The allure of lace - a brief history
By Elizabeth Keysian
For me, understanding lace was a bit like Monty Python‘s quest for the Holy Grail – one minute I thought I’d “got it”, the next I hadn’t; and there seemed to be plenty of Frenchman (and Italians, and Belgians) thumbing their noses at me along the way. And in the end I discovered it was a pointless quest and I was mad enough to be put away for good.
And yet, the allure of lace was so strong, I’ve had to keep trying. Antique handmade lace is complex, valuable, and mindbogglingly time-consuming to make (it takes approximately 10 hours to make one square inch of a fine Honiton lace). I really wanted to understand how a textile art that essentially began with cutting holes in perfectly good pieces of linen became so popular.
I also wanted to be able to shout at TV costume dramas, “That type of lace is completely wrong for the Regency, you idiots.” Because it usually is. Handmade lace is so varied, one can not only work out roughly which quarter of what century it was made, one can also tell the provenance. We had a flourishing and varied lacemaking industry in this country (Great Britain) in the late 18th and 19th centuries. And if we weren’t happy with our own products, we could smuggle in the really valuable stuff from Flanders or Italy. Such illicit importation, cheerfully known by its operators as “free trade”, was rife during the maritime blockade against Napoleon Bonaparte. I made much use of this fact in my Regency romantic adventure, “A Perilous Passion”, where the hero and heroine first meet when she spots some contraband lace floating in the sea. He thinks she’s about to drown herself...which is where the fun and games begin.
So how did lace originate? It is akin to embroidery really – it’s what happens when one removes the background fabric from parts of the embroidery. Or one can just cut shaped holes in the fabric (generally finely woven linen) and then infill those gaps. This is a form of lacemaking called “cutwork” and one of the earliest styles of lace, Italian Reticella, was made this way. Below are two examples I photographed in the Burano lace museum in Venice. They are late 16th or early 17th century and both include human figures in the design. The edges of the cut cloth are secured with buttonhole stitch to stop them fraying. Buttonhole is the main type of stitch used in what is known as “needle” lace. The remaining areas of fabric are held in position by needle-made “bars“ or “brides”.
Gradually this early form of lace developed into a self-supporting textile, as can be seen in the next pair of images.
|Cutwork reticella lace.|
At this stage in its evolution, triangular pointed edges were popular but patterns for lace changed with the fashions.
|Venetian Reticella lace.|
|Venetian Reticella lace.|
In the late 16th and early 17th century, metal lace was favoured, made from fine gold and silver foil, or wrapped thread. Even linen was expensive, and it was just as important for our aristocratic ancestors to be portrayed wearing lace as it was jewellery.
The next image is a close-up of a Venetian needle lace.
One can see the thick buttonhole stitch edging. The area which, in Reticella lace, would have contained linen cloth, has now been infilled with different styles of “clothwork”, all made with a single needle and thread.
As you can see in the next photo, lace had to be designed before it was made. The outline of the design is drawn onto thick paper and is overlaid by thick threads, sewn into place right through the pattern paper and the supporting cloth beneath. Once the gaps between the outline threads have been infilled with decorative needlework, the lace can be removed from its backing.
The Venetian island of Burano developed its own style of needle lace, using a mesh foundation instead of bars to keep the pattern together. The mesh in the example below was handmade, as machine-made net did not become available until the early 1800s. This net or mesh is known as a “ground”. The shape of the mesh varied depending on the style and provenance of the lace. Burano grounds had a ladder-like appearance.
I had such fun trying to identify the lace collection in the museum where I used to work that I decided to have a go at making my own lace. I thought if I made it, I would understand this textile miracle better. I opted to make bobbin lace, as this looked much easier than needle lace. Needless to say, my novel-writing became so time-consuming, all I ended up doing was covering the lace pillow with fabric, and putting pretty beads on the ends of the bobbins to distinguish them from one another. But I haven’t given up hope of one day taking the project further.
Bobbin lace can look similar to needle lace unless one knows what to look for, but it is less likely to have any raised areas than needle lace, and it often features geometric and repetitive designs.
I have made my own little collection of bobbin lace, and had a fascinating time looking at it under the magnifier and trying to work out if it is hand or machine-made. In general, machine-made lace (from the mid 1800s onwards) has a fuzzy appearance, and it’s hard to follow the path of any single thread.
This close-up image of a bobbin “tape lace” shows where the “clothwork”, or woven areas are joined by “bars”. The other photo is of an appliqué lace, where separately made motifs have been applied to a net “ground”.
The lace industry of Georgian and Victorian Britain was a tough one for its employees. The workers were mainly women, but children as young as five could be employed. Each worker specialised in a particular part of the process, so the lace could be mass-manufactured. Hours were long, pay was poor, and doing such fine work in poor light must have been really hard on the eyes. So although I find this textile beautiful, I remain aware of the agonising toil that sometimes went into making it.
So, that’s my swift voyage through the history of lace. I claim the right to have made mistakes. I really don’t think I understand more than the basics even now; each time I try to identify some of my lace, I end up more confused than when I started. If I ever get to make any of my own, I’ll let you know.
A Perilous Passion
Miss Charlotte Allston's curious nature has always led her to trouble. This time, she's tangled in a web of traitors and spies and quite literally swept off her feet by a handsome stranger. But all is not what it seems with the Earl of Beckport.
The earl is living incognito, hunting a band of smugglers at the center of a plot for the French to invade England. The enigmatic Miss Allston becomes a person of interest...and not just in the smuggling case. Passion flares swift and hot between the two. But when her attempts to help with his secret mission only endanger it, he must question where her loyalty truly lies.
When Charlotte is captured by the very traitor he's after, the earl must decide between redemption...and love.
A stand-alone Regency romantic adventure, with smugglers, spies and a hot historical hero! “A Perilous Passion” out now from Entangled.
Bestselling author Elizabeth Keysian adores history and archaeology, and writes romances that give the reader an experience of travelling back in time.
She feels very British-despite her Viking ancestry-and loves creating rich backdrops for her stories based on real places and actual experiences. She used to be a re-enactor, so has sampled the living conditions, clothing, and smells of the past. She’s also sampled the food, which was actually pretty good.
Her characters battle their problems with both tears and laughter, but she always guarantees them a Happily Ever After, no matter what she’s put them through.
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As someone who knows next to nothing about the production of lace, I found your article fascinating, Elizabeth.I will be sure to have a closer look next time I see a piece of lace!ReplyDelete
What an excellent account. I read it with great pleasure. When I was a child and living in a Victorian house in Tooting there was a piece of unfinished lace lying on a chair in the conservatory still with its bobbins attached.ReplyDelete
A wonderfully detailed post, Elizabeth, and a very enjoyable read. Living so close to Nottingham with its long history of lace-making, I've always thought I should find out more about how lace is made. Thank you so much for sharing this.ReplyDelete
This is such a fascinating post, Elizabeth. I used to know someone who made my the most beautiful lace until the arthritis in her hands put paid to it. She tried to show me how to do it once, but I was all fingers and thumbs!ReplyDelete
Elizabeth, love the sound of your story! It's really intriguing.ReplyDelete
The first time I saw lace being made was my first trip to Europe in 1985. My friend and I spent quite a lot of time in Brittany where people come to learn the traditional bobbin lace techniques. Absolutely exquisite stuff but as you say incredibly time intensive. I've been to the museum in Burano - again, just gorgeous!
There is and was also lace made by knitting, crocheting and tatting.ReplyDelete
Your article was very, very interesting and well researched. Lace covers a very large area of textiles and geographically and in history. Almost becoming a lost art. I read about a school somewhere that still teaching how to make the lace that had been made by hand in that area for centuries. I don't remember where but the netting you talked about was used.