Of Lace

Lace is a term freely used at the present time to describe various sorts

of open ornament in thread work, the successful effect of which depends

very much upon the contrasting of more or less closely-textured forms

with grounds or intervening spaces filled in with meshes of equal size

or with cross-ties, bars, etc. Whence it has come to pass that fabrics

having an appearance of this description, such as embroideries upon

> nets, cut linen works, drawn thread works, and machine-woven

counterfeits of lace-like fabrics, are frequently called laces. But

they differ in make from those productions of certain specialised

handicrafts to which from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries lace

owes its fame.

These specialised handicrafts are divisible into two branches. The one

branch involves the employment of a needle to loop a continuous thread

into varieties of shapes and devices; the other is in the nature of

making corresponding or similar ornament by twisting and plaiting

together a number of separate threads, the loose ends of which have to

be fastened in a row on a cushion or pillow, the supply of the threads

being wound around the heads of lengthened bobbins, so shaped for

convenience in handling. The first-named branch is needlepoint

lace-making; the second, bobbin or pillow lace-making. Needlepoint

lace-making may be regarded as a species of embroidery, whilst bobbin

or pillow lace-making is closely allied to the twisting and knotting

together of threads for fringes. Embroidery, however, postulates a

foundation of material to be enriched with needlework, whereas

needlepoint and pillow lace are wrought independently of any

corresponding foundation of material.

The production of slender needles and small metal pins is an important

incident in the history of lace-making by hand. Broadly speaking, the

manufacture for a widespread consumption of such metal pins and needles

does not date earlier than the fourteenth century. Without small

implements of this character delicate lace-making is not possible. It is

therefore fair to assume that although historic nations like the

Egyptian, Assyrian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, made use of fringes and

knotted cords upon their hangings, cloaks, and tunics, lace was unknown

to them. Their bone, wooden, or metal pins and needles were suited to

certain classes of embroidery and to the making of nets, looped cords,

etc., but not to such lace-making as we know it from the early days of

the sixteenth century.

About the end of the fifteenth century, with the development in Europe

of fine linen for underclothing, collars and cuffs just visible beyond

the outer garments came into vogue, and a taste was speedily manifested

for trimming linen undershirts, collars and cuffs, with insertions and

borders of kindred material. This taste seems to have been first

displayed in a marked manner by Venetian and Flemish women; for the

earliest known books of engraved patterns for linen ornamental borders

and insertions are those which were published during the commencement

of the sixteenth century at Venice and Antwerp. But such patterns were

designed in the first place for various sorts of embroidery upon a

material, such as darning upon canvas (punto fa su la rete a maglia

quadra), drawn thread work of reticulated patterns (punto tirato or

punto a reticella), and cut work (punto tagliato). Patterns for

quite other sorts of work, such as point in the air (punto in aere)

and thread work twisted and plaited by means of little leaden weights or

bobbins (merletti a piombini), were about thirty years later in

publication. These two last-named classes of work are respectively

identifiable (punto in aere) with needlepoint and (merletti a

piombini) with bobbin lace-making; and they seem to date from about


The sixteenth-century and earliest known needlepoint laces (punto in

aere) are of narrow lengths or bands, the patterns of which are

composed principally of repeated open squares filled in with circular,

star, and other geometric shapes, set upon diagonal and cross lines

which radiate from the centre of each square to its corners and sides.

When the bands were to serve as borders they would have a dentated

edging added to them; this edging might be made of either needlepoint or

bobbin lace. As time went on the dimensions of both lace bands and lace

vandykes increased so that, whilst these served as trimmings to linen,

lace of considerable width and various shapes came to be made, and

ruffs, collars, and cuffs were wholly made of it. Such lace was thin and

wiry in appearance. The leading lines of the patterns formed squares and

geometrical figures, amongst which were disposed small wheel and seed

forms, little triangles, and such like. A few years later the details

of these geometrically planned patterns became more varied, tiny human

figures, fruits, vases and flowers, being used as ornamental details.

But a more distinct change in character of pattern was effected when

flowing scrolls with leaf and blossom devices, held together by means of

little ties or bars, were adopted. Different portions of the scrolls and

blossoms with their connecting links or bars would often be enriched

with little loops or picots, with stitched reliefs, and varieties of

close and open work. Then came a taste for arranging the bars or ties

into trellis grounds, or grounds of hexagons, over which small

ornamental devices would be scattered in balanced groups. At the same

time, the bobbin or pillow lace-workers produced grounds of small

equal-size meshes in plaited threads. This inventiveness on the part of

the bobbin or pillow workers reacted upon the needlepoint workers, who

in their turn produced still more delicate grounds with meshes of single

and double twisted threads.

Lace, passing from stage to stage, thus became a filmy tissue or fabric,

and its original use as a somewhat stiff, wiry-looking trimming to linen

consequently changed. Larger articles than borders, collars, and cuffs

were made of the new filmy material, and lace flounces, veils, loose

sleeves, curtains, and bed-covers were produced. This transition may be

traced through the first hundred and twenty years of lace-making. It

culminated during the succeeding ninety years in a development of

fanciful pattern-making, in which realistic representation of flowers,

trees, cupids, warriors, sportsmen, animals of the chase, emblems of all

sorts, rococo and architectural ornament, is typical. Whilst the

eighteenth century may perhaps be regarded as a period of questionable

propriety in the employment of ornament hardly appropriate to the

twisting, plaiting, and looping together of threads, it is nevertheless

notable for tours de force in lace-making achieved without regard to

cost or trouble. From this stage, the climax of which may be placed

about 1760, the designing of lace patterns declined; and from the end of

the eighteenth to the first twenty years or so of the nineteenth

centuries, laces, although still made with the needle and bobbins,

became little more than finely-meshed nets powdered over with dots or

leaves, or single blossoms, or tiny sprays.

Within the limits of a brief note like the present, it is not possible

to discuss local peculiarities in methods of work and styles of design

which established the characters of the various Venetian and other

Italian points, of the French points of Alencon and Argentan, of the

cloudy Valenciennes, Mechlin, and Brussels laces. Neither can one touch

upon the nurturing of the industry by nuns in convents, by workers

subsidised by State grants, and so forth. It would require more space

than is available to fairly discuss what styles of ornament are least or

most suited to lace-making; or whether lace is less rightly employed as

a tissue for the making of entire articles of costume or of household

use, than as an ornamental accessory or trimming to costume.

Whilst very much lace is a fantastic adjunct to costume, serving a

purpose sometimes like that of appoggiature and fioriture in music,

other lace, such as the carved-ivory-looking scrolls of Venetian raised

points, which are principally associated with the jabots and ruffles

of kings, ministers, and marshals, and with the ornamentation of

priests' vestments, is certainly more dignified in character. The loops,

twists, and plaits of threads are more noticeable in laces of

comparatively small dimensions than they are in laces of great size.

Size rather tempts the lace-worker to strive for ready effect, and to

sacrifice the minuteness and finish of hand work, which give quality of

preciousness to lace. The via media to this quality lies between two

extremes; namely, applying dainty threads to the interpretation of badly

shaped and ill-grouped forms on the one hand, and on the other hand

adopting a style of ornament which depends upon largeness of detail and

massiveness in grouping, and is therefore unsuited to lace. Without

finish of handicraft, producing beautiful ornament suited to the

material in which it is expressed, lace worthy the name cannot be made.

The industry is still pursued in France, Belgium, Venice, Austria,

Bohemia, and Ireland. Honiton has acquired a notoriety for its pillow

laces, many of which some hundred years ago were as varied and well

executed as Brussels pillow laces. Other English towns in the Midland

counties followed the lead chiefly of Mechlin, Valenciennes, Lille, and

Arras, but were rarely as successful as their leaders. Saxony, Russia,

and the Auvergne produce quantities of pillow laces, having little

pretence to design, though capable of pretty effects when artistically

worn. There is no question that the want of a sustained intelligence in

appreciating ingenious hand-made laces has told severely upon the

industry; and as with other artistic handicrafts, so with lace-making,

machinery has very considerably supplanted the hand. There is at present

a limited revival in the demand for hand-made laces, and efforts are

made at certain centres to give new life to the industry by infusing

into it artistic feeling derived from a study of work done during the

periods when the art flourished.