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A Short Overwiew over the History and Development

Lace was developed in the 15th and 16th century from whitework (i.e. embroidery in white thread on white ground) where threads of the ground were either pulled out (drawnwork) or cut away from between the embroidered parts. The holes created that way were filled with diagonal or radial bridges which, in turn, were bound and covered in buttonhole stitches. From this technique developed Reticella, a lace whose geometrical pattern is beholden to the rectangular structure of the ground fabric. The embroidery became ever finer, until hardly anything was left of the ground fabric.

The next step was to leave out the ground fabric altogether. Instead, guiding threads which formed the pattern were stitched onto cardboard. That way, the pattern could be any shape, independent of the rectangle. This technique, halfway between Reticella and needle lace proper, was called Punto in Aria (Italian: Embroidery in the air).

The guiding threads were soon laid out on curling, floral shapes. Bridges were formed between them, and smaller bridges between these, and the tiny spaces that formed e.g. petals were filled with a veriety of stitches. To enliven longer bridges, small knots (picots) were formed along them. In some places, thicker tread was laid along the pattern and embroidered all around, adding a third dimension. This kind of lace was first produced in Venice (Point de Venise) and soon imitaded in France (Point de France). The threads used were often a lot finer than anything you can buy today. If you look at a 17th or early 18th century needle lace, it seems impossible that anyone could produce these intricate works of art without a magnifying lamp. No doubt a steady hand, good eyes and a lot of light were necessary. So the work could only be done in the daytime, and even then only outside or next to a large enough window and on bright days. The women who manufactured lace often did so at home and usually were not the kind who could afford large windows. I've read somewhere that even a seasoned lacemaker worked a couple of months on half a metre. Although labour was not worth much in those days, in this case it still added up to prices that only few could afford.

Around the end of the 17th century, another lacemaking technique was developed, probably from something resembling macramé: bobbin lace. The bobbin technique is less cumbersome, quicker and requires less sharp eyesight. A skilled bobbin lace maker throws the bobbins around almost without looking, similar to some people today who knit while watching the telly. So the cost of labour was cheaper. As is so often the case even today, something expensive was imitaded with cheaper methods because less wealthy people also wanted to own the status symbol. Bobbin lace started out imitating needle lace, so that on contemporary portraits, it's next to impossible to tell needle from bobbin lace.

During the early 18th century, however, bobbin lace developed patterns of its own, exploiting its unique ability to create airy patterns the left needle lace looking rather heavy by comparison. The early bobbin laces created thin, but dense patterns (e.g. Argentan, Alençon), while the later 18th century saw net-ground lace such as Velenciennes and Malines. Net ground was even easier to produce than full-area patterns, which may be the reason why they became increasingly popular: It permitted an even larger portion of the population to adorn themselves with lace. But it wasn't just the price that played a role: The early 18th century looked upon baroque fashion as heavy and viewed itself as more lightweight, casual. The later 18th century compared itself to the early 18th century in much the same way, so it is only logical that the lace, too, became more lightweight. As the 18th century wore on, lace patterns became less and less dense.

It may be due to imitation that the 18th century gave rise to yet another kind of lace: whitework. If you couldn't afford bobbin lace for sleeve and collar ruffles, you replaced them with fine batiste. It was sometimes made to look a bit more like lace by embroidering it in white thread. This technique, which did not at all look like modern-day whitework, was in its more refined form known as Point de Dresde or Point de Saxe and became a luxury articel in its own right.

In the 19th century, new kinds of lace were invented along with new needlework techniques (tatting, crochet), while bobbin lace, especially the net ground kind, continued to be produced and new varieties were invented (e.g. Honiton). In Ireland, skilful lowerclass women found an income producing crochet imitations of needle lace that in some cases was so convincing that you need a magnifier and good light to spot the difference. During the second half of the century, historism nicked ideas from all over history so that all the techniques and styles mentioned above saw a short, but brisk renaissance. Well-to-do ladies who had nothing to do all day but supervise the house staff applied themselves, to decorative needlework such as tatting,whitework (the modern kind, with bored holes) and other lacemaking techniques since it was the only socially acceptable kind of occupation for a lady (see Veblen).

Labour became ever more expensive, but on the other hand, many kinds of lace (mostly bobbin and whitework) could be machine-produced by the beginning of the 20th century. More expensive labour meant that fewer households could afford servants. Fewer women could afford to sit at home and be bored, so purely decorative needlework faded into oblivion. Fewer could afford to be mere luxury dummies, bedecked with lace, so professional lacemaking also declined. In some regional pockets, bobbin lacemaking was kept up mostly as a cherished tradition, but needle lace had almost died out by the beginning of the 20th century. If Thérèse de Dillmont hadn't researched it around 1900 for her book (Encyclopedia of female handicraft), the technique could well have been forgotten by now.

A while ago, I handled a 4-6 cm wide piece of Milanese lace which still had the c. 1900 price tag attached: A housemaid of that time would have had to pay three years' wages for it. What the antique market dealer asked was only 5% of a software developer's monthly net income. This is just to illustrate how astronomically expensive handmade lace used to be and how relatively cheap antique lace is today, even if 20-40 Euros a metre still seem expensive.



Apart from the classification by technique (i.e. needle, bobbin, crochet etc), laces are further classified by provenance* or pattern. Needle lace, for instance, comes as Point de Venise, Gros Point (both Venetian), Point de France, Point de Neige, Rose Point (all French imitations of Venetian lace), and bobbin lace as Malines, Brussels, Bruge, Alençon, Argentan, Honiton etc.

There is a large number of books in which you can read up on this traditional classification. I, however, would like to propose a different kind of classification, viz., by 1. technique and 2. style and when it was in fashion. The traditional classification was invented by and for collectors, but mine is intended for re-enactors and costumers. The picture page is built alongside that classification.

  1. Needle lace
  2. Bobbin lace
  3. Crochet lace
  4. Miscellany

The periods given above refer to when the kind of lace was in fashion. Some were manufactured until much later, enjoying varying degrees of popularity.



*) Not necessarily where the lace was manufactured, but where the pattern was first invented. That was usually the same, but in theory, Point de Venise could also be produced outside Venice.


Wednesday, 24-Apr-2013 21:47:55 CEST



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