At Large  May 27, 2022  Marissa Lupkas

Handmade Lace & the Forgotten Women Behind the Trade

Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1930. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown, Standing Band (Collar) with Tassels, 1610-1620. Cutwork, needle lace, reticello, punto in aria, embroidery, linen.

From grandma’s doilies to wedding veils to lingerie, the delicate hand of lace embellishes all it touches.

While much of modern lace is loomed by machine, until the mid-nineteenth century, the art of lacemaking was a painstaking and time-consuming craft produced predominantly by women. Despite being a product of a domestic pastime, lace ruled both fashion and international markets for centuries. Flourishing trade and boosting economies, lace was highly sought after by monarchs, clergy, and the working class. Through the study of its inception, tools, and techniques, this article presents a brief history of lace and its unknown makers. 

While there is no academic consensus on when lace was invented, the practice is believed to have emerged in the fifteenth century. It is considered uniquely European, finding roots in Italian tradition. Some of the earliest references can be found in funerary inventories and dowries, while visual evidence was established in paintings such as Hans Memling’s Madonna and Child with St. James and St. Dominic. 

Hans Memling, 1485-1490, The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic, Oil on oak wood, Louvre Museum
wikimedia commons.

Hans Memling, The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic,  1485-1490. Oil on oak wood. Louvre Museum.

Detail of a man whose clothes have lace trimming in Memling's The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic.
wikimedia commons.

Detail of a man whose clothes have lace trimming in Memling's The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic.

Evolving from other domestic fiber art such as embroidery and cutwork, the two distinct lace techniques—needle lace and bobbin lace—emerged simultaneously.

In the simplest of terms, needle lace is constructed by using a single needle, thread, and hundreds, if not thousands, of small stitches to develop the desired design. Punto in aria, or stitch in air, was the earliest form of needle lace with the woven web of thread having the capacity to be snipped from the baseted fabric or parchment. 

Bobbin lace utilizes a pillow, thread, countless pins, and dozens of bobbins; plaiting and twisting the many threads to intertwine its intricate pattern. Most techniques and styles for the lace are named after the cities of their inception, such as Chantilly, Mechlin, Brussels, and Honiton. However, with the growing consumer demand for innovative motifs and quality, the production of city-specific laces could be manufactured in varying regions thanks in part to the accessibility of lace pattern books. 

a pattern book features examples of bobbin lace
 Zentralbibliothek Zürich, RaP 108.

Christoph Froschauer, detail of page 43 in Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschnür (New Pattern Book of All Kinds of Bobbin Laces),1561.

Unknown, 16th-17th century, Lace Border, Needle lace, punto in aria. Purchase by subscription, 1909. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Purchase by subscription, 1909. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown, Lace Border, 16th-17th century. Needle lace, punto in aria.

Unknown, Lace Border, 16th-17th Century. Needle lace.
Gift of Mrs. Edward S. Harkness, 1930. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Unknown, Lace Border, 16th-17th Century. Needle lace.

Unknown, 19th Century, Pillow For Making Bobbin Lace (USA); Gift of Miss Verner E. Clum; 1949-51-1. Cooper Hewitt Museum
Gift of Miss Verner E. Clum; 1949-51-1. Cooper Hewitt Museum.

Unknown (USA), Pillow For Making Bobbin Lace, 19th Century.

La Pompe: Opera Nova and Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschnür (New Pattern Book of All Kinds of Bobbin Laces), gave lacemakers an exemplary template for favored designs; enhancing not only techniques but also introducing and diversifying the breadth of motifs into their repertoire.

Harris Brisbane Dick Fund, 1937. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Giovanni Battista and Marchio Sessa, La Pompe: Opera Nova, 1557. Woodcut.

So, who were the artists behind the lace? The greats that dedicated countless hours of repetitive stitching, twisting, or weaving which spurred a textile revolution and economic growth? Unfortunately, the answer is lost to history. Considered neither artists nor masters, lacemakers were generally average women manufacturing either from their home or within a religious order. Guild representation was also never an option for these makers. As a meditative craft of patience and control, lace-making was associated with the historical tenets of morality and femininity; women were expected to be modest, passive, submissive, delicate, and pious. Nicholaes Maes’ domestic scene, The Lacemaker, emphasizes these notions with the young mother who is simultaneously attentive to her plaiting of bobbins and her young baby. 

The Friedsam Collection, Bequest of Michael Friedsam, 1931. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Nicolaes Maes, The Lacemaker, 1656. Oil on canvas.

Despite its status as a gendered hobby, lace was considered a gender-neutral adornment until the late eighteenth century and was a coveted textile throughout Europe. Starched, stacked, or single collars; cuffs; edging details; and entire gowns—lace knew no bounds. Even restrictive sumptuary laws on the lower classes between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries could not slow the spreading web of the lace market. Epitomizing the dazzling spectacle of lace, Matthias de Visch's copy of Martin van Meytens’ Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa highlights the use of an unfathomable yardage of bobbin lace, giving insight into her remarkable political and economic prowess. The inclusion of so much lace represents the Empress’s identity as a monarch, emphasizes her status, and literally represents the lucrative industry within her domain. Some scholars have suggested that the copious amount of lace was also meant to align the monarch with the idealized feminine and the domesticity associated with the trade.

Matthias de Visch after Martin van Meytens, 1749, Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, oil on canvas, Musea Brugge.
Wikimedia Commons.

Matthias de Visch after Martin van Meytens, Portrait of Empress Maria Theresa, 1749. Oil on canvas. Musea Brugge.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624. Oil on Canvas. The Wallace Collections.
Wikimedia commons.

Frans Hals, The Laughing Cavalier, 1624. Oil on Canvas. The Wallace Collections.

With the gendered undertones of lacemaking, regardless of whether it was produced as a sampler or purchased for elite finery, the politics of this textile can be traced through every stitch and ornamentation. While there are little to no women who can be singled out as leaders of the trade, the legacy of their work lives on. 

Seventeenth-century Dutch poet, Jacob van Eyck summarizes the skill and beauty of hand-made lace-making best: "Of many arts, one surpasses all; the threads woven by the strange power of the hand, threads which the dropping spider would in vain attempt to imitate, and which Pallas would confess she had never known.”  

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