A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Series Prologue


Editor’s Note: Today Venetian Red begins a short series on the history of lace, as depicted through seven portraits that span five centuries. Lace is delicate and fragile textile, and much of what we know about the styles and customs of lace, especially before the 17th century, are derived from the clues provided in paintings.

This is the first installment in the series. Other chapters include: Beatrice d’Este, Elizabeth I, Nicholas Tulp, Louis XIV, Clement XIII, The Duchess of Alba, Gloria Swanson; or click here for all posts in this series.

Duchesse Bobbin Lace Collar, ca. late 19th century.

It is the one costly wear which never vulgarises; jewels worn without judgment can be rendered offensive to good taste in their too apparent glitter, but lace in its comparatively quiet richness never obtrudes itself and is recognised in its true worth and beauty only by those whose superior taste has trained them to see its value. . .

—Mrs. F. Nevil Jackson, A History of Hand-Made Lace, ca. 1900.

“It’s difficult to see why lace should be so expensive; it is mostly little holes.”

—American author Mary Wilson Little (ca. 1904)

Chantilly Fan19th-century fan with Chantilly lace covering.

It’s safe to say that the average person today doesn’t think much about lace as a fashion statement. Prince aside, if it is worn at all by average people, lace is usually worn mainly by women and then generally out of sight in undergarments or as part of a specific “costume.” (We’re thinking of brides and Madonna.)  Since machines fabricate pretty much everything in our world (including lace), it’s easy to understand how a frilly item once made laboriously by hand, never mind an article of clothing once de riguer for men, seems outmoded and quaint.  Lace hasn’t disappeared (lace as table top linens is still widely available), but it has been relegated to the fashion specialty bin.

Yet, for many centuries, lace enjoyed a substantial and luxurious life as a fashion accoutrement. The history of lace is intertwined with the history of another class of luxury goods—fine art.  It’s no accident that northern Italy and Flanders, the two pillars of lace-making during the era of its greatest prominence—the 15th through 17th centuries—rose to become principal artistic centers. Local populations made affluent through trade with the East were eager to telegraph their prosperity and power through display of their de luxe possessions.

16th c laceCuff of Maltese lace, probably 17th century.

Technically different from woven fabrics, true lace (vrai dentelle) is an ornamental open-work textile produced by looping threads around one another to form an intricate pattern. Lace is related to, but distinguishable from, other open-textured woven fabrics such as gauze; from knotted openwork such as net and macramé; from tatting; and from knitted openwork like crochet. Textile experts refer to these forms as “Other Laces.”

The origin of lace is speculative. Open-work fabrics were certainly produced in the ancient civilizations. However, the earliest existing samples of openwork, which date to dynastic Egypt, are simply woven fabric with holes created by removed threads, not lace as we understand it. (These are often referred to as drawn thread work). Because the fishermen’s net, among the oldest of human implements, is a form of lace, many textile experts believe that lace derived from netting, not from embroidery, its other cousin.

Punta in Aria lace panel, 1620Punta in Aria lace panel, ca. 1620.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance, however, that looping threads around each other became the accepted method for making lace. Beginning in the 15th century, lace proliferated, along the way acquiring both prosaic names for the places in which it originated—Belgian, Irish, Reticella, Chantilly, Valenciennes—as well as more poetic names relating to its various styles—Point Arabe, Punta in Aria, Ave Maria. Regardless, all descend from two common ancestors—Punto Tagliato and Point Coupé. Hand-made lace is still made according to one of two techniques: by using a needle to interlock the threads, principally an Italian method derived from passementerie, or through the interweaving of bobbins wound with threads, a method associated principally with Flanders.

Beginning in the mid-18th century, machines have also produced lace.  With large-scale improvements in production made during the Industrial Revolution lace came within the financial reach of the middle class. Gradually machines replicated most of the lace patterns previously made by hand.

19th century table linen.

Once a vital visual ornament and a viable alternative to jewelry, lace, like other forms of decorative ornament, fell out of favor during the 20th century.  Perhaps, it too was a victim of the severe modernist aesthetic. As architect Adolf Loos proclaimed at the dawn of the 2oth century: “the evolution of culture marches with the elimination of ornament from useful objects.”

Despite this condemnation, one cannot fail to appreciate lace as a luscious form of decorative adornment.

Queen VictoriaAlex Bassano, Portrait of Queen Victoria (for her Jubilee Celebrations),
(Note the exquisite veil in the Florentine style.)

Portraits offer us an insightful commentary on the evolving varieties of lace and the style conventions associated with them. Conversely, the depiction of this delicate substance might well be the best test of a painter’s virtuosity.

Wider Connections

Judith Gwynne—The Illustrated Dictionary of Lace
Lace collections around the World
Evolution of Lace
A Lace Lovers Diary
Is the veil of modernism lifting? Lace Trends for 2008

5 Responses to “A History of Lace in Seven Portraits: Series Prologue”

  1. Thank you so much for this glorious posting. Lace is something that was a part of my early life and I am still captivated by it. Your work is always so well done.

    • Patricia
      I’m so glad you’re enjoying the series, MORE to come, so check back! I’m curious, how exactly did lace figure in your earlier life and what about it is fascinating to you? Personally I am always dazzled by the sheer ornamental beauty of lace and was inspired recently to complete some abstract paintings based on enlargements of the designs.

      • Sorry to get back with you later than sooner. You asked how lace was a part of my life…my best dress at age 6 was blue silk velvet with a lace collar. My hankies were edged with fine lace. We wore gloves to church in those days and mine were a crocheted lace. A grandmother and friends taught me to crochet and tat but not make lace in a formal way.
        I have always collected every scrap of it that I can find. Anything made by hand that is an embellishment can end up in my treasure chest.

        One of my sisters had lived in Memphis and there was a designer there, maybe Pat Kerr?, who would combine lace of all descriptions into amazing gowns which we would drool over (not really).

        Keep up your amazing work, Liz!

  2. Dear Liz and Christine what a wonderful idea for a website! I am sure that everyone who finds your pages are thrilled just as I was.

    I especially love the pictures and variety of the lace series.

    My love of textiles of laces and linens goes back to my childhood. As an adult I owned an antique shop and vintage clothing museum offering to restore and conserve customer’s antique laces and linens. I find the history of lace fascinating and many people do not realize the important role of one’s entire economy for whole countries depended on the making of lace. The fine workmanship of nimble fingers of lacemaker’s around the world are something to be highly sought after.

    There are so many knids and patterns from simple to intricate. Alot of people seem to think lace is only for girls, little did they know lace was first worn by men and that the first lacemakers were men.

    With my love of lace and textiles I found it difficult to believe that in order to view lace at a museum it will only be limited on a painted portraiture unless you go to an actual museum of lace. I would like to see museums around the world to include lace of all kinds in their exhibitions. We think of the Master’s but isn’t lace truly an art in itself? We should celebrate Lacemaking as a fine art as well.

    I handpaint copies of actual lace textiles most of which are found in museums the world over; each stitch painstakingly done onto canvas. All of my works have had prior copyright permission.

    I have found no one that does not like lace. Men seem to even like it better than women. H-m-m-m. That will give your readers something to ponder over.

  3. Hello Liz,

    Such a nice artistic layout of the history of my favorite craft! Really you did a great job!

    I’m writing an article about the history of lace myself, that’s how I discovered yours. I’d like to ask your permission if I can link to your articles.

    Thank you.

    Best Regards,

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