The History of Lace

In the King James version of the Bible, Isaiah, Chapter 19, verse 9, states: 'Moreover, they that work in fine flax and they that weave networks, shall be confounded', and many of us certainly have been at times when the threads break and the mistake that you have only just noticed means undoing a lot of work to correct !

The most ancient specimens of lace in existence are pieces of knotted hair nets found in the tombs of Thebes and other parts of Egypt, some of which date back as far as 2500 BC. Several of these nets are adorned with tiny porcelain beads and figures strung amongst the meshes. Bobbin laces and embroidered laces have been recovered from Egyptian Coptic tombs of the 3rd to 7th Centuries AD whilst other remains in the Coptic tombs indicate that the bobbin laces were made not on a pillow with pins, but on a wooden frame with pegs to hold the threads apart. Today we refer to this type of lace as Sprang Weaving.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, some lace garments were made for churchmen high in the ecclesiastical hierarchy but it was not until the 16th century that the use of lace became widespread.

There are several types of lace such as bobbin lace, needlelace, braid lace, tape lace, netting, embroidered lace, etc., which have their origins in many kinds of needlework and weaving and from the way that lace developed almost simultaneously in the maritime centres of Venice, Genoa and Ragusa, there is a theory that lace was brought from China, especially as the lace concerned had a distinctly oriental pattern to it and emerged as a fully developed art. The pattern books of the day and the surviving pieces of lace show none of the clumsy beginnings developing into the polished end result. Flanders has also claimed to be the birthplace of lace but they can only produce documents referring to lace from 1495 and the Italians have documentation dated 1476. Another theory is that the Crusaders brought it back with them from the Levant.

Needlelace started from the fine pulled and drawn thread work, cut work and darned netting typical of mediaeval Europe and in the 16th and 17th centuries, Italy was the main producer of this type of lace. In Venice, the lace was called Punto in Aria, An Example of the Lace literally stitches in the air, and was made from linen threads spun from the finest flax cultivated in the coastal regions of Holland, Belgium and France. These days, these strains of flax have been lost because the use of modern day fertilisers has meant that the plant fibres are no longer as fine as they once were.

Bobbinlace from Genoa developed into the present day style of Maltese, Cluny and Bedfordshire types of laces with lots of tallies and leaves which are a lacemakers' nightmare because it is so difficult to work a series of them all of the same size and all with even edges to them - in fact, there is a saying that 1,000 tallies have to be worked before you can call yourself an expert in tally making - if this is so, then I have another 970 to go !

Whilst Belgium has been regarded as the centre for bobbinlace, there was a very close liaison between Italy and Belgium, the latter supplying the smooth linen thread to Italy for her needlelace industries and there is strong evidence to suggest that the development from cutwork to reticella and free needlelace occurred almost simultaneously in the two countries. The needlelace differed in style from area to area, coarse and heavy, light and dainty, floral and geometric, as fashion dictated, but it was a skillfully made product, treasured like jewellery and, in fact, costing almost as much as jewellery. Only the clergy and the very wealthy bought lace and when worn in society, it was regarded as an emblem of prestige. The Renaissance brought great wealth to Italy and the Venetian style of lace was favoured throughout Europe. The heavy Venetian Gros Point was used for collars and neckbands and this sculptured lace, with its designs of stylised flowers and scrolls, echoed the grand style in the architecture and furnishings of the times, with even the churches being lavishly furnished with lace, devoted women spending years of their lives, and their eyesight, making lace to adorn altars, statues - and the priests.

The first traces of pillow or bobbin lace occur in pictures and in certain inventories of linen belonging to the d'Este and other Italian families from 1476 onwards but unfortunately one of the problems associated with inventory lists is the great number of technical names used in the 15th and 16th centuries for every kind of needlework. The historical side of these subjects has mostly been dealt with by men or by women unfamiliar in their technique, which has led to continual confusions with possibly only half a dozen of all the writers on the subject of lace capable of distinguishing the old printed patterns for needlepoint from those used for pillow lace whilst on the other hand those who had practical knowledge seldom had the education or the time to spend researching in the archives of museums of the day. It seems absurd to me that repeated references to lace, for instance: shoelaces, staylaces, etc., should have been quickly set down as proof of the existence of point and guipure laces, but this is what happened.

According to a book published in Zurich about the year 1550, bobbin lace was taken to what is now known as Germany in 1526 and there is the story of ten Westphalian Burghers who had cornered the market for teaching lace, but the elderly gentlemen were forced to wear linen bags over their long flowing beards in order to stop the hairs becoming caught up in the lace. At this time, severe sumptuary laws forbade the wearing of gold, silver, jewellery, cloth of gold, silks and other materials of value and these laws even applied to the dead who could only be buried in wool unless they had died from the plague in which case not many volunteers would have been found to offer to change the clothes of the deceased, so in these delicate laces made of plain white thread lay the opportunity of gratifying the taste for luxury.

With only a limited supply of metal pins, not much could be achieved in the way of pillow lace, as in England, during the reign of Henry VIII, the price of ordinary pins was about one penny each and because of this, fishbones and thorns were also used as pins. If pillow lace was made at all in Europe before 1520, it certainly was not in common use until some thirty years later as portraits from the reigns of Henry VIII, Edward VI and Mary in England, and of Francis I in France, show no traces of lace in them while those from the reign of Elizabeth I show the Queen and her courtiers loaded with it. The earliest French portrait showing lace is that of Henry II who is wearing a ruff with a simple narrow pillow lace edging. Henry was the favourite son of the infamous Catherine de Medici who brought lacemakers (amongst other things) with her from Italy when she married the Dauphin of France. From that time on, French portraits show a tremendous variety of lace and lace patterns in them.

In England it is uncertain when lace was introduced although some claim that Queen Catherine of Aragon taught lacemaking to some of the inhabitants of Ampthill when she lived there in 1531, while awaiting her divorce from Henry VIII, and a pattern named after her is still in use in the district. She is also said to have burnt all her lace so that more lace could be ordered from the local women thus providing more work and income for the poor of the neighbourhood so there is no wonder that some people confuse her with Catherine the Saint, who is the patron Saint of spinners, weavers and lacemakers and who gave her name to the Catherine Wheel firework because of the way she was martyred. St Catherine's Day or Cattern's Day, as it is sometimes known, is still celebrated by Lacemakers worldwide on November 25th and if you visit the Power House Museum, in Sydney, on the weekend nearest to this day, you will probably see lacemakers from the N.S.W. Branch of the Australian Lace Guild demonstrating their art.

Another theory is that people fleeing from religious persecution brought it with them to England in the 1560's after the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre but since there are pattern books and portraits from before this date, this seems to me to be very unlikely. Some people also assert that lacemaking in different countries had separate origins, but with laces as different as Valenciennes, Russian and Cluny being formed from the same stitches and tools, this also seems very unlikely.

Incidentally, starch was developed during the reign of Elizabeth I which would have explained how her huge ruffs would have been able to frame her face the way they did Queen Elizabeth I and Shakespeare mentions 'free maids that weave their threads with bones...' in Twelfth Night. James I of England had a ruff made of a length of lace 38 yards long which took many lacemakers months to complete but his wife was mortified when he ascended the throne because she could not afford to buy clothes suitable for a Queen and even more mortified when she was offered dresses from Queen Elizabeth's wardrobe - after all, she was only in her twenties while the old Queen died in her seventies!!

Throughout the 17th Century, the lace industry flourished but nowhere as much as it did in Italy with Venice being the centre of the trade. Almost every European country was importing lace from Italy but it was very expensive and because of its prestige value, everyone who was anyone was anxious to own some, no matter how little. There is the story of the christening of a god daughter of King George II and Queen Charlotte of England who was wrapped in lace for the ceremony with the Archbishop officiating congratulating the parents on how quiet the baby was during the service - no wonder, the child had been wrapped up in so much lace, it had been smothered. Import taxes were high because most European countries had their own lace industries by this time and it was economically important to discourage the vast sums being spent in Italy on lace - a balance of payment problem even in those days ! In some places only people above a certain rank were allowed to wear lace and then only of a certain width according to their status. Inspectors were positioned at city gates and if someone of a low rank tried to enter the city wearing lace which was considered to be too rich for them, then their lace was either trimmed down to the required width with scissors - or burnt.

Because of the huge amount of money being spent on importing lace from Italy into France, Colbert, Minister of Finance to Louis XIV, recommended that the Government should support and develop the French lace industry so the best lacemakers from Italy and Belgium were encouraged to settle in France and schools were set up in the established lace areas of Alencon, Arras and Sedan. Alencon and Arras were close to each other and it was here that the development of French Lace occurred. At first, the lace produced was identical to the Italian made laces but soon a new lace was being produced, much softer and with many more filling stitches, more ornate and luxurious. Point de France became very popular because of its draping qualities which made it ideal for cravats, wrist falls, collars and ruffles - popular, that is, with everyone but the Italians who ordered that if an Italian expert did not immediately return to Italy from overseas, then his or her nearest relative would be imprisoned. If they did return, then work would be found for them but if they didn't - their relative was executed. By this time, however, the French lace industry was well and truly established so it didn't really matter if the lacemakers did go home.

Lace History Page 2