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Sonia Domsch - Kansas Folk Art

Bobbin Lace Making

Doris Johnson, Apprentice

Sonia Domsch of Atwood is a bobbin lace maker. Using fancy linen thread she creates doilies and decorative lace for use on clothing and handkerchiefs. Although she loves making lace for art's sake, she loves it more because it represents her Czech family heritage.

Although Sonia has lived all her life in Kansas, the story of her lace making can be traced back to a small town on the western border of what is now Czechoslovakia. Sonia's great-grandmother, Mary Odstal, immigrated from there with her three small children. Although the family first settled in Oklahoma they soon moved to a tree claim in Rawlins County. Mary Dostal was a bobbin lace maker who brought her bobbins and knowledge from the Old Country to her new home in Kansas. It was her traditional lace making skills that helped the family survive difficult times. Although it takes about an hour to make an inch of handkerchief lace, she would sell the lace at 25 cents a yard to bring in much needed cash. Over the years Mary passed her skills and her bobbins on to her daughter, Anna Beck.

Anna Beck was Sonia's great-aunt. Sonia was born in the house her great-grandmother built in Atwood. As a child she spent a great deal of time at her grandmother's house where aunt Anna lived. Sonia would sit for hours and watch her great-aunt work the bobbins back and forth making beautiful lace. As a child Sonia was fascinated by the "singing" noise the bobbins produced. When Sonia was four years old, her great-aunt began to teach her the steps of bobbin lace making. There was one particular side of the lace pattern that she liked to make and Aunt Anna would let her complete that portion. Sonia recalls that if she made a mistake Aunt Anna would patiently and lovingly correct the problem.

As Sonia grew older she found herself spending little time with the family tradition of lace making as her days were occupied with other activities. "At that time," comments Sonia, "I didn't realize what a real art this was because I had grown up with it." After she was married, however, Sonia returned to bobbin lace making. Her uncle, Dr. Ivan Birrer, a nephew of Aunt Anna's, encouraged her to learn as much about lace making as she could because she was the only one in the family who had shown any interest in it. By the time Sonia renewed her interest in the folk art, Aunt Anna was in her late 70s and hard of hearing. "I could not make her understand that there was more to lace making that I didn't understand," remembers Sonia, "I had a hard time making her understand that she wouldn't always be there to start a pattern for me."

When Aunt Anna passed away, the bobbins, which came to Kansas with her great-grandmother, were passed on to Sonia. Using the knowledge Aunt Anna left her and pieces of lace made by her great-grandmother and her great-aunt for inspiration, she continued to work the lace on her own. Frustrated by a need to exchange information with other lace makers she asked her uncle for help. On a trip to Belgium, her uncle discovered Belgian lace makers who techniques were similar to Sonia's. The pieces of lace he brought home inspired Sonia to continue with her lace making. Since that time Sonia has learned that many of the nuns in what is now Czechoslovakia learned to make bobbin lace in Belgium. Sonia's family now speculates that perhaps Mary Dostal learned to make lace from a nun. This would account for the similarities in technique between Belgium lace makers and those of Sonia's family.

Nine years ago Sonia and her husband Don went to Europe and visited the Belgian lace makers. There she watched and augmented her knowledge. The same year, Sonia learned about an organization called the International Old Lacers Club. Through her membership in this organization she has come in contact with other bobbin lace makers in the United States with whom she now shares patterns and ideas. Sonia spends a good deal of her time sharing her knowledge with others, demonstrating her art form at many of the major festivals in the region. Although bobbin lace making defies adequate description, Sonia explains the technique as follows.

There are three basic stitches. All it involves is twisting and crossing the threads. There is no tying knots. . . . So when you say twisting you take the right hand bobbin over the left hand bobbin and that's a twist. When you cross it then you are bringing a middle bobbin, the second from the left over the opposite direction. The whole throw means you cross, twist, cross, twist and half is only one cross, one twist. The third stitch is a cloth stitch. The you go cross, twist, cross.—Sonia Domsch

In 1986 Sonia was the first Kansan to be awarded the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship. The award was established in 1981 by the National Endowment for the Arts to honor our nation's outstanding traditional artists. Artists are selected on the basis of authenticity, excellence, and contribution within their particular artistic field.

Sonia has also served as a master artist in the Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program since it began in 1985. Through this program she has worked with several students, including Doris Johnson, Sue Dary, Ronna Robertson, Annie Wheatley, and Carol Adams. Although priority is given to apprenticeship applications in which the master artist and the apprentice are part of the same cultural group, that is not a requirement of the program. In Sonia's case none of her apprentices have been of Czech American descent. When asked if this is a problem for her, Sonia replies, "No not really. I don't feel that way at all. Because, after all, bobbin lace making is a European art, it is not just a Czech art."

Doris Johnson of Luray has served two apprenticeships under Sonia. Doris, a native Kansan of English and German descent, is best known as the artist who brought the art form of corn dolly making (commonly referred to as wheat weaving) to Kansas. Because of her interest in corn dolly making Doris spends a good portion of every year in England. It was in England that she first encountered the art of bobbin lace making when she met an 80-year-old lace maker named Elizabeth Dawson.

She tended to go to the corn dolly schools and whip out her bobbin lace to try to get converts there. . . . She decided there couldn't really be anybody who didn't want to know how to make bobbin lace so she arranged for me to come and have a lesson. We did that a couple of times a year for about three years. She gave me a very intensive thing and I was supposed to remember it all. About the third year I did begin to take hold and remember things.—Doris Johnson

Doris' interest in lace making resulted from a lifetime interest in textiles. "I like things where the structure of the thing is as interesting as what you're making," she explains. "I just enjoy being amazed at the way the threads fit together."

When Doris and Sonia first began working together they had to overcome their differences in technique. Although the results are exactly the same, the English technique of bobbin lace making is different from that found on the continent of Europe. Doris remembers when her first teacher, Elizabeth Dawson, handed her some thread and a bobbin at their first lesson and told her to wind the bobbin. The teacher's reply to her work was "Yes, that's the right way, the French do it backward." As Doris points out, "She was sure the English way was the absolutely natural way to do it." To Sonia, however, the technique is backward. Where Sonia's stitch begins with a twist, Doris' ends with one. Sonia recalls that at first she could not watch Doris because it always looked backward to her.

The two women overcame this problem quickly, in part, because Sonia did not ask Doris to change her technique or the type of bobbins she used. Sonia wanted her to use what made her comfortable. Sonia saw the apprenticeship as a sharing of ideas. "It was quite interesting," Sonia recalls, "because she had some little things that I hadn't learned about that she had learned in England, and some of the things that I had learned from my great-aunt she didn't know about, so between the two of us we both learned."

Doris, who now considers Sonia a good friend, thinks the apprenticeship relationship worked because both women are not competitive in their lace making. Doris readily admits that Sonia has a great deal more experience with lace making than she does, however, Sonia was always willing to learn whatever Doris had to offer. In fact, in subsequent trips to England, Doris has brought back patterns and equipment to share with Sonia.

Although Doris' interest in bobbin lace making existed without the formal apprenticeship, the experience allowed her a period of time to concentrate on the art form. The knowledge she gained from working with Sonia could not be gained in any other manner. "She is about three to four times as fast," explains Doris. "You can learn a lot from someone who has that facility." When asked what she gained from the apprenticeship Sonia comments, "What I gained . . . somebody else who knew how to make bobbin lace. . . . When somebody else knows what you are talking about, then you can't stop talking because you want to hurry up and grasp all this information."

From Kansas Folk Arts Apprenticeship Program © KSHS 1989

Entry: Domsch, Sonia - Kansas Folk Art

Author: Kansas Historical Society

Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.

Date Created: February 2011

Date Modified: March 2018

The author of this article is solely responsible for its content.