Lace, as we know it, was first seen in Italy and Flanders in the early 16th century where it was used by the Catholic Church for decoration and clerical clothing. Within a hundred years it had become an essential part of the wardrobe of the wealthy. Think of the paintings we see of Kings, Queens and Noblemen of the time, they would all have had large quantities of lace as decoration. The less well off would use lace to adorn their clothes and the same piece of lace could be moved from one garment to another to make it look new.
On the Continent of Europe lace was mainly made in convents and small factories, while in England lace makers worked from home and sold their pieces to visiting lace dealers. It was also produced in the workhouses and often by children as young as six. While middle class women would take up lace making for pleasure, it was mainly big business and was made by the poor for the rich and a lot of the profits went to the middle men. They would sell patterns and threads to the women and often pay them in tokens that could only be spent in their own shops.
There are various lace making techniques and one of the first was needle lace. This involves stitching a pattern to a backing fabric and laying down foundation threads in various motifs. These are then filled with stitches and when the piece is finished the backing is cut off. The other main technique was bobbin lace and this involves winding large quantities of threads around a bobbin, placing a pattern on a pillow of straw and sticking pins into the pattern. The thread is then wound around selected pins and the bobbins are interlaced and twisted.
Both these types were made in large quantities throught the 17th and 18th centuries with changing desigs as we moved from the Renaissance symmetry to rich Baroque and then to the lighter Rococo. Styles were often named after the place where the lace was made and you will find Alencon, point de Venise, Brussels, Chantilly, Honiton and many others. Lace that was made before 1800 would have been made from linen thread while after 1800 it would be predominantly cotton.
The French Revolution in 1789 brought an abrupt end to the French lace industry, as the last thing the French aristocracy wanted to do at that time was draw attention to themselves. With the advent of the industrial revolution handmade lace production also took a back seat in England. English inventor John Heathcoat from Nottingham patented his lace making machine in 1809 and now we had mass production which meant the prices dropped and lace suddenly become affordable for all. Lace fell out of fashion until Queen Victoria’s wedding when there was a brief revival. Social changes after World War I finally put paid to lace as a fashion item and the hand made lace industry throughout Europe more or less died out.
Nowadays lace is still made by enthusiasts and there are still some centres in Europe, especially Bruges in Belgium. There is still steady demand for antique lace bridal veils and there was certainly a lot of it at the Royal Wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton earlier this year. The current crop of fashion designers are also fond of using lace in less traditional ways by adorning T-shirts and knitwear and, as the current trend is for anything vintage, there has been renewed interest in antique lace table and bed linens. Dealers report that the interest is not just from Europe, but Japan and especially America.
If you want to become a collector there are bargains to be had. Bonhams has regular textile sales that include numerous lots of hand made lace, often sold by the bag full and they tend to go between £200 and £400. Prices can be higher than this as well as lower – a large Point de Gaze stole was sold for £1,260 in 2007, while in the same sale a 19th century first communion purse in Maltese lace went for only £24. You might also want to try the antique markets and antique shops where you can often pick up lace collars for as little as £10. You will need to pay more for Venetian, Brussels and French lace, while English and Irish are a little cheaper but still well worth collecting.
When buying antique lace make sure you know whether it is hand or machine made. While machine made lace can be up to 200 years old and very beautiful, it should not cost as much as hand made. If your lace is stained you can carefully hand-wash it and dry it flat. Lace will fade in sunlight, so you should store it in acid free tissue paper and away from direct light.