Intricate, delicate; originally hand-made from linen, silk and later cotton; expensive due to the many laborious hours of painstaking work involved, lace is an exquisite form of textile craft. It is defined as an openwork fabric, with open holes forming a pattern. Sometimes lace is cut from a woven fabric, but more often than not this airy textile forms around the negative space.
True lace, differentiated from cutwork in which thread is removed, is created when thread is looped, twisted or braided to other threads independently from a backing fabric. It was not made until the late 15th or early 16th centuries, when it became popular for use in table linen and clothing. A cottage industry quickly developed and spread throughout Europe.
In fact, lacemaking even has its own patron saint – probably because making it would try the patience of a saint! St. John Francis Regis nobly saved country girls from the grime and wickedness of the city, by establishing them in the lacemaking and embroidery trades. It probably wasn’t good for their eyesight though.
Then, lace was worn only by royalty and the very rich. Thousands of hours and many months of work could go into a few square inches of lace, and made lacework extremely expensive.
… lacemaking even has its own patron saint – probably because making it would try the patience of a saint!
Today, couture quality lace is still only worn by royalty or the very rich, for few young women are taught exquisite needlework in the schoolroom: they race to the bright lights of the city instead. For them, there is machine-made lace – not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as it is well-made from high-quality materials (synthetic lace that pills is dreadful). And if they still hanker for the exquisite workmanship of centuries past, vintage may be a more affordable option.
In or out of fashion, lace is always beautiful – a timeless investment for your wardrobe.
Types of Lace
Needle lace – originating in Armenia, this lace is made using a needle, thread and scissors. It is built thread by thread onto a stiff support such as heavy paper, which is cut away upon completion. Very durable, this lace will not unravel if one or more loops are broken.
Cutwork – constructed by removing threads from a woven background; the remaining threads are wrapped, filled with embroidery or pieces of needle lace. Examples are broderie anglaise, battenberg and whitework.
Bobbin lace – threads are wound on bobbins for ease of management, and are held in place with pins on a bolster or pillow. Pins are placed according to a pattern pinned to the pillow, and the thread is braided and twisted to create this lace. Chantilly (French, mostly black silk, and consequently used for mourning attire), Mechlin (a fine, transparent Flemish floral) and Valenciennes (French, net-like background) are all types of bobbin lace.
Crochet lace – includes Irish crochet and filet crochet. The former is an important part of Irish needlework tradition, through which women could support their families, especially during and after the great potato famine of the 1840s. Made with a crochet hook and fine cotton or linen thread, based on an outline of the pattern on a piece of cloth. Each motif is crocheted separately, using cotton cord for volume and shaping; basted onto a cloth in a pattern, and joined using chains and picots. The backing cloth is removed on completion. Filet lace is a form of knotted netting, with a decorative pattern filled in with linen stitch.
Guipure – also called Venise lace, point de Venise, ‘chemical’ lace or ‘burned-out’ lace – is a heavy, stiff open fabric, with a weightiness similar to crocheted lace. The design stands in relief, and there is no background or net: the motifs are joined by threads known as bridges. Guipure was originally made using foundation material that would dissolve in a lye bath (hence the alternative names), but today is usually made from cotton by machines.
Lace can also be knitted, and knotted in the form of macramé and tatting. Tape lace is formed using textile strips that are shaped into a design and embellished with needle or bobbin lace.