Stitching in Air: Handmade Lace

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.

There are two general types of handmade lace: needle lace, which evolved from embroidery techniques, and bobbin lace which is a variation on braiding techniques.

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.”

17th Century <i>Reticella</i> needle lace from the Museum at FIT's textile collection. Photo (C) Larissa King)

17th Century needle lace from the Museum at FIT’s textile collection. Photo © Larissa King

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.

Half-finished needle lace on its pattern from the Museum at FIT's textile collection. 19th Century. Photo (C) Larissa King

Half-finished needle lace on its pattern from the Museum at FIT’s textile collection. The next step would be to fill in the net ground, and then remove the lace from its pattern. 19th Century. Photo © Larissa King

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.

18th century needle lace at the Museum at FIT. Photo ©Larissa King.

18th century needle lace at the Museum at FIT. Photo ©Larissa King.

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.

Contemporary bobbin lace pillow. Photo ©Larissa King

Contemporary bobbin lace pillow. Photo ©Larissa King

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.

Bobbin lace on its pillow Note the design on the pricking, and the quantity of pine required. Museum at FIT's textile collection. Photo ©Larissa King

Bobbin lace on its pillow Note the design on the pricking, and the quantity of pins required. Museum at FIT’s textile collection. Photo ©Larissa King

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)

18th century Mechnlin bobbin lace at the Museum at FIT. Photo ©Larissa King

18th century Mechelen bobbin lace at the Museum at FIT. Photo ©Larissa King

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.

Joseph Blackburn (American, active ca. 1750-1780). Portrait of a Woman, ca. 1762. Oil on canvas, 44 x 35 13/16 in. (111.8 x 91 cm). Brooklyn Museum, Dick S. Ramsay Fund, 50.57 (Photo: Brooklyn Museum, 50.57_SL1.jpg)

Note the extravagant quantities of lace used along the neckline and sleeves in this fashionable ensemble. Portrait of a Woman, Joseph Blackburn, American, active ca. 1750-1780. Oil on canvas. ca. 1762. Brooklyn Museum (Image used under creative commons license.)

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.


Abegg, Margaret. Apropos Patterns for Embroidery, Lace and Woven Textiles. Bern, Germany, 1978.
Browne, Clare, Lace from the Victoria and Albert Museum. London: V & A Publications, 2004.
Boucher, François, 20,000 Years of Fashion: The History of Costume and Personal Adornment. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1987
Cook, Bridget M., and Geraldine Stott. The Book of Bobbin Lace Stitches. Mineola, New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 2002.
Earnshaw, Pat. The Identification of Lace. Buckinghamshire, England: Shire Publications, Ltd., 1994.
. A Dictionary of Lace. Aylesbury, Bucks, UK: Shire Publications LTD, 1982.
. Lace in Fashion: From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries. London: Batsford Ltd., 1985.
Hudson Moore, N. The Lace Book. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Company, 1904.
Jones, Mary Eirwen. The Romance of Lace. London: Staples Press, 1951.
Kliot, Jules & Kaethe, The Art of Netting. Berkeley: Lacis Publications, 1998
Kraatz, Anne, translated by Pat Earnshaw. Lace: History and Fashion. New York: Rizzoli International Publications, 1989.
Levey, Santina M. Lace: A Visual History. London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1983.
. “Lace.” Textiles 5,000 Years: An International History and Illustrated Survey. Jennifer Harris Ed. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1993. 217-223.
Lowes, Mrs. Emily Leigh, Chats on Old Lace and Needlework. London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1908.
Meulen-Nulle, L.W. Lace. New York: Universe Books Inc, 1964.
Page, Eleanor, Lace Making, Pitman’s Craft for All Series. London: Sir Isaac Pitman & Sons Ltd., 1930.
Simeon, Margaret. The History of Lace. London: Stainer & Bell, 1979.
Stott, Geraldine, The Bobbin Lace Manual. London: B.T. Batsford Ltd., 1988
Exhibition Catalogs:
The Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Lace. New York: The Cooper-Hewitt Museum: The Smithsonian Institution’s National Design Museum, 1982.
Thurman, Christa C. The Magic of Lace. Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2001.
Online Sources
The Art Institute of Chicago: Textile Collection images online.
The Kent State University Museum. “Lace: The Art of Needle and Bobbin.”
Marla Mallett. “The Structures of Antique Laces”
Philadelphia Museum of Art. Search the Collections: Textile and lace images online.
Victoria and Albert Museum. Search the Collections: lace images online.

About Hanky Panky

In 1977, designer Gale Epstein created a hand-made lingerie set for her friend, Lida Orzeck, crafted out of embroidered handkerchiefs. The original designs were the inspiration for the company name, Hanky Panky. Blending traditional with modern glam looks, Hanky Panky is a fashion favorite of countless celebrities.
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