Thursday, 12 September 2013

An overview of Early Lace

Early Lace: A Short History

In the late 16th century lace became increasingly popular in fashion. It developed from decorated edges, surface decoration, decorated seams on clothing and passementerie (braids, cords, tassels etc). As it became increasingly popular it became increasingly developed. There are two types of lace: needle lace and bobbin lace.

Needle Lace

Needle lace is built up with a thread and needle, stitch by stitch, on an outline of thread. The thread outline follows the pattern on parchment or paper. Row after row of buttonhole stitches built up the design. The designs can then be connected by linking bars, also made up of buttonhole stitches.

Bobbin Lace

Bobbin lace does not involve a needle but is a type of weaving with the help of bobbins to keep the threads organised. The pattern would be drawn out on parchment and would be pricked out. Pins would be placed through the holes and they hold the lace-in-progress in place. Once the lace is done it will keep itself in place and the pins could be removed. 

A number of threads would be joined together, resembling the warp threads in a piece of woven material, and then the threads would be woven, pleated, and twisted together with the help of the bobbins. 

'Straight Lace' is a lace where the entire piece, pattern and linking bars is created in one continuous process. This technique can be used for the most simple as well as the most complicated pieces of lace. A simple piece would only require 6 or so bobbins, while a complex piece could need 600 or more bobbins! Straight lace is the oldest form of bobbin lace. 

Bobbin Lace making

'Part Lace' is a lace where the patterns are made seperaty and then joined together. It is less complicated to make, but still some spectacular pieces have been produced using this technique. It is more suitable for producing very large pieces of lace as there is no limit to the amount of parts you can join up.
Flax spinned into linen threads


Most lace in the 16th and 17th centuries is made from linen, which is made from the flax plant. The harvest of the flax was hard labour. Flanders and Holland were great flax growing countries. The fine thread that could be spinned from the flax is famous and Dutch fine linen fabric was simply named 'Holland' from its place of manufacture. Due to the introduction of pesticides in modern Europe it is no longer possible to grow the flax as thin and fine as in the 16th and 17th centuries, and the fabric and lace produced by women and young girls in dark and damp cellars ( to keep the thread from breaking) is unrivalled by modern lace. The fineness and delicacy of the lace produced in those days is now completely extinct. Although the craft of lace making still exists, the quality of 17th century lace is a lost and often forgotten craft. The enormous amount of (wo-)man hours and fine materials used in making lace made it extremely expensive. A square centimeter could take 5 hours to produce. A falling collar decorated with lace and some matching cuffs would cost as much as the annual salary of a working man.

Needle Lace development

Needle lace developed from 16th century embroidery and open-work techniques. The grid of the warp and weft threads in the linen provided the basic (and geometric) grid on which needle lace workers added decorative embroidery. Over time larger areas were cut and rosette patterns appeared in the square geometric designs.  Flanders was famous for making very fine quality cut-work, but other countries like England, produced cut work as well. Early ruffs and cuffs were decorated with fine cut-work and reticella lace (where the linen fabric ground had disappeared to be replaced with a thread grid) up to the early 17th century when it was at its peak. It is not quite clear when the parchment pattern and grid was replaced by a more free needle lace designs that did not depend on a geometric grid.
Cutwork sampler, at Montacute House
Somerset. National Trust
Detail of a linen and cutwork baby’s bonnet or coif, Southern Netherlands, 1550-1600.
V&A Museum London

Early 17th century reticella, now made with a thread grid instead
of a fabric ground.

Early 17th century reticella, held in the Fashion Museum in Bath

Early 17th century pieces of reticella and needle lace
at the Fashion Museum in Bath

Italian Needle Lace, 1600-1620
V&A Museum, London
More free-flowing designs were typical of Italian
needle lace.

Extremely fine cutwork. Handkerchief, Flemish, 1600-1620
V&A Museum

Bobbin Lace Development

Bobbin lace remained closely linked to braiding and other forms of decoration for a long time. Often gold and silver, pearls and glass beads were used which can be seen in many portraits of the time. Bobbin lace developed more due to this popularity in the latter part of the 16th century. Towards 1600 bobbin lace became more complicated with spidery designs, often hung with spangles.  This  type of lace was at its most popular during the reign of James I.  
Detail of Women's Jacket, 1610-20s.
Edged with silver gilt bobbin lace and spangles.
V&A Museum London
Flemish Bobbin Lace Men's collar, 1630.
Lace was added to modern collar
V&A Museum, London

White bobbin lace was initially associated with domestic linen, such as shirts, caps, sheets and pillow cases. In the last quarter of the 16th century we start to see fine white bobbin lace as a trim on cutwork lace. It became a cheaper alternative to needle lace and its popularity spread. Soon bobbin lace could imitate the intricate  designs of needle lace perfectly. From here the denser and famous Flemish bobbin laces of the second quarter of the 17th century were to develop. After the ruff lost is appeal and 'falling bands' (flat collars) gained in popularity the spidery bobbin lace scallops became more rounded and finally straight. The bobbin laces of after 1620 were a part lace and the patterns were very dense. They were very popular in Holland (although the regent classes also continued to wear the giant millstone ruffs). "The Flemish workers produced lace of great beauty for which the fashionable world was prepared to bankrupt itself." 

Dutch or Flemish Bobbin lace, early 17th century
Dutch/Flemish bobbin lace, early 17th century
at Bath Fashion Museum

Further Reading:
Santina M. Levey, Lace. A History, V&A Museum, 1983
Aileen Ribeiro, Fashion and Fiction: Dress in Art and Literature in Stuart England, Yale, 2005
Anna Reynolds, In Fine Style: The Art of Tudor and Stuart Fashion, Royal Collection Trust, 2013
Heather Toomer, Antique Lace: Identifying Types and Techniques, Schiffer, 2003
Pat Earnshaw, The Identification of Lace, Shire, 1980
Bath Fashion Museum:
on lace in Holland 17th Century:

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  1. Thank you Nigel. It sure is! The delicacy of this lace is just amazing.

  2. Een mooie blog in meerdere opzichten! Thanx for sharing. ik ben heel benieuwd naar je nieuwe expositie. Heel veel succes met het werk.
    hartelijke groet, Liesbeth Stinissen

  3. Dankje Elisabeth! De expositie (+boek) begint eind Juni - ik hou je op de hoogte via m’n blog (of nieuwsbrieven). Veel dank voor je leuke berichtje. Sophie


Hi, Please leave any comments here. Thanks, Sophie.


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