“Of many Arts, one surpasses all. For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, … and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of Kings.”
— Jacob van Eyck, 1651.
After celebrities seemingly competed over who could wear the most future-forward, metallic outfits at the Met Gala, visitors may have been belatedly surprised to find “Manus x Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology” remarkably unlike a dramatic science fair. The exhibition explored the relationship between handmade and machine made fashion, and featured sections on lacework, embroidery, and pleating. The inclusion of such classical elements at an event oozing modernity may have surprised casual onlookers, yet the evolution and adaptation of traditional forms in fashion are what shapes the future. In this essay I will focus on lacemaking, and explore its fundamental composition, history, and modern adaptations.
Lace is a lightweight, openwork web. It is highly decorative and offers no protective or insulating functionality. There are two main types of lace: one made with a needle and thread, and another made with a series of threads and bobbins. Needle-made or needle-point lace, the former, uses a single, continuous thread and is classified as a single element and two single element structure. Bobbin or pillow lace, the secondary form, is created using “a group of many separate threads whose handling is facilitated by the use of bobbins and pillow”(Emery, 56). These separate threads are fixed on one end, weighted by the bobbin at the other end, and create a set-of-elements form. Threads can be a variety of different materials, with linen, silk, and cotton being historically popular choices for handmade lace.
The precise details of when, where, and how lace originated are unknown. Jonathan Janson writes, “Lacemaking as a separate craft is supposed to have its origin in the Middle Ages in Italy. However, some authors assume that the manufacturing of lace began during Ancient Rome, based on the discovery of small bone cylinders in the shape of bobbins.” The earliest reference to lace allegedly appears in the fifteenth century, when Holy Roman Emperor Charles the Fifth decreed lacemaking was to be taught in Belgian schools and convents. Soon, orphanages funded by the Catholic Church also taught lacemaking to provide young girls a skill to support themselves.
Manufacturing lace was a significant source of income and growth for many during this time period. Whole communities were built around and relied heavily on its production. Many anthropologists credit the lacemaking industry as one of the earliest means for a woman’s financial independence. Johannes Vermeer’s painting The Lacemaker (Fig. 1) seemingly acknowledges this, as it depicts a young woman making bobbin lace, thereby paying homage to the medium and recognizing the prevalence of lacemaking in the seventeenth century.
Lace was an extremely expensive, highly prized commodity used for embellishing everything from garments to caps, pillows to tablecloths. A large part of lace’s popularity was its practicality. While impractical as a base or apparel fabric, Lace was a far more practical embellishment than its fashion predecessor (embroidery) since lace could be attached and removed from clothing relatively easily.
At the peak of its popularity, all but the lowest classes donned elaborate ruffs, which each required several yards of costly lace to make. Carolynn from Off The Grid News reports, “Wealthy aristocrats wore lace as a sign of their prestige and style, and young women included lace in their dowries, along with gold and other valuables. The division of lace among family members was even included in wills, and lace was passed from generation to generation.” Lace was a truly precious commodity because of its labor-intensive production.
A significant point in the history of lace is Queen Victoria’s wedding in 1840. At this time, demand for lace had waned. The French Revolution’s destruction of the royal court and its luxury industries reduced lace’s desirability. Further, the Industrial Revolution increased the supply of lace in the nineteenth century. In 1809, John Heathcoat invented a machine that could produce the most tedious element of lace, the mesh ground that did not unravel when cut. A variety of patterned machine laces became available, and soon every handmade-lace had a machine-made copy. But after Queen Victoria chose a white wedding dress adorned with lace over a traditional dress made of heavy silk satin, white weddings, white dresses, and lace-trimmed veils came back in fashion. While she was not the first royal to wed in white, she is credited with the revival of lace’s immense popularity today. White lace today has become emblematic of grace and elegance, with a solidified presence in weddings and haute couture fashion.
Machine made lace largely displaced the handmade lace industry. In the Science Channel’s walkthrough of the modern manufacturing process, viewers see hundreds of nylon or polyester threads become unwound, separated, and configured. Stretched threads are kept untangled in a maintained formation, and are then wound on a large spool called a ground beam. Complex patterns are interwoven with another set of threads into the ground beam, guided in the lace-making machine by a jacquard card.
The lace that emerges from the lace machine passes through a set of mechanical knives that cut loose threads, and a quality checker then reviews the lace for any missed threads or necessary repairs. The lace is dyed, and then treated with chemicals to be softer and resist shrinkage. The product is washed, dried, and finally shipped of in massive reams. The process is completely different than Vermeer’s tedious image of lacemaking, and the end product also incomparable in scale.
Modernization has expedited the production of lace, exponentially increased yield, and debatably risen the quality since designs can now be much more elaborate. In the current fabric market, beautifully complex lace is very inexpensive. Experimentation with alternative materials has enabled artists to further change perception of lace. Gold wire was used historically in manufacturing lace, but the increased accessibility of metal wiring in modern times has broadened the creative landscape. Artists continue push the boundaries of what we consider as lace by creating extremely elaborate, even 3D lace sculptures.
Metal lace jewelry (Fig. 2) uses traditional hand manufacturing techniques but with wires. Artist Lieve Jerger uses copper wire instead of traditional threads to create thought provoking sculptures that juxtapose the soft delicate associations of lace against the hardness of metal. Her sculpture Quantum Lace Cube (Fig. 3) is undeniably modern, yet rooted in the history and creation of lace.
Laser cutting in particular has also revolutionized the concept of lace, as the likeliness of lace is used for decorating apparel, purses, wallets and invitations. Laser cutting can efficiently replicate the intricate look of lace, but without the structure. When this is applied to harder materials, like metals, the concept of “what is lace?” comes to the forefront. Is the process integral in what constitutes as lace? How does material experimentation change our perception of the fabric?
Lace is a traditional art form that allows imagery to be suspended in space. Holes are purposefully worked into the being of the fabric, and the intricacy has charmed people for hundreds of years. Questions of what constitutes as lace have emerged in recent centuries, as the mode to production has evolved. New materials complicate the subject, as products made with lace-making techniques do not necessarily resemble lace, and products made without lace-making techniques can resemble lace. Versatility has always been a foundational element to lace, so the only certainty may be its appearance and influence in alternative forms for years to come.
Fig. 1. The Lacemaker. Johannes Vermeer, 1669-1670
Fig. 2. Bobbin Lace Wire Necklace. Heike S. Mueller
Fig. 3. Quantum Lace Cube. Lieve Jerger, published on the Textile Arts Center, 2010.
Works Cited and Referenced
Emery, Irene. The Primary Structures of Fabrics. Washington: Textile Museum, 1966. Print.
Goldenberg, Samuel L. Lace: Its Origin and History. New York: Brentano’s, 1904. Project Gutenberg. Web.
Janson, Jonathan. “Lace and Lacemaking in the Time of Vermeer.” Essential Vermeer. Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Leader, Jean. “The Origins & History of Lace.” The Lace Guild, Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
The Science Channel. “Lace.” How It’s Made. 21 May 2013. Web. 12 Oct. 2016.
“Manus X Machina: Fashion in an Age of Technology.” The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Web. 11 Oct. 2016.
Mueller, Heike S. “Bobbin Lace with Wire.” Wire Bobbin Lace. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
The Textile Arts Center. “The Lace Princess.” 18 Aug. 2010. Web. 13 Oct. 2016.
 For more information about Manus x Machina see Yotka, Steff. “Inside the Costume Institute’s “Manus X Machina” Exhibition.”
 Goldenberg, Lace: Its Origin and History
 Janson, “Lace and Lacemaking in the Time of Vermeer.”
 See San Francisco Airport Museum, “Lace: A Sumptuous History 1600s–1900s” and Leader, “The Origins & History of Lace.”