Lace: Fine, Fashionable, Fragile Emblem of Prestige & Beauty


Duchess of Cambridge wearing lace to the Diamond Jubilee Service, St Paul’s Cathedral, London 2013

Lace, like so many textiles we admire could have been known in antiquity, but as a fine and fragile art form in the world of historical textiles the passing of time is certainly not on its side.

Its sheer quality and fragility is integral to its appeal.

Quality lace has come back into contention again for the first time in some fifty years in the world of fashion.

The former Catherine Middleton, now England’s stunning Duchess of Cambridge, has worn it enchantingly on so many occasions during the last few years, and in so many different ways from her wedding day to the Diamond Jubilee church service.

She seemingly wore it first in the now infamous fashion parade at St Andrews University, Scotland where her future husband England’s Prince William first saw her wearing lace and now it has gained a nostalgic and memorable appeal for them both.

Mainly associated with wealthy merchants, the aristocracy, the church and also royalty, lace was worn for well over four centuries in Europe where it became an emblem of prestige.

Bobbin and needlepoint lace have now long been highly prized.

Threads used were linen, cotton or silk and sometimes astonishingly, human hair. Gold and silver threads were also inserted and colored threads sometimes attached after the lace was completed.

The word Lace derives from Latin, lacques, meaning a noose, the term covering a great variety of ornamental openwork fabric formed by looping, plaiting or knotting and its origins also lie in the hand work process.

Emerging out of the Middle Ages in Europe it is known that by the fifteenth century in Europe lace making was being taught in schools in the Belgian provinces.

Pattern books and documents from 16th century Italy still exist that trace its development both from a design and manufacturing perspective, including when it was used on altar cloths and church linens.

Designs and techniques were developed so that the artisan had a variety of methods and motifs he could employ as an aspect of his technique.

From Italy it spread north to the Spanish Netherlands, Germany, France and over to England where a great many of the French protestants (Huguenots) fled. Everyone placed their own stamp on it, with local characteristics that today help curators and historians establish its provenance and to date it.

Numerous portraits of fashionably dressed men and women wearing lace accessories from the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, demonstrate the importance of this delicate fabric when it was entirely hand made; a time-consuming and painstaking process.

The rendering of lace in portraiture from this period is often breathtaking.

Catherine de Medici (1519-1589) took with her to France collars of rich point lace.

Their popularity was immediate.

Point Venise detail

In Venice lace making was a private enterprise, unlike the state protected glass industry, and much of it was made in the houses of the nobility or convents, where it was no doubt considered a ‘virtuous exercise’.

Cutwork lace was used for ornamenting linen and is one of finest of all the needlepoint laces made.

Needlepoint lace is believed to have evolved out of embroiderers engaging in fancy drawn thread work on linen until the designs broke free of the cloth and became known as ‘Punto in Aria’ or ‘stitches in the air’.

Once that had happened three sculptured styles in three dimensions, such as Gros Point de Venise and numerous other styles emerged.

Self Portrait Peter Paul Rubens with his wife, Helena Fourment and their son Peter Paul

Dutch houses were full of lace, their citizens took it up with great alacrity and it became an aspect of their traditions.

Children in orphanages all over Europe received instruction, enabling them to earn some money.

As many of these were attached to Catholic churches they used it to trim ecclesiastical garments.

The Southern Netherlands was occupied by the Spanish from 1556–1714, who also wore lace fashionably.

Patterns developed for collars and cuffs gradually became very fine, elaborately made sophisticated pieces that became identified with their source such as that from Haarlem.

Dutch and Spanish migration to the Americas only served to spread its fame.

There was a period when lace ruffs were worn in various incarnations, by all but the lowest classes.

Yards and yards of lace were required for single modest ruff-making, elaborate ones were extremely costly and it became an easily recognizable status symbol. It was a product that gave a living to thousands of workers and played a large role in the evolution of textiles.

Brussels in Flanders was one of the most renowned centers for lacemaking in Europe. Children, with their nimble fingers, as well as many women were employed to weave and twist from 50 to some 600 bobbins around a blindingly intricate cluster of pins outlining the pattern on a velvet board.

This is how they created the so-called Bobbin lace, which has its origins in braiding and plaiting.

As the fabric needed to remain damp while being worked conditions were often exceedingly unhealthy.

During the reign in France of Louis XIII (1601-1643) economic progress grew and it became harder to distinguish a person’s rank, as the different ranks in society were equally well dressed and everyone aspired to carrying a sword and wearing lace. A contemporary observed Parisians no longer seemed able to live without ribbons, lace or a mirror. Noblemen were obliged to change clothes and ornaments every day and so yards of lace was acquired.

Men of good birth the ‘muguets (lilies of the valley) passionately threw themselves into the pursuit of elegance, with satins suits, cloaks of silk panne, beaver hats, scented suede collars, known as collars of flowers as well as lace trimmed bell-bottom pants.

Parisian society dressed to display itself, and even though France’s Cardinal Mazarin in 1644, tried to forbid the wearing of gold and silver in costume, an ordinance from the time notes nobody took any real notice of his prescription, especially not his niece Maria Mancini, who was also Louis XIV’s first love.

Her beauty was accentuated by a fine collection of pearl jewellery, which had many attributes among them innocence, purity and perfection as well as alluding to the birth of Venus from the sea.

Pearls, it seemed, went very well with lace.

Cavaliers and Musketeers serving the King looked entirely dashing in their otherwise plain clothes of superb fabric trimmed with lace. Dutch nobleman and musician Jacob Van Eyck (1590-1657) is recorded as having said in 1651 words to the effect…

of many Arts, one surpasses all. For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, … and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of Kings.

Over a period of 125 years until 1715 lace gradually became refined, elegant and more modern than ever before, led by the very young and dashing Louis XIV who was responsible for establishing the lace industry in France.

He brought Italian lace makers to France, and they formed the basis of early French designs, which evolved into a lighter, more decorative style known as point de France, which ironically threatened the Italian industry.

The people of Normandy’s taste for precision and perfection came together with superb craftsmanship as they achieved a quality of fragility and beauty with their lace.

The ladies of Normandy used the lace in superb curtains, which allowed sunlight to filter into the living areas of the house or in the elaborate coifs that were worn traditionally on Sundays and holidays.

In France and in England whole towns took on lace making. The Alençon lace technique takes 4 years of apprenticeship and about the same again to master it completely.

The method of production is extremely labour intensive. It takes up to 7 hours to produce one square centimetre of lace, but the method allows for extremely fine and sophisticated designs.

Today there are only a handful of full-time lace makers working at Alcenon in France.

Alcenon lace is a needlepoint lace characterized by delicate applique, intricate designs stitched on a gossamer fine linen base as fragile as a spider’s web.

So fragile is it that it is traditionally ironed with the tip of a lobster claw.  It is almost priceless and one exquisite handkerchief can take up to 1200 hours of work.

Mrs Allan Ramsay, wife of the artist, wearing lace

Mrs Allan Ramsay, wife of the artist, wearing lace

The Georgians in England also used acres of lace and tulle to trim their fashionable attire and to decorate their homes.

They had plenty of stamina for entertainment and enjoyed fine food and wines and cutlery was displayed face down originally to avoid catching in lace cuffs.

Honiton lace is a very fine hand made bobbin lace named for the town in East Devon in England where it was made for 400 years.

There is virtually no Honiton Lace made commercially now: it would be far too expensive to produce it because of the time involved. However many thousands of people all over the world make lace today as a hobby.

Bayeux lace (bobbin lace) the specialty of Bayeux in Normandy today employs a handful of lace makers as opposed to 5,000 in the middle of the 19th century before machinery began making yards of ‘lace’ fabric and it became available to a wider population.

The commercial manufacturers maintained reasonable standards for a while but then as more and more people wanted to drape their houses with it they rushed to fill demand and designs often became debased with quality suffering and it deteriorated to a point that no one really wanted it any more.

American society women recycled a great deal of antique lace for use in fashion during the nineteenth century.

They were interested and fascinated by its artistry, complexity of construction and in the historical and cultural contexts in which it was made and used. Particularly prized were pieces associated with a royal provenance, and to extent some histories were invented for the profit of textile dealers.

Lace making is a considerable craft and skill, which has suffered much over the centuries.

As it re-emerges once more to be worn by celebrities in society it is unlikely that it will ever again reach the graphic dimensions it once did when it was the product of an industry providing a living to thousands and thousands of workers, when it boosted the revenue and economies of many nations.

Audrey & Peter Ritz BarIn the 1966 movie How To Steal A Million Nicole Bonnet, aka Audrey Hepburn started the ball rolling again when she wore a simply superb black French Chantilly lace dress with matching black lace silk stockings and a black lace mask entirely covering the upper half of her face.

She was meeting Simon Dermott aka Peter O’Toole in the bar of the Hotel Ritz at Paris.

He was completely bowled over by how beautiful and mysterious she looks in what surely must be the most stunning of all the costumes Hubert Givenchy ever made for this fabulous star.

It’s a triumph of couture design that just about every girl in the world would kill to own, and every man would want to see his woman dressed in.

Chantilly lace, made in the city of Chantilly in France, is known for its fine ground pattern that has abundant detail and is usually made of silk.

There is now a great repository of knowledge about Lace and the skill required to make it to draw upon for all those interested in its social and cultural evolution.

By and large however it remains unknown and at the heart and essence of the mystery of lace, which in its original form displays great virtuosity.

Is it any wonder young women of style are making lace, which is delicate and feminine highlighting a woman’s fragility, highly fashionable again.

Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2013-14

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