taut.
Both traditional and contemporary lace making bobbins may be decorated with designs, inscriptions, or pewter or wire inlays. Often, lace making bobbins are ‘spangled’ to provide additional weight to keep the thread in tension. A hole is drilled near the base to enable glass beads and other ornaments to be attached by a loop of wire. These spangles provide a means of self-expression in the decoration of a tool of the craft. Antique and unique bobbins, sometimes spangled, are highly sought-after by antiques collectors.