The marriage of Prince William to Catherine Middleton, now the Duchess of Cambridge, has brought lace back into the minds of fashion designers as well as interior designers. Kate’s exquisite wedding gown, designed by Alexander McQueen’s protégée and successor Sarah Burton, featured intricate lace appliqué on the bodice and sleeves. I am intrigued by the sudden interest of lace, and so I decided to dedicate this column to the history of lace.
The birthplaces of lace-making are generally recognized as Flanders and Italy. Although no documentary evidence exists to suggest that lace was made before the 15th century, ancient Egyptian nets with embroidered patterns have been found dating back 1,000 years.
Lace is an ornamental textile formed without the aid of a ground fabric. It is an open work twisted together and sometimes knotted to form a pattern. It is made by hand with bobbins and pins (bobbin lace), with needles (needlepoint lace or point lace), with hooks (tatting) or by machinery. A true lace is created when a thread is looped, twisted or braided to other threads independently from a backing fabric. Originally, lace was made of linen, silk, cotton or metallic threads of gold, silver and copper, and even human hair.
At the time of its origin, lace was one of the greatest extravagances. All lace was handmade and extremely expensive. Social status could be determined by the quality and complexity of lace that was worn. In some regions only people above a certain rank were allowed to wear lace and then only of a certain width according to their status. Inspectors were positioned at city gates and if someone of a low rank tried to enter the city wearing lace which was considered to be too rich for them, their lace was either trimmed down with scissors or burned. Lace was also used by clergy of the early Catholic Church as part of vestments in religious ceremonies.
However, lace was more than just a lavish and highly coveted luxury, afforded only to the privileged. It was also a product of an industry that provided a living to thousands of workers and formed a huge portion of the revenue for many nations throughout Europe.
Colbert, the Minister of Finance for King Louis XIV of France, was so disturbed by the amount of money being spent to import lace that he began to encourage and develop the lace making industry at home. The French then persuaded the best lace makers from Italy and Belgium to settle in France and set up schools in the areas of Alencon, Arras and Sedan to teach the peasants the art of lace making. And so the development of French Lace began.
The lace that is influencing our fashion and interior choices today is anything but old fashioned. The craft continues to evolve and inspire. I hope you have found the history of lace-making interesting, and I look forward to your future questions.