Thursday, July 21, 2011

Amazing Graceful Lace

Did you know that lace has
a scandalous history?

In the 1990's when I was going through my
 "Victorian decorating phase",
I received a wonderful book
about the colorful history
of this beloved handiwork.

It was so incredibly interesting...
it changed the way I thought about lace forever!

So I thought I would share
a little of its history with you...

Ancient Egyptians and Romans slept on linens
as finely woven as those used by the 16th century Venetians.
In the 1540's Venetian embroiderers began
adding cutwork and lacey embellishments to their linens.

In the 19th century, machine lace was invented,
but for over 300 years it was used
for personal adornment
of aristocratic men and women.

It was enormously expensive to buy
and wealthy noblemen's outfits rivaled the womens
as they festooned themselves
with ridiculous amounts of lace
--- including 4,000 yards for one outfit
worn by Henry III of France.

King Henry III of France . Photo credit:

By the 18th century women had caught up
with their male counterparts and French lace
became so widely popular among the rich
that kings worried about the balance of trade.

They passed laws forbidding
the import of foreign laces.
Smugglers effortlessly began
bringing in their goods
using a wide variety of ingenious ploys
to include baking it into loaves of bread,
or swaddling their laces around babies.

Stealing lace became as widely popular as
stealing jewels -- even more so
since there were no fake versions of lace.

Thieves became so adept at stealing lace,
women were advised to ride in coaches
with their back to the driver so that
robbers could not slash the back of the coach and
grab their lace collars and headdresses from them!

Lace was a beloved adornment of
Catherine de Medicis and Mary Queen of the Scots
who hired poor laborers to produce one inch
of finely detailed lace per day.

The lace makers working conditions
were poor and the quality of their work
was often under tight restrictions.
Pieces could be deemed unacceptable
if haline grasse (bad breath) spoiled the color of the lace
and working near a warm smokey fire was
out of the question. Many lace makers would
spend winter months in cow barns
relying on the warmth of the bovine
to ward off the cold to enable
them to meet tight order deadlines.

The threads they used back then
made our current thread look like a rope!
Their threads were made from flax
which is no longer grown.
The flax threads we have today
are one-fifth as fine as the old threads.

Machine made netting was first available in 1764,
but in 1808 John Heathcoat perfected
a loom that made fabrics
that rivaled the laces made by hand.

As the 19th century progressed,
mills began popping up all over England
and soon the middle classes were able
to buy fine fabrics and textiles.

Soon fine linens were in every well-appointed home.
 Houses were filled with fine fabrics
from top to bottom -- 
including curtains, pillows, towels and bedding,
all machine made affordable and beautiful.

From Tricia Foley's book.... taken by Lilo Raymond.

Vintage or antique linens
brought down from attics or rescued from
antique shops are experiencing a renaissance.
Embued with a sense of romantic history,
these lace treasures are appreciated
for the beauty they bring into our homes.

Also from Tricia's book, taken by Lilo Raymond.

Pretty interesting, right?
Are you a textile or lace collector?

Third and final photo from Tricia's book, taken by Lilo Raymond.

This fantastic book:

Linens and Lace
by Tricia Foley
Copyright 1990
Clarkson N. Potter
New York, New York

(All photos are mine
unless credited otherwise.)


Rebecca said...

So very pretty - a new side to T. Foley (as far as I have "known" her)...

Babs said...

Alison, I love this post!! The first photo of tatting reminds me of my grandmother who tatted. I had taken a couple of photos of the only piece of her's that I have that's finished, and her two tatting shuttles.
The history of lace is so interesting. There is a BBC program called "Lark Rise to Candleford" and one episode mentions bobbin lace and how the character Queeny's hand made bobbin lace was not selling because machine made lace was less expensive. Consequently, her livelihod was threatened.
Sorry, I didn't mean to get carried away. :)
Love all the little bits of history. Thanks for a lovely post.

Buttonchief7 said...

Another good book is Elegant Linens by Chippy Irvine. Thank you for an interesting post.

Amy @MaisonDecor said...

So interesting! I did pick up a lace insert tablecloth from a barn sale yesterday and it is in perfect condition. You know you just can't get this stuff anymore and you can find it for a song in places like antique shops. I love it!

Richard Cottrell said...

I took a class when I was in collage called art needlework and I learned how to make most of the examples you have shown. Of course, I do not remember one stitch as I have not done a stitch since then. It was fun, I was the only man in the class, it was in the Home Ec. department. I really did enjoy it and it was fun. Richard at My Old Historic House

Anita@Theycallmejammi said...

Everything has a history....we should remember that more often as most are extremely interesting and sometimes even scandalous. Thanks for sharing.

lvroftiques said...

Very interesting. I loved learning more about lace and I love collecting it too! *winks* Vanna

Anonymous said...

Oh, wow! That's fascinating! Stealing lace and having to watch your back in case someone were to rip it right off of you?! That is pretty crazy stuff! I feel sorry for all those workers having to produce it, though. Doesn't sound like a pleasant job... :o(

Stitchfork said...

Interesting! I like lace, but more of a textile collector. Do have some great lace pieces - should break them out now and again!
xo Cathy

laxsupermom said...

I have some lace edged linens that were stored in the sideboard that we inherited from my husband's great aunt. It's so interesting to read the history behind the fabric. Thanks for sharing.

Liz said...

You really have some beautiful pieces, thanks for sharing the history behind it...very interesting! XO ~Liz

Pamela Gordon said...

That is so interesting! I really didn't know any history on lace. I love vintage linens and have several with lace or tatting on them. I'm glad they have been preserved although they don't have the value of those original hand made pieces. Thanks for sharing that information. Pamela

Kim @ Savvy Southern Style said...

Nice to know the history. I do collect textiles and have a couple of things with lace, but not a lot.

Ricki Jill Treleaven said...

I actually have that book, and I love it. This post is fantastic! I love learning about lace, too. This year I have read two books about lace and lace lore. One is The Lace Makers of Glenmara, and the other one is The Lace Reader.

You and I are like soul sisters, Alison! :D

Ricki Jill

Sweet Cottage Dreams said...

hi allison! as a matter of fact, i was just reading about how long it took to make bobbin lace just the other day. women worked up to 1200 hours just to make a hankie size piece of lace. amazing story! thanks for sharing with us.

oh, btw, we are fine. thank God i had the sense to NOT open our front door. i saw the man approaching our house and yelled at him to get away...and the sound of a rifle racheting is an excellent deterant as well as an angry woman! ha.


classic • casual • home said...

This was such a fascinating post. Beautiful and educational. Thanks.

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