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 Lace historians have wonderful time wrangling with historical documents to try and uncover lacework’s murky origins for this reason.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!
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