Being a lingerie designer, I spend a lot of time working with lace. The history and construction of lace fabrics is completely fascinating. While the overwhelming majority of laces today are made by machines, the earliest ones were entirely handmade. These handmade laces can be stunningly light and delicate. The skill required to create such fine and intricate work by candlelight is awe-inspiring.
Needle lace evolved in the 16th century from cut and drawn work embroidery on a fabric ground, called reticella. Reticella is characterized by its adherence to the grid formed by the warp and weft of the underlying fabric. Eventually the stitches were created independently of a fabric ground. This technique was called punto en aria, which literally means “stitch in air.”
Needle laces are created by laying the fil de trace (foundation threads), on a pattern and using small temporary couching stitches to give the work structure. The guide threads are then covered with stitches and the rest of the pattern is filled in. The main stitch used in needle laces is a variation on the buttonhole stitch (which is similar to the knots used to make friendship bracelets, but uses a needle.) After the work is finished, the couching stitches are removed, and the lace is a completely independent structure.
As time went by, improved techniques and rococo fashion (think Dangerous Liaisons) created the demand for lighter, frothier and airier laces. By the 18th century, lighter needle lace styles such as Alençon and Aregntan were fashionable.
The other major type of lace, bobbin lace developed from passementerie braiding techniques.
In order to make a piece of bobbin lace, a set of threads are wound in onto anywhere from half a dozen to several hundred pairs of bobbins. The bobbins are hung in pairs on a firm pillow with straight pins. The design is mapped out on a piece of parchment or card called a “pricking.” The pricking, as its name implies, has holes pricked wherever a pin will need to be inserted in the process of making the lace. The threads are then worked into a variety of stitches over the pricking, with straight pins stuck into the work to hold its shape until the lace is stabilized.
The characteristic bobbin lace stitch is the cloth stitch, or whole stitch, which is an “over 1 thread, under 1 thread” type stitch and resembles a plain woven muslin fabric when completed. This is the stitch used in the filled-in toile sections of bobbin lace. The other basic stitch in bobbin lace is the half-stitch, or lattice-stitch. It has more of an open diagonal “lacy” look to it. These two basic stitches are the foundation for almost all the other stitches in bobbin laces.
The two basic types of bobbin lace are à fils continus, “continuous thread,” which is worked across at once; and à pieces rapportées “non-continuous thread” in which the motifs are made first and then attached to reseau (net ground) afterwards.
Bobbin laces were especially well-suited to the fashions of the 18th century. It was a period of unprecedented social mobility. Sumptuary laws no longer were in effect, the market for finery had opened up to the wealthy merchant classes and an “aristocracy of wealth supplanted the hereditary nobility.” (Boucher 1983, 294) Even the lower classes wore some laces. “Ladies’ maids wore as much lace as their mistresses and peasants put on lace with their Sunday best just like city-dwellers.” (Kraatz and Earnshaw 1989, 74)
The fashions dictated enormous quantities of lace be used for each ensemble. A set of engageantes (sleeve ruffles) for a woman’s dress used over 4 meters of lace. As there were more people than ever before wearing more lace than ever before, the demand was great. Bobbin lace could be manufactured more quickly than needle lace. So while it was still an expensive, luxury item, it was still more economical than the labor-intensive needle laces.
Eventually, the industrial revolution made high-quality machine-made laces available, and with a few notable exceptions, lacemaking became the purview of artists and hobbyists. Luckily, many of the beautiful design conventions of handmade laces exist in contemporary machine laces. Venise and guipure laces made on embroidery machines replicate the look of needle laces, and leavers lace replicates the delicate techniques of bobbin lace on a large scale.