Into the History of: Lace

Is there any other material that leads such a double life? Lace is at the same time fussy and restrained yet provocative and sexy. It’s province of grandmothers and antique shops but also keeps stores like La Perla and Victoria Secret in business. How can the same material be used to represent the virginal purity of a white bridal veil, the rebellious punk look of fingerless lace gloves, and also manage to be seductive in a négligée? And that’s just for starters. Somehow lace manages to do it all.

The History of Lace


Lace in 16th century Italy

To uncover the history of this versatile embellishment, we have to travel back to 16th century Venice when the city’s embroiderers began to experiment with openwork embroidery. The process involved removing the weft threads from a length of woven cloth and then covering the remaining warp and weft threads with buttonhole stitches in order to form a grid and then continuing the embellish the design by adding additional buttonhole stitches. As the fashion for large lace ruffs (raised laced collars) became popular, there was an increasing demand for open, airy lace – which was achieved by removing more and more threads. The work was tedious and a bit nonsensical as the embroiders were simply undoing the work of the weaver who had created the cloth.

Image above: Marie Vignon, Madame la Connétable des Augures, Musee Dauphinois, Grenoble, France

Portrait of a Woman in Red 1620 by Marcus Gheeraerts II 1561 or 2-1636

Types of Renaissance Lace

So to satisfy the fashion-hungry, Venetian embroiders began to experiment with creating the entire lace pieces with a needle and thread rather than removing weft threads. The first starting point for this needle lace was called reticella, and it required a preexisting support – usually in the form of a stiff piece of paper or fabric. Then in the 16th and 17th centuries, the favored technique was bobbin lace, where the lace is created by braiding the threads, which are hung on bobbin, around pins that are attached onto a pillow covered in parchment paper. (See a video here).

Image above: Portrait of a Woman in Red, Marcus Gheeraerts II 1620, in the collection at the Tate Gallery DP264218

But however it was made, the fashionable men and women of Renaissance Europe wanted it.  And the lace trends spread rapidly. The latest fashion in Venice would almost immediately be spotted, the very next day, on the streets in Antwerp, Paris or London. Pretty amazing when you think about the limited means of communication available at the time. Designs were spread through the publication of pattern books. Equally amazing is that these books weren’t how-to manuals. It was assumed that any lady would might come across the book would already be proficient with a needle. So in order, to make the piece, one would have to study the pattern and then figure out how to translate it.

Image above: Needle lace, late 17th century from the collection at the Metropolitan Museum of Art


At the turn of the last century, lace was still so fashionable that the needle alone couldn’t keep up and so, to fill the demand, suppliers turned to machines, which could imitate even the most intricate lacework. To differentiate themselves from the lace-wearing masses, the aristocracy, turned to antique lace. Now the sign of expensive lace wasn’t the detailing but instead an antiquated look and so girls lacking deep pockets, but still after that look of luxury, used infusions of tea, coffee, and onion skins. This interest in antique lace spurred collectors and museums, and lace began to viewed as an art. (Art Nouveau artists worked with lace, and it was even part of the curriculum of the Bauhaus.)

Image above, from left: evening dress from Callot Soeurs, 1914 and Court presentation dress from the House of Worth, 1885, from the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

yslIn the 1950s, Parisian fashion houses used great quantities of machine-made lace on their post-war evening gowns. Chanel favored black lace. Dior and Balmain used lots of white, and Balenciaga used a rainbow of colors from violet to vivid greens. The other big outlet for machine lace in the 1950s was the lingerie market. French designer Marcel Rochas started a black lace corset trend with the costumes he designed for Mae West. And lace is still making runway magic, one of big trends for Spring 2014 was lace, and then it was back in Spring 2015 — all white this time. So it might be a 500 year old tradition, but according to the fashion world, lace is still the height of chic.

 Image above: Yves Saint Laurent, 1970s dress, from the designer’s retrospective at the de Young Museum

What to Read: Lace

The Secrets of Real Lace – If you want to get a better handle on the lace that you are seeing, this is the book for you. You’ll have to track down a used copy. But once you do, you’ll be spotting the differences between machine-made and hand-made lace like a pro. And really, anything by author Elizabeth Kurella, who is both a lace maker and a scholar, is pretty awesome. Her website is a fantastic resource as well.

Lace: History and Fashion – This is my favorite resource to take you through the history of lace, and was the book that I referred to the most when preparing this post. (Has an amazing section in the back that describes the types of lace made in around the world.) It’s more than 25 years old, but still relevant and you can find used copies on Amazon for $7. So win-win.