An abbreviated and sarcastic history of lace (plus identification)

Today at work we were making a new display on lace types and how to identify them and I gave my abbreviated history of lace lecture.

Breanna, one of my co-workers, suggested I teach a Costume College class on this. While I am in NO WAY prepared to do that, I figured a blog post was within my reach.

So here’s a very abbreviated history of lace from a non-expert part-time employee of a lace museum. Plus we’ll talk about a variety of hand-made lace techniques and how to tell them apart.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert on the history of lace. I got a talk on this from my previous boss, who kinda is an expert on this. Any mistakes are definitely my own. If you want to know more there are quite a few books on this. Come to Lacis and I’ll recommend some.

In the 16th century in Greece and Italy drawn thread embroidery got more and more intricate, to the point where no fabric is left. This first real style of lace is called Reticella.

It’s very distinctive in that it still follows the grain of the fabric and is therefore very geometric.

Eventually some smartass has the brilliant idea that all this buttonhole stitch doesn’t actually need to be on fabric. Hence needle lace is born.

This is made entirely of buttonhole stitch and similar stitches and takes a fuckton of time. I’ve seen 17th century Italian needle lace done with single fibers of linen.

A simpler variant of needle lace is called “Battenburg,” or “tape” lace, made by laying a thin woven tape in a pattern and anchoring it with needle lace stitches.

The tape and stitches are pretty easy to spot.

Needle lace is one of two “true laces,” the other being bobbin lace. Needle lace is done with needles… bobbin lace, unsurprisingly, is made with bobbins

Bobbin lace, as it is made post 19th century, has a few distinctive features. There’s often a hexagonal interlaced ground, and interwoven tallies. Most machine laces are based on bobbin laces that were made by hand (alençon, chantilly, etc) but finding hand-made alençon lace is pretty freaking hard.

See the hexagonal ground? Pretty distinctive to hand-done bobbin lace. Same with the leaf-shaped tallies. Machine-made bobbin lace gets pretttyyy close and it takes practice to distinguish them.

Lace making reached its height in the 17th century and since then techniques have developed to make lace faster and more accessible. In fact, in the 17th century French aristocrats spent SO MUCH MONEY on Italian lace that the finance minister headhunted lace makers to establish a French lace industry so the money wouldn’t leave the country.

Irish Crochet developed in the 19th century to mimic Italian needle lace.

Originally a cottage industry, a rich Englishwoman introduced the technique to Ireland as a way for women to make money for their families. Each woman would have one motif that was hers– one leaf, one flower, one swirl– and these would be collected at a school or nunnery and joined together.

Compared to “normal” crochet Irish Crochet is very fine and three-dimensional. It is lush, fluid, and abstract, and can be surprisingly modern.

Normal crochet doily. See the difference?

Some other lace techniques:

Tatting. Developed in the 19th century, very “loopy” and has lots of picots.

Filet. The most pixelated lace form. Hand-made filet is on a knotted net and each square interwoven.

Machine filet is also common but you don’t see the distinct interweaving and the knots at the corners of the net.

(Anecdote– very fine, figural filet is called Lacis, hence the name of my place of employ)

There’s also something called filet crochet but it’s pretty obviously made up of crochet stiches, not a true net.

Teneriffe. The most spidery lace, this is always made up of medallions joined together. It’s made by interweaving thread on a circular grid and then anchoring them in place.

Lastly, knitting. The ground is made up of tiny interlocking ‘v’s and the holes MOSTLY will be separated by two threads twisted around each other. I’ll write something up on “reading” knitting at some point.

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