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Of Lace

Lace is a term freely used at the present time to describe various sorts
of open ornament in thread work, the successful effect of which depends
very much upon the contrasting of more or less closely-textured forms
with grounds or intervening spaces filled in with meshes of equal size
or with cross-ties, bars, etc. Whence it has come to pass that fabrics
having an appearance of this description, such as embroideries upon
nets, cut linen works, drawn thread works, and machine-woven
counterfeits of lace-like fabrics, are frequently called laces. But
they differ in make from those productions of certain specialised
handicrafts to which from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries lace
owes its fame.

These specialised handicrafts are divisible into two branches. The one
branch involves the employment of a needle to loop a continuous thread
into varieties of shapes and devices; the other is in the nature of
making corresponding or similar ornament by twisting and plaiting
together a number of separate threads, the loose ends of which have to
be fastened in a row on a cushion or pillow, the supply of the threads
being wound around the heads of lengthened bobbins, so shaped for
convenience in handling. The first-named branch is needlepoint
lace-making; the second, bobbin or pillow lace-making. Needlepoint
lace-making may be regarded as a species of embroidery, whilst bobbin
or pillow lace-making is closely allied to the twisting and knotting
together of threads for fringes. Embroidery, however, postulates a
foundation of material to be enriched with needlework, whereas
needlepoint and pillow lace are wrought independently of any
corresponding foundation of material.

The production of slender needles and small metal pins is an important
incident in the history of lace-making by hand. Broadly speaking, the
manufacture for a widespread consumption of such metal pins and needles
does not date earlier than the fourteenth century. Without small
implements of this character delicate lace-making is not possible. It is
therefore fair to assume that although historic nations like the
Egyptian, Assyrian, Hebrew, Greek, and Roman, made use of fringes and
knotted cords upon their hangings, cloaks, and tunics, lace was unknown
to them. Their bone, wooden, or metal pins and needles were suited to
certain classes of embroidery and to the making of nets, looped cords,
etc., but not to such lace-making as we know it from the early days of
the sixteenth century.

About the end of the fifteenth century, with the development in Europe
of fine linen for underclothing, collars and cuffs just visible beyond
the outer garments came into vogue, and a taste was speedily manifested
for trimming linen undershirts, collars and cuffs, with insertions and
borders of kindred material. This taste seems to have been first
displayed in a marked manner by Venetian and Flemish women; for the
earliest known books of engraved patterns for linen ornamental borders
and insertions are those which were published during the commencement
of the sixteenth century at Venice and Antwerp. But such patterns were
designed in the first place for various sorts of embroidery upon a
material, such as darning upon canvas (punto fa su la rete a maglia
quadra), drawn thread work of reticulated patterns (punto tirato or
punto a reticella), and cut work (punto tagliato). Patterns for
quite other sorts of work, such as point in the air (punto in aere)
and thread work twisted and plaited by means of little leaden weights or
bobbins (merletti a piombini), were about thirty years later in
publication. These two last-named classes of work are respectively
identifiable (punto in aere) with needlepoint and (merletti a
piombini) with bobbin lace-making; and they seem to date from about

The sixteenth-century and earliest known needlepoint laces (punto in
aere) are of narrow lengths or bands, the patterns of which are
composed principally of repeated open squares filled in with circular,
star, and other geometric shapes, set upon diagonal and cross lines
which radiate from the centre of each square to its corners and sides.
When the bands were to serve as borders they would have a dentated
edging added to them; this edging might be made of either needlepoint or
bobbin lace. As time went on the dimensions of both lace bands and lace
vandykes increased so that, whilst these served as trimmings to linen,
lace of considerable width and various shapes came to be made, and
ruffs, collars, and cuffs were wholly made of it. Such lace was thin and
wiry in appearance. The leading lines of the patterns formed squares and
geometrical figures, amongst which were disposed small wheel and seed
forms, little triangles, and such like. A few years later the details
of these geometrically planned patterns became more varied, tiny human
figures, fruits, vases and flowers, being used as ornamental details.
But a more distinct change in character of pattern was effected when
flowing scrolls with leaf and blossom devices, held together by means of
little ties or bars, were adopted. Different portions of the scrolls and
blossoms with their connecting links or bars would often be enriched
with little loops or picots, with stitched reliefs, and varieties of
close and open work. Then came a taste for arranging the bars or ties
into trellis grounds, or grounds of hexagons, over which small
ornamental devices would be scattered in balanced groups. At the same
time, the bobbin or pillow lace-workers produced grounds of small
equal-size meshes in plaited threads. This inventiveness on the part of
the bobbin or pillow workers reacted upon the needlepoint workers, who
in their turn produced still more delicate grounds with meshes of single
and double twisted threads.

Lace, passing from stage to stage, thus became a filmy tissue or fabric,
and its original use as a somewhat stiff, wiry-looking trimming to linen
consequently changed. Larger articles than borders, collars, and cuffs
were made of the new filmy material, and lace flounces, veils, loose
sleeves, curtains, and bed-covers were produced. This transition may be
traced through the first hundred and twenty years of lace-making. It
culminated during the succeeding ninety years in a development of
fanciful pattern-making, in which realistic representation of flowers,
trees, cupids, warriors, sportsmen, animals of the chase, emblems of all
sorts, rococo and architectural ornament, is typical. Whilst the
eighteenth century may perhaps be regarded as a period of questionable
propriety in the employment of ornament hardly appropriate to the
twisting, plaiting, and looping together of threads, it is nevertheless
notable for tours de force in lace-making achieved without regard to
cost or trouble. From this stage, the climax of which may be placed
about 1760, the designing of lace patterns declined; and from the end of
the eighteenth to the first twenty years or so of the nineteenth
centuries, laces, although still made with the needle and bobbins,
became little more than finely-meshed nets powdered over with dots or
leaves, or single blossoms, or tiny sprays.

Within the limits of a brief note like the present, it is not possible
to discuss local peculiarities in methods of work and styles of design
which established the characters of the various Venetian and other
Italian points, of the French points of Alencon and Argentan, of the
cloudy Valenciennes, Mechlin, and Brussels laces. Neither can one touch
upon the nurturing of the industry by nuns in convents, by workers
subsidised by State grants, and so forth. It would require more space
than is available to fairly discuss what styles of ornament are least or
most suited to lace-making; or whether lace is less rightly employed as
a tissue for the making of entire articles of costume or of household
use, than as an ornamental accessory or trimming to costume.

Whilst very much lace is a fantastic adjunct to costume, serving a
purpose sometimes like that of appoggiature and fioriture in music,
other lace, such as the carved-ivory-looking scrolls of Venetian raised
points, which are principally associated with the jabots and ruffles
of kings, ministers, and marshals, and with the ornamentation of
priests' vestments, is certainly more dignified in character. The loops,
twists, and plaits of threads are more noticeable in laces of
comparatively small dimensions than they are in laces of great size.
Size rather tempts the lace-worker to strive for ready effect, and to
sacrifice the minuteness and finish of hand work, which give quality of
preciousness to lace. The via media to this quality lies between two
extremes; namely, applying dainty threads to the interpretation of badly
shaped and ill-grouped forms on the one hand, and on the other hand
adopting a style of ornament which depends upon largeness of detail and
massiveness in grouping, and is therefore unsuited to lace. Without
finish of handicraft, producing beautiful ornament suited to the
material in which it is expressed, lace worthy the name cannot be made.

The industry is still pursued in France, Belgium, Venice, Austria,
Bohemia, and Ireland. Honiton has acquired a notoriety for its pillow
laces, many of which some hundred years ago were as varied and well
executed as Brussels pillow laces. Other English towns in the Midland
counties followed the lead chiefly of Mechlin, Valenciennes, Lille, and
Arras, but were rarely as successful as their leaders. Saxony, Russia,
and the Auvergne produce quantities of pillow laces, having little
pretence to design, though capable of pretty effects when artistically
worn. There is no question that the want of a sustained intelligence in
appreciating ingenious hand-made laces has told severely upon the
industry; and as with other artistic handicrafts, so with lace-making,
machinery has very considerably supplanted the hand. There is at present
a limited revival in the demand for hand-made laces, and efforts are
made at certain centres to give new life to the industry by infusing
into it artistic feeling derived from a study of work done during the
periods when the art flourished.


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