Of Lucets and Chain Forks

The lucet, also known as the chain fork, is an ancient needlework tool which was still in use during the Regency. Though the lucet was not considered a particularly fashionable device by that time, it enabled those who knew how to manipulate it to produce all manner of sturdy braid and cording which had a wide range of uses. The lucet was a small implement which was easily portable, making it possible to use it nearly anywhere. Regency authors might find a place for this deceptively simple gadget in a tale of romance set during out favorite period.

The lucet through the Regency . . .

The exact date of the invention of the lucet is unknown. But it is generally believed that, by the early Middle Ages, it was in wide use within the Viking culture and may have originated there. A lucet could be used to produce the sturdy, simple braids and cords which were an important part of most garment construction at that time. Through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, the cords and braids which could be produced on the lucet, also known as the chain fork, were in constant demand for a whole host of purposes. Therefore, lucets continued to be made, and used, all across Europe though those periods.

Archaeological evidence, along with some surviving documentation, suggests that lucets were less widely used on the Continent after the Renaissance. However, their popularity rose again during the seventeenth century and their use continued fairly steadily though the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth. Even after the advent of the button and other garment fasteners, the simple, sturdy cords and braids made by the lucet were still employed in the fastening or embellishment of some garments. Those same cords and braids were also used to create various functional personal and household items, such as mats, rugs and even bags.

Basically, a lucet looks a bit like a fork, shaped like a lyre, with a prongs at each side of the lyre-shape. Most lucets have a handle at the base of the lyre-shaped pronged section. Most later lucets also have a hole in the base of the pronged section, or at the top of the handle, if the lucet had one. It is believed that the earliest lucets were made of wood, but over time, they were also sometimes made of bone, horn or even ivory. Because they were used to work with fiber, it was essential that a lucet be given a very smooth finish so that the neither the working thread nor the finished cord would be snagged by any roughness on the device. During the Regency, and into the Victorian period, lucets were made with wood, bone, ivory, tortoiseshell and even mother-of-pearl.

Lucets or chain forks have been made in a wide range of sizes, as well as materials. Typically, larger lucets are used for making cords with thicker threads, while smaller lucets are usually used for making cords with thinner threads. However, it is not necessary to suit the size of the lucet to the size of the thread being used of the size of the cord that is wanted, as is usually done with knitting needles or crochet hooks. In fact, someone skilled with the lucet can make a cord with any size thread, regardless of the size of the lucet. For most people, the choice of lucet usually depends upon how the size of a particular lucet fits in their hand as they use it.

One of the great advantages of using a lucet is that a cord or braid can be created from a single thread, with no need to measure and cut that thread prior to working the braid. To create a basic braid using a lucet, the thread is wound around the two prongs in a figure eight, twice. In turn, each of the two lower loops is lifted over the one above it until they are free of the prongs. Then, the end of the thread, at the back of the lucet, is pulled in order to tighten the knot. The thread is again wound around the prongs of the lucet, in a single figure eight and once again, the two lower loops are lifted free of the prongs and the end of the working thread is pulled tight. This process is continued until the braid created has reached the length needed, at which point, the last two loops will be lifted off the prongs, and the remaining thread will be pulled through the last loop and tightened. As the work progresses, the newly-made cord can be passed through the hole at the base of the lucet, though that is not necessary. As the length of new cord increases, it can be wrapped around the handle of the lucet, if it has one.

The basic braid or cord made with a lucet is essentially square. With a little practice, it is possible to use the lucet to create several variations on the basic braid shape by twisting the thread as the braid is made. Different cord shapes can be achieved by variations in how the loops are lifted off the lucet prongs. Another option is to use more than one thread, each a different color, in order to create multi-colored cords and braids. Lucets can be used with nearly any type of thread or yarn. During the Regency, wool, linen, cotton, and silk were the types of fiber most often used with a lucet, with cotton and silk being the most popular.

The braids and cords made with a lucet or chain fork during the Regency were employed in many different ways. Simple cotton cords were often used as the ties for undergarments, such as drawers, petticoats or chemises. Linen cords were sometimes used as ladies’ shoe or even boot laces. Linen or wool cords could be used as ties for a pair of mittens, a pelisse, cape or cloak. Fine silk cords were sometimes used in place of a chain to suspend a pendant at a lady’s neck, or a few beads or charms at her wrist. Thicker silk cords were often employed as the drawstrings for a lady’s reticule or work bag.

In addition to fastening ties and/or drawstrings, braids and cords made with a lucet could also be applied to garments and other textiles as decoration. These cords could be coiled and shaped into elaborate frogs that would decorate the front of the jacket of a lady’s riding habit. Or, they could be shaped into elegant trimmings and edgings which could be used to embellish all types of garments, usually for ladies. However, it does appear that there were some instances when lucet-made braids were used to embellish some gentlemen’s garments, such as waistcoats, banyans, night caps or bedroom slippers. The use of lucet-made braids for these decorative purposes faded when machine-made trimmings became more readily available and inexpensive as the nineteenth century progressed.

Since lucet cords and braids could be made quickly, once the technique was learned, they were also sometimes employed in the making of various garments or household items. The braids or cords could be coiled and stitched together in order to make flat mats or even small rugs. With a little care, those same cords could be coiled and stitched to create sturdy bags or carry-alls for a wide range of uses. Using similar techniques, lucet braids could be made into warm and comfortable caps and hats. In fact, the use of these cords and braids was really limited only by the creativity of the person who was working with them.

The strong cords which could be made with a lucet were also in demand aboard sailing ships for many years. Sailors learned to use the lucet in order to make ties for sails and for cords to lash other items down on board ship. Ships might be at sea for several months at a time, so sailors learned to be as self-sufficient as possible. A lucet was an inexpensive implement, the use of which could be easily learned. The making of cords for shipboard use was a relaxing way by which a sailor could while away some time and have something to show for their efforts.

Lucets are still made and sold today. They are available in all shapes and sizes, made of several different types of materials. Some are quite decorative, while others are very plain and simple. One of the most interesting that I have seen was actually made from a four-tined dinner fork, with the two center tines removed and the tips of the two remaining tines bent outward. And, of course, in the age of the Internet, there are a number of how-to video to be found online which provide instructions on the use of this simple, ancient cord-making tool. An online search on the keyword "lucet" will return a plethora of sources for lucets and instructions on how to use them.

Dear Regency Authors, though the lucet was not considered a fashionable needlework implement during our favorite decade, there were many of them in use. Most were simply made and were used to produce functional cords and braids which could be used for garment fastenings or to make useful household items, such as mats or rugs. Some ladies did have fine bone or ivory lucets which they kept in their needlework bags or baskets. They used those lucets to make fine silk cord from which to hang a cherished pendant, or as the fastenings for a favorite garment. They might also make silk braid which they could then use as trimming on a special gown or jacket. Perhaps the heroine, not a wealthy woman, uses her lucet to make silk cord which she intends to use to decorate a special gown she has made for her younger sister’s debut, since they cannot afford to have a fine gown made by a London dressmaker. Could it be that the hero has a favorite old cap, made for him by his mother from lucet cord, which he enjoys wearing while out on his estate. When he encounters the heroine on one of his walks, will she insult his cap, only to learn the truth later? Mayhap the heroine enjoys using her chain fork, and carries it with her, in her reticule, nearly everywhere. Her particular lucet is small, made of ivory, with very sharp points at the end of the fork. Might it serve as a convenient, impromptu weapon, when the villain makes inappropriate advances? How else might a chain fork or lucet find a place in a Regency romance?

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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2 Responses to Of Lucets and Chain Forks

  1. a forerunner to using a knitting dolly, by the sound of it! fascinating. Something I must introduce for the sailors in my William Price series. Of course it occurs to me that a decent amount of braid stil attached might be used with the heavier wooden end like a rumal to toss round the neck from behind and strangle someone as an impromptu weapon. Wanders a bit out of Regency Romance for a man to watch his beloved making such a cord in public when he knows that later she is going to use it to tie him up I guess… or that she obediently makes cords for him to tie her up, whichever floats their boat.
    If one can add a twist to the pattern, one could use it to indicate perhaps landmarks or turns on a road to pass on, sewn onto a garment, for a spy to indicate places of interest like the SOE knitters in occupied France.

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      You are right, a number of scholars believe that the lucet was the forerunner to what we call a Knitting Nancy here in the States. I think it is the same device as a knitting dolly.

      Trust you to find a blood-thirsty way to use this needlework tool. I had not thought of the naughty bits, that is really delicious. I also like the idea of a cord made to indicate a special route. Very clever!



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