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The Lure Of Handmade Lace
In 1665 in the old Chateau of Lonrai near lace making Alencon a famous lace was born. Every iota of it was made by needle and thread. It was so delicate a baby's breath would stir it, yet so strong it has lasted centuries. Some of it is under glass in Chicago's Art Institute and in other museums.
Every ribboned swag and oval, every rayed sun with its human faced center, every fruited tree and canopied throne and fancy crown and human figure grew from the needle's point. So did every delicately veined leaf and stem and full blown rose, every flower-some three petals deep and attached only at the heart so the petals fluttered as my lady moved in this shower of fairy flowers caught in the airy netting of her gown! This was Alencon lace, brought to perfection, and to the attention of Louis X1V.
He gave it a christening party in a room hung with crimson damask over which was draped 'this gauzy needlepoint linen lace of net and wide blown roses and fluttering flowers and leaves. "Call it Point de France," Louis said. So it became nobility's elegant collars and cuffs and scarves and "shawls;" the sweeping knee ruffles on my lord's boot tops, and the great shoe "roses" at his insteps. Royal ladies draped their lustrous hair and lovely throats and dainty figures in this semi-transparent, pale flowered netting.
From Europe's Cave Chains to Needlepoint Lace
The cave women of the Swiss Lake Dwellers made and left us fragments of their chained and plaited linen fringes, their nets and their thread patterned linens. Ancient Babylon, Assyria and Egypt sent their gauzy linens, knotted fringes, drawn work edgings, needle made nettings, and fine twined gold and silver throughout their trading world for their women, their kings, and even for Solomon's temple.
Swedish barrows have given up fragments of gold lace. England's St. Cuthbert was buried in 685 with gold lace, and with thread lace showing the ancient Tree of Life pattern-beloved design of ancient Babylonia. Francis I of France delighted in silver and gold lace made at Aurillac from fine metal strips twined about thread. And England's Queen Elizabeth boasted twelve "tooth cloths" edged with gold lace.
Drawn thread work, darned netting, and buttonholed cutwork are considered the forerunners of real lace. This real lace probably grew out of some needle worker fastening linen threads in a pattern to a parchment, and buttonholing over them. At first they were made into squares and circles. Later leaves and flowers were fashioned. All were made with the buttonhole stitch.
In needlepoint lace the spaces between the flowers and leaves or other designs, needed connecting lines to "fill in" a background. These buttonholed over thread lines were called "legs" by the Italians, "brides" by the French. To add "laciness" these "brides" were fancied up with picoting, loops, tiny stars, and flower faces. Then someone fashioned a netting or mesh of open buttonhole stitches, filling in row after row between the flowers and leaves. So needlepoint came to have two backgrounds-brides, and netting.
Needlepoint Lace Was Enriched by Cording and Padding
Padding the pattern and cording the edges gave depth and texture to needlepoint lace, and lights and shadows over the surface, thus adding design interest. Venetian Gros Point lace used heavy cording or padding, buttonholed over, of course. Rose Point lace, named for the many roses scattered through its . pattern, was "grounded" with starred and flowered brides. It was lightly padded. Point plat de Venise lace and Point de Venise were unpadded.
Pillow lace was not made by the needle. It was woven with bobbins on a lap pillow. This pillow lessened the handling and lifted the work to a convenient height. It was stuffed hard to hold the pins which outlined the pattern. Valenciennes lace used a great number of pins as each bobbin thread had to be held in place on the pillow until the whole width of the pattern was worked.
Bobbins were of wood, bone, or ivory. They were longish, shaped much like a wood clothes pin, and carried the thread about their throats. They weighed enough to hold the thread taut when they hung from the pillow while the lace weaver worked with other bobbins. The threads for the ground netting were finest. Those for the pattern were heavier to make the pattern "stand out." Cording for strengthening or outlining the design and edges was heaviest.
Pillow or bobbin lace was woven by twisting and braiding the threads together, and around and past the pins stuck in the pillow. These pin holes gave the veinings to the leaves, moldings to the petals and centers to the flowers. They "broke up" solid spaces and made the design "airier."
Ancient Biblical Lands Knotted Thread Lace
The ancient knotting work of Babylonia and Assyria was probably the forerunner of pillow lace. Modern Jewish torchon lace from Syria shows this inheritance in its peculiar knotting stitch.
France's Valenciennes lace with its gracefully curving leaves and flowers in its delicate net ground is our best known pillow lace. Madame Du Barry used it lavishly on her garments and on the royal bed. To keep its fabric even and its fragile threads from breaking, the finest Valenciennes was woven in damp cellars at tragic cost to young health and eyesight.
England's Honiton, another favorite pilow lace, gave way after the invention of machine netting, to pillow-made flower sprigs applied by needle to the machine netting. Queen Victoria used Honiton for her wedding lace. Britain's Elizabeth II used Honiton for the christening robe of her daughter.
Sometimes needlepoint lace and pillow lace were combined. Brussels lace used either needlepoint netting and brides, or pillowmade net for its background. In early Brussels lace the flowers were worked on the pillow and into the pillow net ground. Recent Brussels lace has the flowers made by many workers then appliqued to the machine-made netting.
Chicago's Art Institute displays the needlepoint and pillow Brussels lace gown given by Princess Cantacuzene, Mrs. Potter Palmer's niece. Its flying flowers, ferny leaves, and full blown roses are as lovely today as when they were made from the gossamer linen thread spun in a damp cellar, with a single candle ray spotting the fairy thread against the dark paper. Even then the thread was so fine it had to be "seen" more with the fingers than with the eyes.
Finest Lace Was Made by Candle Light in Fireless Room
French lace makers of the finest fabrics worked in fireless rooms for fire soot would soil the lace. The only light was a single candle for as many as eighteen workers. This candle was surrounded by half a dozen thin bottles filled with water. These water bottles magnified the candle gleam and threw it on the worker's lace, much like a bull's eye lantern. Too much light dried the delicate thread.
Chantilly's so dearly loved gossamer silk pillow net, with its dots, ribbons, and flowers-in-vases or baskets, died with its guillotined wearers. The Empire revived it. But the German siege of Paris in 1870 ravaged the lace supply, sent it to Germany, and scattered the lace makers.
Empress Eugenie in turn promoted silk blond lace. Spanish beauties used it for mantillas. But only lace workers with extra dry hands could make blond lace without permanently staining it. Winter work rooms were even placed over stables to use the warmth from the animals, yet avoid sweating hands or fire soil, it is said.
Thus the flax crops of the "Garden of Eden," of Egypt and of Europe, produced the art of linen lace which reached its greatest glory for Europe's kings and queens and knights and ladies of the Renaissance. They draped their persons and trimmed their garments with yards of full blown roses and flying flowers.
The magic silk of China, brought to Europe's sunny sections, made its shining laces, gossamer as a winter's breath.
But America's cliff dwellers too, knotted and hooked together nets and laces. One Indian mother made a simple lace jacket which she buried with her baby centuries ago.
Mexico and South America still stitch an airy cotton thread lace of wheels made on a cardboard. This, in Paraguay, is called Nanduit lace. Pioneer United States settlers knitted, tatted, knotted and crocheted lace of both linen and cotton. The crochet hook still makes the best known Irish lace.
Ireland's Kenmare and Youghal needlepoint laces are famous. So too are her Limerick lace of embroidery on net and her Carrickmacross lace of cut cambric appliqued and embroidered on net.
Even now throughout Europe, and especially in France, the bobbins click above lap pillows, fashioning linen lace which, before the days of machine made trimmings, were worth far more than their weight in gold, and which another generation will treasure for their collections.
Collectors watch for transparency, fineness of thread, elaboration of design, and the history of the piece of lace.