Make a Pillow
  © Lorelei Halley 2001

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Make a Bobbin Lace Pillow

My method of pillow making is not the only one, and is not perfectly traditional in all respects. The traditional material for stuffing pillows is chopped dried straw or sea grass. A flat or tubular pillow requires two bushels of straw. I have developed the use of wool scraps as a substitute-- it is easy for me since I and my family and friends all sew, and have scrap bags for me to plunder. Wool works-- it holds pins well if it is packed tightly and doesn’t disintegrate from use. My frame design for the torchon pillow is essentially the same as Doris Southard’s, with a few minor modifications. The pillow shape is nearest the traditional French design, but not an exact copy. I tried using foam rubber as the apron stuffing material--but it is nasty to stick pins into and I finally tore my first pillow apart and restuffed it.


 mediuml size roller pillow medium        large size roller pillow  medium size roller pillow   medium size, another project large 

Dimensions--First a word about dimensions. Within certain limits you can alter sizes to suit your own special requirements. The most important limit is the front to back depth of the base, which should not exceed 15 inches. Smaller is OK, but if the depth is larger you will find yourself extending your arms in an unnatural position and you will develop pretty severe muscle aches and tire easily. I know--it happened to me. So an oval base of nearly any width is OK, just limit the depth to 15 inches or less. The size of the box can also vary. The front to back depth of the box and its height are pretty standard, But it could be a bit higher. Remember that the height of the box is equal to the maximum possible radius of the roller, and that half the length of the short side of the box (the front to back depth) should equal the intended roller radius.  This means the 2 light blue lengths should be equal.  The side to side length of the box can be any length you choose--even 15 or 20 inches.

Materials--The base could be made of 1/8 inch hardboard (pegboard) or any rigid nailable and glueable substance. Plywood ¼ inch thick is lightest in weight and cheapest relative to strength and ease of working. The plywood need not be high quality. Check the scrap bin at the lumber yard. The box can be made of common pine or any scraps you may have. A strip of pine called a 1" x 4" x 3’ is actually 3/4" x 3 1/2" x 3’--it is called a 1" x 4" because those were the dimensions before planing and surfacing. A thinner wood would be usable but more difficult to nail (harder to center the nails without causing them to protrude out the sides). One difficulty with cheap scrap pine is that you should not try to saw through knots--with a power saw they may splinter and fly off at high speed, which is dangerous. With hand tools they are just too difficult to cut.

Also remember that a saw always produces a kerf--it actually chews up a measurable width of wood, so always over cut the pieces to allow for this. Sanding also reduces the dimension. This is the hardest thing for a seamstress or textile worker to learn in switching to woodworking. A scissors cuts a line that does not reduce the dimensions of the pieces: but a saw cut does reduce the dimensions of the pieces.

Tools--Use the smallest, lightest weight tools you have available; you will find them easier to control. I simply cannot accomplish anything at all using a man’s deluxe model anything--they are always the largest and heaviest models, and I can hardly lift them at all, let alone move them around for extended periods of time.



Large size or Medium size

Tools (essentials *)


roller pillow top view The row below are the patterns for the base and box of the roller pillow.  Click on the image, then save it to your computer and print it out.  Match up the colored dots on the first 3 to get the parts oriented correctly.  I broke it up this way to make a printout possible on a home computer with a standard printer.

© Lorelei Halley 2001
pillow base 1 pillowbase2 pillow base 3 side piece for large and medium box front and back for large size

box front and back for medium size

 Prepare the Wooden Base First

1. Transfer shape of flat base to plywood and saw. The pattern is for half of the small base. For a large base add width at the center line. Use power tools if available (scroll saw to cut curved base). Or use crosscut saw to saw corners off, then saw to exact shape with coping saw.

2. Use crosscut saw (by hand) or table saw (power) to cut pieces to size for wooden box.

3. While box pieces are still flat, drill holes for pin brakes near edge of one long piece, and use coping saw or scroll saw to cut half circle in two short pieces.

4. Use cross cut or table saw to cut dowel to correct length.   

5. Sand all pieces until they are splinter-free. Silky smooth is not necessary. Sand edges of base. Sand box pieces so matching parts are same length and width. Edges should be sanded flat at true 90 degree angle or proper gluing and nailing will be impossible. Sanding serves two purposes--to remove splinters and to create a firm smooth gluing surface providing maximum contact area for glue. After sanding vacuum every trace of sawdust off the pieces with clean vacuum brush.  

6. Glue and nail box together so end of long side abuts against flat side of short end. Drive 2 nails part way into short side 3/8" from ends--so that point barely begins to show on other side. Smear glue on end of long piece and on part where nail points begin to show. Hold long end with glue side up in vise, position partially nailed short side and drive nails in. Recess nails with nail sett. Continue until bottomless box is formed. Let glue dry about 20 minutes, then scrape off excess. Let glue dry overnight before handling. If you have clamps, it is best to use them to hold glued and nailed pieces together firmly for first half hour of drying time.

7. Sand dried glued-up box until edges are flush, excess glue it sanded off, and most importantly, until bottom edge of box is perfectly flat so it fits on top of base without rocking.

8. Mark position of box on wrong side of base. Put smoothest side down as wrong side--because this will sit on your lap and there is potential for getting splinters in your skirt. The rough side can face up because it will be completely covered by padding. Drive 4 nails part way into base from bottom 3/8" inside pencil marking showing position of box--one at each corner. Drive nails so point just barely begins to show on top side. Glue box to unmarked face of base, positioned so long side is flush with back edge of base. Stick pieces together carefully and carefully drive nails in. Recess nails below surface with nail sett. Add 6 more nails. Wipe off excess glue. Let dry overnight. Glue or nail Velcro about halfway down box on inside, on all 4 walls.

Padding Roller

1. Make a long strip about 8 ½ yards long x 9 1/2" (for large) or 7 1/2" wide (for medium) by sewing smaller strips together. (You may need as little as 5 yards if your wool is thick.) Use only pure wool because you want a surface that accepts pins readily even when packed and rolled tight. Sew shorter strips together by overlapping, not by sewing a seam as you would in dressmaking, and use the largest widest zigzag stitch your machine has. The purpose here is to avoid creating a hard impenetrable seam which you can’t stick pins into. Arrange things so that the shortest pieces are all near one end--this end will be nailed to the dowel. The outside layers should have your longest scraps so the outside of the roller is relatively free of lumps.

2. Nail the strip to the roller and roll tightly and evenly. Use catch stitch (herringbone) to fasten loose end to roller. Roller should be as thick as possible while still clearing the bottom and sides of the box when dowel rides in half circle cutout. Mine has a circumference of 16". The larger the diameter and circumference of the roller, the less often you will have to turn it as you work. This is especially important when you are first learning and using relatively coarse, large scale patterns.

3. Sew a covering of canvass or pillow ticking over the roller as a permanent cover. A loose and removable slipcover will come later.

4. Pad apron with whatever is handy--doesn’t have to be wool. You could use part Styrofoam and part soft fabric. The aim is to produce a pinable surface so groups of bobbins not in use can be pinned out of the way. But this surface does not have to be hard and firm like the roller. A soft apron does not encourage vigorous rolling around in the bobbins as a really hard surface would do (like cardboard or wood). Getting the correct slope in the apron is very important. It should be gradual with no sudden changes in angle. Its purpose is to take part, but not all, of the weight of the bobbins.

5. When the padding is in place, a permanent canvas cover is nailed in place to hold it firmly--it should be stretched as taut as possible and nailed to the edge of the box, and to the underside of the base with 1/4" tacks. A second piece of fabric should be sewn to cover the wooden base and nails.

6. Cut out the square over the box so the box is open, turn the ends under and tack to the box edge. Recess the tacks.

7. Make washable slipcovers for roller and apron (with drawstrings) out of cotton fabric, dark in color and unpatterned. Prints or stripes would confuse the eye and make seeing threads more difficult. Fabric should be strong but admit pins readily. Cotton velveteen, cotton twill or cotton canvass are all good. To get the size and shape of the apron cover right, lay the flat fabric over the stuffed base (ROLLER REMOVED) and cut out a piece 2 3/4" larger than needed to cover. Make the casing first and insert string. Put around the pillow wrong side up. With tailor’s chalk mark position of empty box. Remove cover and cut hole for box by cutting diagonally into the corners of the rectangular shape. Then cut off the points of cloth, leaving enough fabric so Velcro is hidden. Sew Velcro to wrong side of cover positioned so it matches Velcro glued to wood. Hem or buttonhole raw edges.

8. Make removable drawstring cover for roller out of same fabric.

9. I usually have two washable drawstring cover sets for each pillow and change covers after every project.

10. Use two long hat pins inserted through the holes in the wood from the back of the box into the roller to immobilize the roller while working.


cookie pillow 3 inches high        cookie pillow - wool on top of foam base  5 inches high, wool on top of foam base

Here the size is governed by the size objects you intend to make. Think of the maximum size piece you intend to make and add six inches--that is the minimum diameter of the wooden base. A Honiton pillow--the smallest of this type--is 12 - 14 inches in diameter. (Honiton pillows are usually made differently, but can be made this way.) A standard size for flat pillows is 16" to 18". My favorite is 19". Wall hanging would require one larger. I have one 24" in diameter, for large projects or those requiring large numbers of bobbins. But it is difficult to see far side pinholes, and I get backaches from leaning over to see. Twenty four inches is probably the maxiumum useable. The minimum thickness is 3 inches, although anything up to 6 inches would work. A Honiton pillow is usually about 6 inches high. This brings the working surface closer to your eyes and for very fine scale work, this is a help. A piece of Styrofoam can be put in at the bottom as the first layer after the wooden base. This will give sudden height with minimum weight, but the edges should be shaved down gradually. Pillows cannot be made of Styrofoam as the pinable surface because pinning causes it to disintegrate rapidly. The entire depth into which pins will go should be wool. Do not use wool/synthethic blends, synthetics, or cotton, not even terry cloth towels (except as the bottom few layers--these other fibers are very difficult to stick pins into and you will have very painful fingers and endless frustration.





To make a flat pillow cut circles of wool of gradually decreasing diameters, but remember that you want a flat area in the center. For a 19" pillow, subtracting 3" slopes on each side (19-3-3=13") means that the smallest circle should be 13". This will give you a 13" diameter flat area for your work. Layer the wool to a depth of 3". Don’t use seams anywhere, nor partial pieces.

The most important part is covering the stack of wool with cotton pillow ticking. This is what will compact the wool and make the pillow hard enough to use. Cut 2 circles of pillow ticking, one 1" larger that the base, for the bottom. The second large enough to lay on top of the mounded wool circles plus 1" turn down all around. Start by thumb tacking the top cover to the underside of the base. As you set each tack pull very hard on the ticking, stretching as taut as you can. This is very important! this is what compacts the wool and makes it hard enough to hold pins. After tacking the cover, sew the bottom circle to the top cloth, using overcast stitches, and folding under the seam allowance on the bottom piece. Use very strong thread such as carpet thread, and a thimble. Pull and stretch some more at this stage. The more the better.

You can then make a removable, washable drawstring cover out of dark colored, easily pinnable cotton fabric such as canvas, duck or velveteen.