History of Lace

Overview Of The Beginnings

There are two drawings of this picure, by two different artists in the De Young Museum of San Francisco. This one is by Timothy Cole. Both drawings are based on a painting by the Dutch artist, Gabriel Metsu, entitled "The Needlewoman" or The Lacemaker". Note that this lacemaker holds her pillow on her lap, rather than resting it on a table as the Flemish Lacemaker does in Vermeer's painting.

Displayed with Permission of the M.H.De Young Museum, San Francisco,CA.


Lace was more than just a sumptuous and highly coveted luxury, affordable by only the privileged and well-born. It was also the product of an industry that provided a living to thousands of workers, formed a huge portion of the revenue of many nations, and played a role in history that goes largely unrecognized and unremarked today. We hope to provide you with a sense of the phenomenal beauty of lace and, at the same time, give you a graphic picture of the lives of those who produced most of the millions of square yards of the fabric. Keep in mind that some of the most sophisticated and highly coveted laces could require as many as ten hours of concentrated work to produce a single square inch.

Lace is classified by textile historians as "True Lace" (vrai dentelle) and "Other Laces". Needle lace and bobbin lace are the two forms recognized as vrai dentelle. Other forms, such as crochet, tatting, knitted lace and a variety of other decorative, openwork textiles are classed with the "Others". The relative merits of such a distinction are beyond the scope or the intent of this page. Suffice to say that each art form has it's own special merits and it's own particular value and appeal. The principle differences between 'true' and 'other' laces lie in the fact that the nature of the structure of those laces classed as 'other' precluded the extreme fineness, fluidity and delicacy that usually characterize those termed 'true' laces.

We know little for certain about the origins of bobbin lace. The case is otherwise for needle lace. Textile historians agree that Venitian openwork embroidery was the direct progenitor of this form of lace. According to Anne Kraatz (Lace: History and Fashion) in the early 1500's the exquisite embroideries for which Venice was famous, were becoming ever and ever more open and less and less of the foundation fabric upon which it was worked remained in the finished pieces. At the peak of it's development, this openwork embroidery evolved to an extreme form called Reticella. In Reticella only the geometric frames of woven fabric, upon which the outline stitches were done remained in the finished work. Open areas from which the woven threads had been removed were filled with needle-woven designs to provide the ornate fillings which were the final step toward the first true needle lace.

Finally, rather than go to the work of removing so much of the original fabric, the embroiderers began to lay down outline threads, couched to a pattern. The framework of the design was worked over these threads, while at the same time, the fillings of decorative stitches and designs were worked so that all the parts of the lace grew together as the work progressed. The early needle lace was termed Punto in Aria - literally, stitches in air.

This illustration of a pattern for Punto In Aria is from a pattern book by the Italian designer and producer of pattern books, Federico Vinciola



It can be seen from this design that the geometric influence forced by the use of woven fabric framework in the predecessor, Reticella, has not been completely abandoned yet.

Lace designs remained rather geometric well into the 1600's. Indeed, as Kraatz notes in her book, it was not always easy for the observer to tell the difference between Reticella and the earliest Punto in Aria.

Designs for lace were widely distributed in books written by such authors as Vinciollo, Cesare Vecellio, Johann Siebmacher, Bernhart Jobin, and two women, Isabeta Catenea Parasole, and Lucretia Romana. The books were usually dedicated to well-born ladies. It has been argued that lack of specific instructions for the work shown in the pattern books, indicates that they were intended for use by professional needle workers. However, it is quite possible that these ladies did do some needle lace. Such women were known to be very proficient with their needles as any 'virtuous woman' of the time was expected to be. Further, it was the custom for at least part of the textiles and ornamental items needed in a great house, to be produced there, under the supervision of the Mistress of the House. Until the need for great quantities greatly outstripped the possibility of producing the required yardages in the household workshops, the work was well within their abilities. We know from records that white embroidery and needle lace was also made in convents, hospitals, houses for the indigent, and other institutions, as well as by seamstresses and persons working in the linen draper's trade. The basis for the future use of religious houses, charitable institutions and members of the lower classes as the producers of lace had already been laid.

The origins of bobbin lace are less readily apparent in the pictorial and remaining artifact record. Both Italy (Venice) and Belgium (Flanders) claim to be the birthplace of bobbin lace. Both have some fairly convincing evidence to support their claims and no firm and irrefutable conclusion has been reached by textile historians. One additonal theory that has equally convincing evidence is that it evolved independently in both regions at about the same time. If so, it is unlikely we will ever know which got there first. In any case, eventually, Flanders became pre-eminent in the field of Bobbin Lace. Many factors contributed to the ability of Flanders to become pre-eminent in bobbin lace production:

  • Flanders had an immediate source of fine linen thread at hand. Flax was a major crop, the quality of the local flax was unsurpassed, and the thread was spun in the region.
  • The region was a major center for development of the arts.
  • There was a ready and plentiful source of cheap labor in the local poorhouses, beguinages, convents and among cottagers who needed a way to earn a living.
  • The trade infrastructure for marketing the product was in place, much as it was for Venetian artifacts.

While textile historians cannot agree upon the exact antecedants of bobbin lace, it is possible to see that there are several techniques which could easily have contributed to its development. One of the most universally accepted ones is that of making Passaments. These were ornamental braids, ribbons and galoons of silk, precious metal thread and other precious materials that were used to ornament fabrics for a variety of uses. They were common applications to garments of the Renaissance, as may be seen in portraits of the period. Passamenterie was woven by members of the Corporation of Passamentiers on special looms or on long cushions. Pins were used to keep the newly worked threads in place as the work progressed below them. The precious threads were kept from tangling and knotting by winding them on weights which were made of lead, bone or wood. It doesn't require a great leap of imagination to see how these evolved to become the lace maker's pillow and bobbins.

The precise timing of the transition to bobbin lace is not known. However, there is much evidence to support the claim that it was known in Venice and in Flanders by the period around 1520. Portraits show it being worn, often as part of an embroidered item or as surface ornamentation. Household accounts, merchant lists and estate listings from this period begin to show common reference to bobbin lace by one name or another. Santina Levey, in the introduction to the 1559 edition of Le Pompe, a reproduction of one of the earliest known pattern books for bobbin lace, states that bobbin lace almost certainly preceded the development of needle lace.She states that the prevalence of openwork, which gave rise to it, didn't gain impetus until later in the century. And indeed, it isn't until the period around the 1550's that portraits begin to show bobbin lace being used in conjunction with Reticella and Punto in Aria, an association which continued for several decades.

One thing that surprises many who study the fashions of the Renaissance is the rapidity with which tastes and trends in fashion disseminated. This is particularly the case with the desire for lace. However, when it is also observed that this period was one in which literacy became widespread and books became much more available, the surprise is not so great. Venice and Antwerp were great centers of printing, and it was there that the pattern books of Pagano (the first to still address embroidery patterns yet include great amounts of open work) and the others were published. Kraatz and Levey both attribute the early, almost explosive success of lace in fashion to the wide distribution of these books.

Italy (particularly Venice), Flanders and eventually France were to remain the pre-eminent centers of lacemaking through out most of the history of the handmade lace era. The whims of fashion seemed to dictate that at any given time, one or the other of these was favored over the rest, but those out of favor needed only to wait a while and their product would come back into favor.

By the middle of the 16th century, lacemaking had spread throughout Europe and the British Isles. The case of English lacemaking is interesting. Neither Kraatz nor Levey has anything particularly kind to say about it. Historians have not, in general, believed that it was a major player, or that English lace was particularly well-regarded. However, this may not be an entirely accurate picture of the reality during the great era of lace in fashion. A relatively recent scholarly work by H.J. Yallop explores the history of lacemaking in England, focusing on that produced in Honiton. Yallop presents considerable documentary evidence for concluding that in its time, Honiton and other English laces were quite well regarded both at home and on the continent, and a brisk trade was extant.


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