Thursday, 27 March 2014

Lace: Part Two

Lace, as my last post made clear, is not the simple antiquarian it appears to be. Nay, it is a web of confusion threaded with strands of perplexity! I have discovered the colourful history of lace as a whole however is nothing compared to the mini-histories of some of its varieties. Here, fading from memory, lie some truly diverting stories.

Alençon and Valenciennes, the grande dames of the land of lace, shall be the first to have their tales told.

Alençon - The Lace of Fiscal Policy and Awkward Re-gifting

Otherwise known as the ‘Queen of Lace’, Alençon has a particularly regal history. King Louis XIV you see had a problem: a court full of nobles fit to burst with disposable income, who dressed in the most exquisite couture laces known to man. Yet, none of these laces were French.

Hence, all those wonderful gold coins Louis was so fond of were leaking out of his dominion at an alarming rate, pouring straight into the coffers of neighbouring kingdoms - all thanks to his flock of hangers on with their taste for foreign chic. 

Set of Flounces, Alcide Rousel, 1867, France, Needle lace worked with linen thread, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Colbert, his finance minister, considered it a matter of national importance that a selection of lust-worthy French laces be developed and threw massive resources into the effort. Thanks to the King and Colbert, a dizzying array of gorgeous fine French points emerged, which had amusing names such as  ‘Reseau Mouche’, meaning ‘Fly Mesh’ which featured “A clear ground spattered with spots like flies hanging on a window pane” or ‘Semes de Larmes’, meaning ‘Sown with Tears’, which was flecked with teardrop patches. 

The courtiers were impressed. The unlikely grand patrons of lace innovation had their way: France tore away masses of the market from the Spainards and Italians as Alençon boomed. And all was well in the Kingdom. 

That was until the French Revolution, which had people rather more concerned with keeping their heads attached to their necks than and decorating themselves or weaving lace. Luckily Napoleon came flying to the rescue of the crumbling Alençon producers after the establishment of his expansive Empire some years later, launching revival motivated by similar reasons as Louis XIV and Colbert. Napoleon however went one step further by making locally produced lace mandatory court attire and draping swaths of it around the palaces wherever possible. 

Fichu, 1805-1810, Alencon, France, Needle lace worked in linen thread on a net ground, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Likely to be related to the Napoleonic bed hangings. 

A huge set of bed hangings were commissioned from Alençon for the Empress’s chamber, an order which would stretch a whole twenty yards when complete and cost a royal price of four thousand francs when a peasant would earn only a handful a year. The fragment pictured above is believed to have been produced at the same time as the hangings, and show the dear insectoid motifs that would have dotted the netting. This was done as a nod to the symbol Bonaparte chose for his house – not the noble lion or proud hawk, but the humble bee. 

A slight hitch - the Empress changed between when the hangings were begun to the point when the final thread was put in place, the old, charismatic Josephine traded in favour of the potential heir-producing Austrian Marie-Louise. 

But did the Alençon lace makers let their hard work go to waste? No! They simple scribbled a new name on the card and off it went to drape over one of the Empire’s most important beds, regardless of which Empress was to sleep within in it. Enterprising!

Valenciennes - The Lace that Sparked Wars and Made Heads Roll

Try all they might to make Alençon and its like supreme, their remained for years one lace King Louis could never quite knock off its perch – the Valenciennes. His finance minister Colbert estimated two million livres a year still drained out of France across the Flemish border to the small town which bore its name. 

It was a frustrating but not impossible situation. Louis and Colbert were pragmatic fellows and they had a pragmatic answer to their woes: if they couldn’t steal the village’s prowess, they’d simply steal the village. 

Fragment, 18th Century, Henrietta Seligman Lace Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Not unexpectedly the village and the Flemish weren’t too happy about this idea. Time for a war - yay!

Alas, the Flemish proved to be no match for the mighty power that was France and Valenciennes was officially ceded in 1678. Historian Earnshaw drolly summarised the happy position Louis now found himself in: he was now in possession of “a Flemish town, with Flemish lacemakers producing Flemish designs by Flemish techniques, within his own boundaries – and he immediately dubbed the lace ‘French’.” 

Their chief competitor now allied with their cause, the King and Colbert had their way. The best lace was, with a bit of boundary modification, firmly on French soil and lots of cold hard cash flowed into their coffers. 

Alas, the poor Valenciennes lace makers suffering at the hands of the French was not to end there. Now part of France, they were able to enjoy the fabulous Revolution that rolled around about a century after their conquest. The problem for them was that the primary buyers of their craft were dashing noblemen and court-going ladies since they were the only ones who could afford the incredibly labour intensive product. Incredibly, one pair of ruffles priced at 160 pounds would take a maker working a fifteen-hour day ten whole months to finish. 

Valenciennes from Lace and Its Origin and History by Samuel Goldberg (1904)

Their lot in life sounds quite pitiable to me but once the Bastille was stormed and the revolutionaries started chopping of their main clientele's heads, they obviously reached their conclusions about the lace makers using different equations. 

Their ideas went something like this: Nobility = bad. Suppliers of nobility = bad by association. Valenciennes lace makers = dead.

In 1780 there had been 4000 lace makers fiddling with their bobbins in the region. By 1789 that number had plummeted to 250, and by 1851, there were two. Amongst the survivors of the Golden Age of the Ancien Regime, Valenciennes lace did not count amongst them. 

Well, that closes another portion of my history of lace segment. Stay tuned for part three!

Sunday, 23 March 2014


Lace, early 18th century, linen, 33 x 34 in. (83.8 x 86.4 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art
I’ve always been fascinated with lace, particularly since despite being a ‘fabric’ most of the interest in it, and its defining characteristic, actually rests on the absence of material i.e. the air between threads. However I realised, in spite of its ubiquitousness, I actually didn’t know all that much about it. Where did it come from? When was it invented exactly? Time to start tapping the keyboard!

Lace, 1720-40, linen, 9 3/4 x 12 in. (24.8 x 30.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
I was surprised to find lace is actually a very modern textile innovation, widely agreed to have come around into being in around the sixteenth century. Woven, net-like fabrics have been around since ancient times, but they were not anything like what we think of lace today. Beyond the general five hundred year ago date however, there is a lot of vagueness surrounding the history of lace making, since uncovering details about it has proved difficult for even the best historians. 

One of the main problems hindering research is the demon of overlapping terminology. A note of ‘lace’ might be a reference to a number of other common items, such as string (as in shoelaces), and in the past was often one of the last associations one would make with the word. As late as 1756 Dr Johnson in his famous Dictionary described ‘lace’ as firstly, “a string of cord”, secondly, and rather oddly, as “a snare or gin,” thirdly, as “a plaited string, and only lastly as “Ornaments of fine thread, curiously woven.” Lace historians have wonderful time wrangling with historical documents to try and uncover lacework’s murky origins for this reason. 

What is known however, is that the first pattern books describing how to manufacture lace began to circulate in the late 16th and early 17th centuries and production of high-quality versions were mainly centred in Florence. It had its first big fashion moment with the tremendous frills Elizabethan ladies and gentlemen found fetching and became a fixture in the dress of most periods following. Nations fought viciously to corner the lace market, with France and Northern Europe coming out on top in the end, and are hence responsible for most of the famous varieties we know today. 

It has gender swapped a good deal over the centuries, men on the whole wearing more in the Baroque era, both sexes swathing themselves in froths during the Georgian years, and becoming the province of the womenfolk in Queen Victoria’s reign. Unfortunately the vast majority of the historic and famed laceworks across the continent were casualties of the Industrial Revolution, however that wasn’t the end of lace by any means – it became, if anything, bigger than it had ever been, available through mass production to the common crowds, and it continues to go strong into the twenty first century. 

Rabat, mid-18th century, 12 1/2 in. x 17 1/2 in. (31.8 x 44.5 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Because writing about lace isn’t already complex enough, people have gone onto invent a baffling array of terms (especially for brides-to-be I imagine) to describe different varieties of it as well: Point de Venise, Reticella, Needle lace, Limerick, Blonde, Broderie Anglaise? Just what are they on about - they’re all pretty and perforated right? Whatever it is, it seems confusing. 

Trust me, I’ve been looking into this for hours and hours and that’s because it is confusing. 

Firstly, different laces are broadly listed under the tools traditionally used to make them, such as Needle lace, which uses a single thread, and you guessed it, a needle, and Bobbin lace, which is produced using multiple threads wound around a network of bobbins. Bobbin lace may also be known as Bone Lace, since bobbins were initially made of carved ivory or bone fragments, or Pillow Lace since the lace was pinned to a pillow whilst being produced (okay, that part isn’t too hard to figure out). Lace can also be manufactured using other techniques, such as crochet, knotting and knitting, though Needle is held by purists to be the lace of the highest eminence. 

The difficultly starts to arise with the next part of the naming system: the separation of lace strains. Usually after putting them into one of the before mentioned production categories, laces were named after their point of origin of the place they were sold. Valenciennes lace was made in Valenciennes and so on. The problem is, a Valenciennes lace identical in pattern, made with the same thread, by even the same craftsmen, but on American soil was not a Valenciennes. And believe you me, people got extremely tetchy if you misapplied the name, rather like the Greek nation’s fury at other countries using the term ‘feta’ for their cheeses. 

Some brave businessmen of yesteryear flouted the rule regardless to make their homespun products seem more desirable, adding to the confusion in the marketplace. Hundreds, possibly thousands, of different names have emerged over the centuries, often for very similar designs, and let’s face it, lace tends to be pale coloured with netted sections and florals anyway, so it isn’t exactly easy to separate one kind from another even if you do have the original articles. 

Lace, fourth quarter 17th century, linen, 10 3/4 x 16 1/2 in. (27.3 x 41.9 cm), The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Marian Powys in her book Lace and Lace-Making has a very charming description of what is a haphazard, muddled categorisation system. 

“In order to understand and know the difference and resemblance between laces it is helpful to treat them as families, like old families in human history. The same dominating characteristics run through each family of lace appearing and disappearing in certain generations. 

With intermarriage these characteristics sometimes become confused but generally reappear on the one side or the other. There is a tendency in the hometown or the original centre of such lace to disown these adventurers, travellers or emigrants. Laws even in our own day are passed to the effect that the same lace made in a different country is not that lace at all…” 

In conclusion, separating different types of lace from one another is hard. A few prominent lace varieties have managed to hold their heads about the tumults of the masses and preserve their good name, so we can trace their histories fairly well, and colourful histories they be. 

But I’ve been blathering for too long here, so I’ll save them for my next post. Stay tuned for doggy smugglers, lace-sparked wars, coffee and faux pas!

Friday, 14 March 2014

Elizabeth Bay House

"As to the estate of Elizabeth Bay … no one can form an adequate judgment of the taste, labour and capital that have been bestowed upon it … a spacious garden, filled with almost every variety of vegetable; a trellised vinery; a flower garden, rich in botanical curiosities, refreshed with ponds of pure water and overlooked by fanciful grottoes; a maze of gravel walks winding around the rugged hills in every direction …"

- Sydney Gazette, 28 May 1831​

Sunday, 2 March 2014


The interior of a Hermes saddle revealed by LuxInside.

Continuing the subject of Hermes saddles, I have discovered an interesting series created by a team of scientists and artists collaborating under the banner LuxInside examining the innards of some of the great luxury items on sale today.

"The principle of luxury objects is that that all the traces of work must be invisible," says Laurence Picot one of the artists involved in the project. The team desires through their work to break down the appearance of seamless existence disguising the extensive manufacture and secret technology at play in objects from Louboutin heels to Dupont lighters (as well as a Hermes saddle, featured above).

In their hands, the x-rayed 'skeletons' of these items I find becomes quite as beautiful as the 'face' we usually see. 

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