How do you make lace?
November 28, 2022 6:40 AM   Subscribe

How do you make lace? Very very slowly, according to Broiderie Stitch, a two-person lace-making business in Gartner, Massachusetts. Lace was small, portable, and very, very expensive - a favorite for smugglers and an easy way to transport a large store of wealth. The lace middlemen profited the most off of this lucrative trade, but even a lowly lacemaker with just a few patterns would make more with lace than she could working as a laborer. Still, it wasn’t the best of jobs - four girls (or sometimes sixteen) would be clustered around the light of a single candle in the winter with their pillows and bobbins. Open fires would dirty the work, so small personal heaters filled with live coals might be placed under their skirts (a fire hazard, to be sure) or the lacemakers might work over a barn so the heat of the animals kept them from freezing. Summertime was much nicer, when so much sunlight made lacemaking easier on the eyes. Many old lacemaking songs are about finishing one’s work before the candles were lit, since weak candlelight made things so much harder.

"Lace was always an expensive luxury item because of its painstaking, time-consuming production," according to the SFO exhibit Lace: A Sumptuous History, from 2014. "The industrial revolution in Britain brought with it a profound change in lacemaking. The first machine lace was made towards the end of the eighteenth century, but it was not until 1809 that John Heathcoat was able to produce a wide net fabric that did not unravel when cut. This net became the basis for new laces such as Carrickmacross and Tambour (now classified as decorated nets), fabrics which were ideal for the light-weight dresses of the day," notes The Lace Guild, in a brief history.

"While there is no academic consensus on when lace was invented, the practice is believed to have emerged in the fifteenth century. It is considered uniquely European, finding roots in Italian tradition. Some of the earliest references can be found in funerary inventories and dowries, while visual evidence was established in paintings such as Hans Memling’s Madonna and Child with St. James and St. Dominic," according to Lace: A History of the Artform and the Forgotten Women Behind the Trade," in Art and Object.

Many museums have handmade lace in their collections, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York and the Smithsonian museums in Washington, DC. Scroll to the bottom of the home page for Broiderie Stitch to see just a few beautiful examples of modern handmade lace and embroidery.
posted by Bella Donna (33 comments total) 56 users marked this as a favorite
Thank you for this! Doing my poor, chunky fiber arts work with no consequence for failure always makes me think of how it must have been to learn and practice it as a girl in historic times. No tutorials -- just your sisters or older ladies whose patience might or might not give out before you got it. No row or stitch counters, no written patterns, and not much room for error in your supplies. Ganglion cysts on your hands for your trouble. (That's why I have not tried crochet lacemaking. I could probably pinch my mother's hooks for it, but my wrist is bad enough as it is.)

Thinking of the demise of lacemaking reminds me of something in Lark Rise to Candleford that would have taken place around the 1880s or '90s: One woman ripped off the deep flounce of old Buckinghamshire lace from the second-best christening robe [lent to poor parish mothers] and substituted a frill of coarse, machine-made embroidery, saying she was not going to take her child to church 'trigged out' in that old-fashioned trash.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:04 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

This was way more interesting that I would have guessed. Thank you.

I have no fiber arts background, or even much appreciation probably, but viewed just as a history-of-labor (and technology) this was fascinating.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:13 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

@Countess Elena :

Following that Wikipedia link, and going from there to the item on Chantilly lace, I can see examples of how lace would be like the high-end pharmaceuticals or CPU chips of the pre-industrial world, in terms of wealth/gram, possibly worth many times its weight in gold.
posted by Aardvark Cheeselog at 7:22 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

lace would be like the high-end pharmaceuticals or CPU chips of the pre-industrial world, in terms of wealth/gram

That was actually a plot point in the second book of the Eragon series, weirdly. The author had detailed a system of magic where the energy required to accomplish tasks with magic (like lighting a fire or levitating an object) took the same energy costs out of the magician as it would take to do it without. So one of the characters figured out that lacemaking was a skill that required precision but much less energy, and so the rebellion against the evil king financed themselves by covertly selling delicate, magically-produced lace.
posted by The Pluto Gangsta at 7:38 AM on November 28, 2022 [14 favorites]

My great-grandmother on my father's side and all of her kinswomen made lace. I have some pieces still, and no idea what to do with it. It's extremely unfashionable.
posted by fiercekitten at 7:39 AM on November 28, 2022 [7 favorites]

That [Edward Rosier] esteemed the productions of comparatively frivolous periods would have been apparent from the attention he bestowed upon Madame Merle's drawing-room, which, although furnished with specimens of every style, was especially rich in articles of the last two centuries. He had immediately put a glass into one eye and looked round; and then "By Jove, she has some jolly good things!" he had yearningly murmured. The room was small and densely filled with furniture; it gave an impression of faded silk and little statuettes which might totter if one moved. Rosier got up and wandered about with his careful tread, bending over the tables charged with knick-knacks and the cushions embossed with princely arms. When Madame Merle came in she found him standing before the fireplace with his nose very close to the great lace flounce attached to the damask cover of the mantel. He had lifted it delicately, as if he were smelling it.

"It's old Venetian," she said; "it's rather good."

"It's too good for this; you ought to wear it."

"They tell me you have some better in Paris, in the same situation."

"Ah, but I can't wear mine," smiled the visitor.

"I don't see why you shouldn't! I've better lace than that to wear."
posted by praemunire at 8:13 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Lace is recognized as a trigger for trypophobia, and has always seemed faintly repellant to me.

I can’t help thinking that unconsciously blocking that reaction is what makes it so appealing to the people who like it — sort of like pinching yourself to raise endorphin levels, or something . . .
posted by jamjam at 8:14 AM on November 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Borris Lace was a Big House employment initiative hereabouts in the mid 19thC. My pal Jules was instrumental in getting the Borris Lace by Post project going in Covid lockdown as a hedge against social isolation experienced by folks in nursing homes and others.
posted by BobTheScientist at 8:29 AM on November 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Bella Donna, I absolutely love this post. Bookmarking so I can dive into this more thoughtfully tonight. Thank you!
posted by mochapickle at 8:52 AM on November 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Every time I get some wistical notion about "the glory of living in the past" - I need stories like this to remind that life was hard - really freaking hard. My day to day problems are laughably easy in comparison and my woolgathering is farcical.
posted by drewbage1847 at 9:18 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

There is a privately run lace museum in Oakland that I have never visited, as it did not seem like a friendly place. Here's their website, which looks like a good companion piece to this post.
posted by Lawn Beaver at 9:25 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

Thanks for the kind comments. This post was inspired by a trip to a thrift store last week. I bought a bag of a bunch of wooden, thread-wrapped things for four dollars. Eventually it came to me that they had something to do with making lace. So then I started poking around and reading a little bit about lace. praemunire, nice excerpt. What is it from?
posted by Bella Donna at 9:27 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

nifty post! For the record however Broiderie Stitch is in Gardner MA. My dad had a bar there when I was a kid.
posted by vrakatar at 9:37 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Whenever I learn about textile arts I'm struck with how complex and underappreciated they are. Lace for sure, also quilting and weaving and spinning and embroidery. Highly technical work with a lot of planning, delicate dexterity, and an overall aesthetic challenge. Imagine working on tiny pieces of something every day without being able to see how the whole thing was going to look for weeks or months.

These arts appeal to the computer nerd in me. Making lace is very similar to coding in its way. Not an accident, the connection between computing and weaving in particular is well known.
posted by Nelson at 9:41 AM on November 28, 2022 [5 favorites]

I love the fact crocheted lace doilies are slowly coming back into fashion. I learned how to make them about a decade back, and the way I dealt with the stigma of them was to use really thick cotton and big hooks, so that a doily pattern made a decent-sized tablecloth. Knit lace is still striking for shawls, especially in patterns from the Baltics and ex-USSR, and well worth the hours and hours it took me to make a Firebird.
posted by I claim sanctuary at 10:23 AM on November 28, 2022 [5 favorites]

Lacemaking often uses recursive patterns, which is very calming when doing it with programmer-mind. I’ve never found a discussion of how Leavers represented that.

Lawn Beaver, you’re right that Lacis is sort of grumpy (they are kind of a museum supporting themselves with a specialty shop) but I found that if I thought the lace was cool and dont argue with their knowledge about it they were fine. The big change was once when I asked the person on shift how to do something and they said Basically you can’t and I said Oh okay. (Mmv for fiber scholars.)

See also the Caning Shop across town, just as skilled, possibly as ancient and under appreciated an art.
posted by clew at 10:26 AM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Thanks so much for the correction, vrakatar! I hate that I misspelled the town’s name when I was writing the post. Apologies!
posted by Bella Donna at 10:41 AM on November 28, 2022

Handmade lace is so labor-intensive that when compulsory education first came about in England, children of lace-making families were among the last to be sent to school because their labor was so essential to the family income.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 10:58 AM on November 28, 2022 [5 favorites]

Wow, how remarkable and sad.
posted by Bella Donna at 11:19 AM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Lacemaking was also present here through European expansion, and then later it's likely we (on the waves of colonial immigration) introduced the industry and art of it in Sri Lanka. But definitely I recalled the Dutch tried to foster an Indonesian industry for it, probably for similar reasons to how Irish crochet lace became marketable - it's a cheaper version than the Italian and French lace favoured by many.
posted by cendawanita at 11:27 AM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

It’s such a density of labor over material that it can connect practically anyone to the world market- that’s one of the theses of Women’s Work: the First 20,000 Years, yes? Which is fine until it’s a method to extract labor from otherwise unprofitable local economies (ca. 19,995 BP).

If it’s still appealing, the YouTube bobbin lace tutorials have gotten enormously better since I looked a decade ago. Here’s one on trying it out using stuff around the house - clothespins instead of bobbins.

I found crochet motifs, usually called Irish crochet lace, the easiest lace to learn in fits and starts. You can use bigger or smaller thread, motifs can be put away half finished any old how, and there’s a modern style using wild asymmetry and 3D and color that’s easier to wear than an Edwardian suit. Well, differently weird, anyway. Also it was popular well into the photographic era so there were lots of illustrated pattern books, many reprinted.

If you like bitmap or pixel art, filet lace and filet crochet are naturally on a square grid and adapt pixel patterns.

Nothing has the peaceful mahjong/Lincoln log clatter of a bubble of bobbins, though.
posted by clew at 11:50 AM on November 28, 2022 [6 favorites]

A few months ago, I participated in a really fun oral history interview about family lace traditions, conducted by Ruth Mather:
Her research explores the origins, development, and legacies of Nottingham’s lace industry in a global perspective, considering a broad range of themes including the material qualities of lace, its use and re-use, international networks of supply and demand, and the people whose labour was involved in all stages of lace production. The project aims tell a multifaced story of Nottingham lace from its raw materials and historic links to slavery, through the processes of making and finishing, marketing, and export, to its enduring presence in civic memory and beyond.
I'm looking forward to her future work that draws on her interviews! Some of her work is in these materials about a mini-conference about lace last year; additional video recording of a talk.
posted by dreamyshade at 12:36 PM on November 28, 2022 [4 favorites]

praemunire, nice excerpt. What is it from?

Henry James's classic novel The Portrait of a Lady. It's interesting how a modern reader would, upon this introduction to Mr. Rosier, guess that he was queer, whereas he is, in fact, the protagonist in a secondary heterosexual romance in the book. Just not a very effectual one.
posted by praemunire at 1:52 PM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Knitted lace is of course easier than woven but has the tremendous disadvantage of being difficult to fix while in progress. (One of the blessings of knitting is that often you can go back and fix a late-noticed mistake without tearing out the inches of work between you and the mistake. Not only is it harder to do that with lace stitches, it's even harder than usual to do the virtuous thing and tear out the intervening inches to a recovery row at or just below the mistake, such that lace knitters often use a later-removed "lifeline" as a kind of save point.)
posted by praemunire at 1:54 PM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Thanks for the post, this is so interesting!
I know 2 things about lace:
1) antimacassar is a favorite word. When I was little, grammies would still have these long extended doily-doodads on their sofa backs and arms, sometimes all of lace and sometimes of embroidered cloth with lace edges. They were used to protect the sofa against hair oil (macassar oil )and grandchildren in general.
2) Zandra Rhodes did a collection when she discovered guipure lace, a type of bobbin lace. The pictures were the most lavish, delicate, rich hippy fantasy I've ever seen.
posted by winesong at 2:19 PM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

Do you remember what year, winesong? I hadn’t heard of her and couldn’t find lace specifically but oh my gosh, the tiered spiral flounce dresses are so Minoan/Corinthian/neoclassical/Fortuny/1970s much.
posted by clew at 3:05 PM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I've just realized that my sense of lace as painstaking and time-consuming to produce largely comes from the 1999 direct-to-video animated musical adventure comedy-drama film Madeline: Lost in Paris, in which (spoilers for the 1999 direct-to-video animated musical adventure comedy-drama film Madeline: Lost in Paris) the villainous Madame LaCroque (Lauren Bacall) kidnaps Madeline and forces her to work alongside several other orphan girls to make lace, sometimes out of their own hair. It made quite an impression on me about what intense and difficult work lace-making could be; I'm glad to be able to read more about it now.
posted by earth by april at 6:06 PM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

Love the post! Kassia St. Clair's "The Golden Thread" has a really interesting chapter on lace as well, and these are couple of excerpts from that:

* When in 1577 King Henry III of France sought to intimidate the Estates-General (a legislative, advisory assembly made up of groups of his subjects), he turned up to a meeting wearing 4,000 yards of gold lace.

* 1665... Colbert went further. He called on needle-workers from Italy and Flanders to emigrate to France, enticing them with promises of citizenship. He kept in close contact with the French ambassador in Venice. Most of their letters were in code, so sensitive had diplomatic relations become; those that aren’t, however, reveal that the French were deliberately siphoning off detailed information about the industry, quoting figures for levels of production and prices. This was, in other words, state-sanctioned industrial espionage, which the Italians weren’t prepared to take lying down. Venice promptly issued a counter-decree, commanding those tempted by Colbert’s offer not to take it up, and those who had already done so to return immediately, on pain of execution for treason.

* Since the Huguenots had traditionally played a vital part in the industry, it was a devastating blow when so many left the country, taking their skills with them. In Normandy alone, the number of lacemakers fell by half.
Other countries wrestled with different issues. The Italian lace industry, particularly in Venice, was bolstered by its reliance on wealthy patrons and the nimble, lacemaking fingers of nuns in Italian convents, whose prices were relatively low since they did not have houses to run or families to look after. Lacemakers in Flanders, however, had no such insulation from economic shocks. The same financial crash that felled the fortunes of Vermeer resulted in profound hardship for even the most skilled of Flemish lacemakers.
posted by of strange foe at 6:33 PM on November 28, 2022 [2 favorites]

Gardner, MA
posted by bendy at 8:37 PM on November 28, 2022 [1 favorite]

I'm not familiar with the Lacis museum in Oakland, but if you happen to be in the Bay Area I can absolutely recommend the lace museum in Sunnyvale! (is it weird to have two that close together? probably) and they are definitely not grumpy! I happened by one day when they were preparing for some... national convention of American lacemakers??? and spent an amazing afternoon being shown amazing lace and having it explained (and sometimes demonstrated) how it's made.
earth by april they have beautiful examples of hair lace (which is a thing I didn't know about before then but it was surprisingly common for women to make lace from their own hair as keepsakes). They have an entire jerkin made of hair tape lace. I was last there in 2019 and I'm still gushing over it so hey.
posted by ngaiotonga at 10:31 PM on November 28, 2022 [3 favorites]

I don't have a subscription to the New York Times, so I missed this article from a month ago: Why are men now wearing lace? (I dunno but seriously, that is a stupid headline. Archive to avoid the paywall.) The Enigmatic Power of Lace, in W, claims that "the intricate material evokes innocence, kink, domesticity and grandeur. Its history is just as complex." Thanks to W, I now know that "In Threads of Power, an exhibition currently on view at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, lace is surveyed in all its dainty glory. Examples of handwork dating from the year 1580 show the development of the craft, from a long late 16th Century linen bonnet with lace inserts to Michelle Obama’s Isabel Toledo Inauguration ensemble made with asparagus-hued Forster Rohner lace."
posted by Bella Donna at 6:01 AM on November 29, 2022

For what it's worth, I actually make bobbin lace and have done so for over a decade. I am very fortunate to have lived near the best Withof teacher in the US (she sadly passed away earlier this year). We also have a fantastic Idrija (Slovenian) lace teacher nearby. Another nearby friend exhibits in all sorts of fiber-events and even had a display in the airport!

The art is still practiced as a hobby by many. In fact, there are folks making some incredible contemporary bobbin lace pieces. A few years ago, I visited an exhibition of contemporary work at the Hunterdon Museum in New Jersey (link to my writeup & photos).

Keep in mind there are many, many ways to make lace beyond bobbin lace (weaving). Some other methods include tatting (knotting), knitting (looping) crochet (looping), needlelace (knotting and/or looping), drawn thread (anti-weaving?), pulled thread (sewing), netted lace (sewing), machine (boring - ha, ha - not true; machine lace has its own fascinating history).

Within each of these techniques, there are bajillions of styles. I can speak best to bobbin lace which is largely European in heritage though current interest has spread as far as Japan. There was even an American bobbin lace cottage industry in Ipswitch, Massachusetts ca. 1750-1820.

Bobbin lacemaking equipment (pillows & bobbins) and styles (tape, point ground, motifs, etc.) vary wildly between countries - and sometimes within them. An Italian tombolo is very different from a Belgian cookie from a French Le Puy pillow. There was even an American marketing scheme to sell "lace machines" to housewives.

vary in size and shape depending upon the style of lace being made and the needs of that lace (thread weight, lots of sewings or none, worked overhand/underhand) - broadly broken down into Continental vs. English.

The styles of bobbin lace are just as varied as the equipment. We have ground (Torchon, 's Gravenmoer, Bedfordshire, Cluny), tape (Milanese, Cantu, Hinojosa, Russian, Idrija), point ground (Bucks Point, Downton, Tönder, Chantilly, Flanders, Mechlin, Binche), and small motifs of free lace (Honiton, Withof).

Clearly I'm a fan, but bobbin lacemaking is genuinely addictive. It's easy to get started with simple Torchon patterns, but the sky's the limit when it comes to learning. Send me a Memail if I can help!
posted by ReginaHart at 7:34 PM on December 2, 2022 [10 favorites]

Flagged as fantastic, ReginaHart! Thank you so much for your fascinating, rich, and link-heavy comment. A true treasure and, perhaps, a potential online workshop if you wanted to contribute in this way by creating a MetaFilter event as part of a future fundraiser. From a recent MetaTalk: "If you’re keen on presenting or sharing interesting topics or skills - let us know! It’s not too late to drop us a note, and we’d love to make this an ongoing thing in 2023." Strictly optional, of course, but your enthusiasm is infectious. I bet any workshop you led would be terrific.
posted by Bella Donna at 6:20 AM on December 7, 2022 [1 favorite]

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