Lace History

A General History of Lace, compiled by Alice Howell

Lace has been described as on openwork fabric in which the pattern is achieved with thread basic to the fabric. Or, it can be said that lace is made of one or more fibers manipulated into a fabric with a pattern of holes and solid areas.

It is difficult for us to imagine, now, the importance of lace from 1500s through the 1700s in Europe. Today we think of lace as lovely and decorative, and very feminine. In the past in Europe, lace was worn extensively by men as well as women. Large quantities were used by the church and royalty. It was very expensive so was a visible symbol of wealth.

Laces were prized possessions to be itemized in any inventory or will. Lace was a social status symbol. Men wore it as instep rosettes, boot top flounces, ornaments, collars, cuffs, and decorations on coats, nightshirts and other garments.

One reason lace became so popular was that severe laws and taxes repressed the wearing of gold, silver, jewels and silk. Lace…a product of plain thread…provided the chance to evade those laws and gratify the taste for luxury and artistic beauty in dress.

There are many different viewpoints of what is really lace. Some purists say real lace is only needlelace and bobbin lace. Other people include other methods of knotting or looping fiber into an open fabric, such as crochet, tatting, hardanger and knitting.

It is an interesting note that lace was developed as a luxury fabric, and has no inherent useful purpose.

At different times in history, lace was the most expensive of all fashion fabrics, or one of the cheapest hand-made trims.

The earliest origin of lace is mostly lost in history. There’s no written record of the very first laces. Fancy embroidery, braiding, and fringing were highly developed by the 1400s. The best records are the portraits painted at that time, showing the fanciest clothing of the people of that day. Someone made a leap in thinking from using woven cloth as a basis of their fancy work, to starting directly from the thread itself, eliminating the work of weaving the cloth first. The earliest laces were called Punto in Aria…or stitches in air. Because people were used to working with the square shapes of woven fabric, the first designs were very geometric.

The first book of geometric designs was published in 1524. This date gives us a clue as to when lace first started commercially. While this book of designs was probably intended for fine cutwork embroidery, other pattern books intended for needle or bobbin lace were produced in the next 40 years. The second half of the 1500s showed the exponential expansion of lace in fashion and a constant change in favored styles.

Men wore lace on their cuffs, neck, and boots. The lace collar grew bigger and bigger…for both men and women. You have seen portraits of Elizabeth I with the large ruff collar standing out all around her head. This was very typical of the collars worn by the elite in several western European countries. By the end of the century, the collars ‘fell’…that is, they laid flat along the shoulders and down the front and back.

If you visit Belgium, they will claim that it’s the place that lace originated. Many historians believe it started around the Mediterranean…mainly Italy. Because of the great commerce between Italy and northern Europe, the lacemaking skills were transported back and forth almost as soon as they were developed, and then the lace techniques were greatly expanded from both areas until they spread throughout Europe.

There were two basic methods of making lace. One was Needlelace…made with a regular sewing needle and a single thread. Using thousands, and maybe millions of tiny buttonhole stitches, fantastic fabrics were developed. The other method was bobbin lace, which is a weaving technique. Many threads are used in sequence to weave and twist to create the pattern in the fabric. Each thread is wound on a stick, called a bobbin, so it can be easily moved without tangling.

Within the field of bobbin lace, many varieties were developed, with three main styles. Some used only a few threads, as few as 8, with other varieties using up to 500 or more. The narrow strips of lace became known as tape or trail lace…and the narrow trail wound back and forth through the area of the design until it was filled in. Varieties of tape laces were popular throughout Eastern Europe from Italy to Germany.

The laces known as Straight Laces started all the threads at one end of the project, and worked in tandem down the length to the end. The width of the lace was limited by the size and type of pillow it was worked on, so large items like shawls were made in strips and attached together. Many of the laces in England, Belgium, France and other places were this style.

The third style is called Piece or Part Lace. Little sections are made separately, like flowers, leaves, and stems, and then were assembled into whatever shape was desired. This was an efficient method, having many people make pieces of a project, and other people sew them together into the collar, shawl, cap, baby dress, or whatever special item had been ordered. This type of lace was found in England, Netherlands and Belgium.

All these styles of lace developed into an extensive commercial business through the 1700s. There was great competition between laces of different towns and countries. Since not all the countries of Europe followed the same fashions, different countries developed different styles of laces, creating many trade markets between countries.

The designs changed gradually as fashion styles changed, since lace was dependent on fashion for status. Elegant laces were so expensive and valuable that they were frequently itemized in wills as to whom would inherit them. At times, there’s records of people selling their land in order to buy lace. Laces were used over and over, removed from one garment and put on another, and often remodeled to fit a new fashion style.

At times, the people in one country would prefer the laces made in a different country so they would import it, sending their money to the other country. The leaders didn’t like the money leaving their own country, and would pass laws forbidding importing lace and trying to force people to buy local lace. Or they imposed very high import duties on the lace. This led to smuggling of lace. There’s stories of training dogs to go from one country to another. The smuggled lace would be wrapped around the dog, then covered with a fake dog hide so it would not be seen as the dog ran across the border.

Small quantities of lace were hidden in parasols, books, bakery goods, and on babies. Corpses were dressed in yards and yards of fine lace, and the coffins transported to another country. After the burial service the coffins were secretly dug up to retrieve the lace. Some coffins had no bodies…just lace.

Other laces were smuggled in and renamed with a local name to confuse the customs people. England has many stories of smuggled lace for the use of the king. Agents were bribed, or large fines were paid, but the king would have his laces.

In some countries, like France and Belgium, lace became a very important industry. It was so important that France attracted the skilled workers from Italy to France. Naturally Italy was not happy about the drift of her skilled workers to France, so concerned in fact that they issued a decree which read: “Anyone who practiced his art in a foreign land (meaning France) will be ordered to return, should he disobey this order his nearest of kin will be imprisoned, on his return he will be pardoned for the offense, and employment will be found for him, Should he not return an emissary will be commissioned to kill him, and the next of kin held in prison will only be released on his death.”

This was between 1698 and 1788 when up to 9 thousand lace makers lived in Alencon, France and surrounding district.

When the lace industry was at its peak as much as 30 percent of the total workforce in a town could be connected with lace. It took farmers growing flax, processors of the flax to extract the linen fibers, spinners to make the thread, dealers who collected the lace, pattern designers, lace sellers, lacemakers, seamstresses who attached the lace to garments, and the people who cared for the laces.

One time, colored lace was the fashion, and the color was applied with the starch. There was one person in France who had the formula for yellow starch. When she was arrested for killing her husband, yellow lace was suddenly NOT in fashion. Only green lace was worn. No one has yet figured out what her yellow starch was made of though many have tried to duplicate it.

At times, making lace paid more than farm, factory or household work. There’s a record of one town that passed a law that no one over the age of 16 could make lace. The officials and rich people of the town could not get people to serve as servants in their large houses because lacemaking paid more and was easier to do. When the girls and boys could no longer legally work in the lace factory, they were forced to take the less desirable jobs.

Lace was such a visual display of a person’s status that many countries like England and France declared that no one under a certain rank, like a Baron, could wear lace. Only the titled families, the rich, and the church wore the laces. Austria for a while had a rule that women could not wear lace on their caps except for locally produced lace, and that had to be less than an inch wide.

During the 1700s, the industrial revolution was getting started. Machines were being invented to do things previously done by hand. A Stockinette machine, that made knitted stockings with a design up the side of the sock, was developed about 1590 but it took a lot of hand manipulation to get the design. The inventor wanted to improve and market his machine but he needed permission from the king. This king was afraid this machine would take away his sources of lace income so refused permission. Nothing could be done with the new machine until this king died and a new king was in charge.

In the early 1700s, the machine was improved so it was more automated. Then instead of just putting a design in the sock by creating holes, the whole fabric was holes…a net fabric, like wedding veils are made from. Thus started the demise of the hand lace industry. By 1800, they had a machine that could produce large net fabrics. The net background of some laces no longer had to be made by hand. They could start with the machine net and just applique the handmade lace flowers or designs on it. This reduced the time needed to make an item, and the number of people making it.

There was something else happening at the same time. It was called the Cotton Gin. Cotton fibers could now be produced economically, and cotton thread flooded the market. It was strong and smooth… and cost about one-tenth as much as the fine linen thread. It also had the feature of running smoothly through the new lacemaking machines while linen thread often had little bumps or slubs on it that would jam in the machines. The finest linen thread ceased to be produced before 1800, and was no longer even in the warehouses by 1830. The variety of flax that produced the finest, thinnest threads of the 1700s no longer exists. When it was no longer grown, the seeds were lost.

The finest thread today, made with cotton, is twice the thickness of that fine linen thread. The only thread available these days that thin is silk. The silkworm still spins the same fine thread it always has. It take three strands of silk twisted together to equal that old linen thread. It takes 15 strands of silk fiber to equal our standard sewing thread.

The old laces made with silk used a non-washed silk. The glue that held the cocoon together was still on the threads. There’s only one family in the world today producing that glued-style thread for modern lacemakers who want it for the traditional French laces like Chantilly and Blonde. Other lacemakers enlarge the pattern a bit and use the standard silk sewing thread we can find in any sewing store.

Lace machines continued to be developed in the early 1800s, with the Barman, the Leavers, Raschel, Bobbinet, and Schiffley machines each copying the general appearance of a different type of lace.

The fashion world is fickle, constantly changing. The status seeking person wanted the latest fashion item, and in the early 1800’s, it was the machine produced laces, not grandma’s old fashioned handmade stuff, that the social world wanted. The handmade lace industry had crashed, except for a few specialized laces that the machines could not imitate.

Lace during the 1800s had lots of ups and downs. The machines took over some varieties of lace, and the equivalent hand industries collapsed. Queen Victoria made some laces popular, especially after Prince Albert died. Victoria wore the black of mourning the rest of her life, and black lace became the elite lace to wear. Chantilly lace from France had a big market. Machine Chantilly was popular as well as the handmade lace. Also, black lace was worn in Spain, and much of France’s black lace was exported to Spain.

Some laces from the Mediterranean area had special stitches and formations that the machines could not imitate successfully. Handmade laces continued in that region until World War I.

There was a lace Revival period in the late 1800s. Since the skill of making lace had almost died out, new forms of lacemaking involving machine made parts were developed. Long strips that looked like parts of handmade lace were sold in the local stores. These could be arranged in a pattern and hand stitched together with needle and thread. All the Ladies Magazines of the day had directions for collars and other garment accessories. Names similar to the old laces were given to these lace constructs. The one style that has survived two world wars is Battenberg Lace. This lace could be done to a very fine standard, or very crudely, depending on the lady’s skill with a needle.

Laces similar to or copying laces from the 1600s was popular around the Mediterranean, and was sold to the tourists. Some of these laces were also made after World War I to sell to the soldiers. Many a soldier brought a piece of lace home to his mother or sweetheart. These are the laces often found in the attic of your grandmother’s house these days.

As to modern lacemaking, there was a reconstruction and revival of these skills in the 1970s. Old laces were studied in the museums, and patterns drawn out. People who had learned a lacemaking skill from their grandmothers were begged to teach others.

During the next 50 years, lacemaking skills have been written down, diagrammed, and published in books. Instead of having only one French book printed in the mid-1800s, we now have hundreds of books on many different styles of lace. New patterns are being devised in the traditional styles as well as people designing their own patterns, or combining styles.

During the past 30 years, there have been three new styles of lace created. One is from a designer in Finland whose lace is called by her name, Kortelahti. One was created by a nun in Belgium whose lace is named Withof after her convent. The most recent is by an American in California who created a lace called Rosa Libre. It is a flower lace designed to use a small number of threads at a time, and have three-dimensional aspects.

Lacemaking today is an act of creation for personal fulfillment and pleasure, rather than a livelihood. Few people in the western world make a living from making lace, though some businesses provide the material used by lace artists. In this day of the internet, we can easily reach the providers of the threads and materials we need anywhere in the world.

Lace is back in fashion on women’s clothes. People are interested in many forms of fiber arts, including lace. Lacemaking is easier on the fingers than many fiber arts, so keep it in mind when you can no longer knit or crochet. Lacemaking lessons are available from local teachers, videos, books, and on the internet. If you are intrigued by lace, consider joining your local lace guild or an internet group.