The Lace Guild

Origins & History of Lace

The Origins of Lace

When did lace originate? Although no definite date can be given for the ‘invention’ of lace, it is most likely that what we now regard as lace arose in the early sixteenth century. Open woven fabrics and fine nets that had a lace-like effect are known to have existed for centuries, but their techniques did not contribute to those developed for the great European laces. Early references to ‘lace’ in English texts almost certainly refer to ‘ties’, as this was the primary meaning of the word lace until well into the seventeenth century.

There is pictorial evidence from the late fifteenth century of simple plaited laces used on costume, and this is consistent with the statement by the author of a bobbin lace pattern book — the Nüw Modelbuch — printed in Zurich in 1561, that lace was brought to Zurich from Italy in about 1536. What is certainly true is that the second half of the sixteenth century saw the rapid development of lace as an openwork fabric, created with a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace).

Bobbin lace evolved from braids and trimmings worked in colourful silks and silver-gilt threads and used as surface decoration for both dress and furnishings. Three forms of embroidery provided the origins of needlelace: (1) little loops and picots decorating the collar and cuff edges of shirts and smocks; (2) open-work seaming, linking widths of fabric; and (3) cutwork. Cutwork started as decorative stitching worked within small spaces cut out of linen. As the spaces became larger, leaving only a grid of the original threads, elaborate geometric patterns could be worked (known as Reticella). In time, instead of cutting out expensive fabric, foundation threads were couched on to a temporary backing — usually parchment — and true needlelace lace was born. Designs were then able to break away from the geometric forms imposed by working within fabric, and the lace known as Punto in Aria (stitches in the air) was born.

Bobbin lace is generally quicker to work than needlelace, and skilled workers were soon able to copy needlelace designs. Details of such lace can be seen on hundreds of portraits from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.

The Spread of Lace

Since lace evolved from other techniques, it is impossible to say that it originated in any one place, although the city whose name was first associated with lace is Venice. Venice was an important trading centre, and it was there that the first known lace pattern books were printed (Le Pompe in the 1550s) and in the early years the city certainly acted as a hub for the spread of lace knowledge. By 1600 high quality lace was being made in many centres across Europe including Flanders, Spain, France and England — women who were practiced at other textile crafts seem to have picked up the new skills with relative ease.

Travelling noblemen and intermarriage between royal families ensured that new fashion ideas were disseminated widely: lace was traded (and smuggled) across borders. Lacemakers displaced by political upheavals often arrived as refugees in areas where there was already a lacemaking tradition and were able to enhance this with their own skills. And enterprising manufacturers of fashion for the affluent were constantly seeking innovations to secure and extend their position in the market.

Lace and Fashion

Fashion has always driven lace production. Towards the end of the sixteenth century ruffs and standing collars demanded bold geometric needlelace. Through the early years of the 1600s these were gradually replaced by softer collars requiring many yards of relatively narrow linen bobbin lace. At the same time there was increasing demand for gold and silver lace to edge gloves, shoe roses, jackets and sashes, and also to provide surface decoration for other garments. By the middle of the seventeenth century linen lace was again worn flat, and both needle and bobbin lace makers had refined their skills to produce some extremely intricate work, with the raised needlelace known as Gros Point and the flowing forms of Milanese bobbin lace being among the greatest achievements of the period.

Through the eighteenth century lace became increasingly delicate, often worked in extremely fine linen thread with increasing use of mesh grounds. French needle laces — Argentan and Alençon — and Flemish bobbin laces — Binche, Valenciennes, Mechlin — began to dominate the market, with items such as cravat ends and lappets used to display the wealth and demonstrate the good taste of the wearer.

Machine Lace and the Decline of Hand-made Lace

The industrial revolution in Britain brought with it a profound change in lacemaking. The first machine lace was made towards the end of the eighteenth century, but it was not until 1809 that John Heathcoat was able to produce a wide net fabric that did not unravel when cut. This net became the basis for new laces such as Carrickmacross and Tambour (now classified as decorated nets), fabrics which were ideal for the light-weight dresses of the day. Entrepreneurs made constant improvements to the machines, first producing patterned nets, then increasingly complex designs, until by 1870 virtually every type of hand-made lace had its machine-made copy. Although there was a short period in the 1860s when bold laces such as Bedfordshire, Cluny and Yak (wool) were fashionable and could not yet be copied by machine, it became increasingly difficult for lacemakers such as those in Devon and the East Midlands to make a living from their work. In England most of the handmade lace industry had disappeared by 1900, although there were a number of small organisations (such as The North Bucks Lace Association) that supported lacemakers with patterns, training and an outlet for their work.

The Growth of Amateur Lacemaking

There are a few parts of the world where hand-made lace is still produced for sale, but increasingly through the twentieth century lacemaking became a craft undertaken for pleasure. After groups such as The North Bucks Lace Association eventually collapsed, it had been left to individuals to preserve lacemaking skills. One of the most active of these was Miss Catherine Channer, who toured the East Midlands learning from the old lacemakers and collecting patterns and equipment. She built up a large following of students and gained a reputation as a designer and writer of lace books. Devon County Council continued to provide teachers of Honiton lace until towards the end of the 20th century, and by the 1950s the Women’s Institute was training members to teach all types of lace, and local authority evening classes were becoming widely available.

The year 1976 saw three significant events in the British lace world: the formation of The Lace Guild (with Doreen Wright as first chairman), the publication of Pamela Nottingham’s The Technique of Bobbin Lace, and the first polystyrene (styrofoam) pillows. The availability of polystyrene pillows meant that lace students no longer needed to spend their first class stuffing chopped straw into a fabric bag to make a pillow, and as an added bonus the new pillows were much lighter and easier to carry around. Before 1976 only a handful of lace books with a limited selection of patterns were available, and so The Technique of Bobbin Lace, with its clear diagrams and instructions, filled a real need. It was the first of many lace titles published by B T Batsford. Since its formation, The Lace Guild, an educational charity, has worked to encourage excellence in both the making and design of lace. By holding exhibitions, workshops and an annual summer school it introduces lacemakers and the general public to both exciting contemporary work and the best of traditional lace. Its headquarters, The Hollies in Stourbridge, is now home to a museum with over 15,000 items of lace and lace-related artefacts and a library with a comprehensive collection of lace books.

Bibliography

Burkhard, Claire; Nüw Modelbuch facsimile published as part of Fascinating Bobbin Lace (Haupt, 1986: ISBN 3-258-03610-1)
Dye, Gilian; Silver Threads & Going for Gold (The Lace Guild, 2001: ISBN 1-901372-10-3)
Levey, Santina; Lace, a history (Maney, 1990: ISBN: 0-901286-15-X)
Nottingham, Pamela; The Technique of Bobbin Lace (Batsford, 1976: ISBN 0-7134-3230-6)
Shepherd, Rosemary; An Early Lace Workbook (Lace Daisy Press, 2009: ISBN 978-0-9591235-4-8)