Lace has played a role in fashionable dress ever since it was developed in the sixteenth century. Loosely defined, lace can be any nonwoven, light, openwork fabric, but in historical terms it was created using two tools: the needle and the bobbin. Both techniques were time-consuming and required great skill. As a consequence, lace was extremely expensive. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, when lace became an essential element of fashionable dress, the European courts spent great sums of money to acquire the finest examples. Because of this demand, new techniques were continually developed to make lace production less costly and time consuming. Unfortunately, when machine lace finally came into production in the nineteenth century, lace lost its allure and it developed into just another fashion fabric, often used in lingerie, bridal wear, and evening wear.

Needle and Bobbin Lace Origins

Before needle and bobbin lace developed in the sixteenth century, the term lace referred to the cords that laced separate parts of a garment together, such as the sleeves to the shoulders, or to close the back of a bodice. The cords were made in a variety of methods, including the use of bobbins to braid the threads. The term also referred to braided tapes of metallic thread that often trimmed military uniforms. This use of the word "lace" in this context continued into the eighteenth century, when it also described the woven bands that trimmed servant's livery and the furnishings found in coaches and other vehicles.

During the sixteenth century, the term "lace" found another meaning when it came to refer to bobbin-made insertions that were becoming increasingly fashionable for trimming the undergarments and household furnishings of the wealthy merchants and aristocrats of the renaissance. An insertion was a narrow band that seamed together two pieces of a garment. Like the cords or laces mentioned above, the insertions were placed between the shoulders and the sleeves, and at the shoulder seams. The bobbin technique was adapted to make these narrow flat bands with delicate openwork designs. While linen was often used to make the bobbin lace insertions, colored silk and gold- and silver-metallic thread were also employed.

Embroiderers also adapted their techniques to create insertions. Needle lace, which had its origins in cut-work, an embroidery technique in which a small square of cloth was cut away and the resulting hole filled with a structure created with needle fillings, or buttonhole stitches, became a popular technique for creating insertions. These insertions, constructed in between the grid left after square sections of the base cloth were cut away, had designs with snowflake delicacy and were referred to as reticella or rosette. Reticella insertions were often stitched between the seams of household furnishings, such as table covers, as well as linen undergarments that were becoming an increasingly important component of fashionable dress. Reticella and other forms of cutwork also stood alone or were worked into shirts and shifts, creating the elaborate cuffs, collars, and ruffs seen in portraits of the Elizabethans and their European counterparts. As fashions changed during the last decades of the sixteenth century, the rigid geometry of cutwork was replaced with more free-flowing designs. These were first created by cutting larger squares out of the base cloth and later by developing a new method of creating a base structure to hold the buttonhole stitches in place. Instead of cutting squares out of a ground cloth, narrow tapes or thread were laid on a pre-drawn pattern, and buttonhole stitches were then used to fill in the spaces between the tapes or thread, and thus true needle lace was born.

Lace as Fashion Essential

As bobbin lace, cutwork, and needle laces became more sophisticated, they developed into essential fashion accessories. During the late sixteenth and two succeeding centuries, lace collars, cuffs, borders, ruffles, and headdresses were de rigueur for anyone with fashionable pretensions. While most European nations developed some form of lace industry, the two most important early centers were Venice and Flanders.

Venice developed into one of the first great lace centers during the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Free-flowing designs based on delicate floral vines became popular and were inspired by the textiles and other decorative arts of the countries with whom Venice traded, such as Turkey and China. The second important area for the lace trade was Flanders, where an important linen embroidery trade existed during the sixteenth century. The Flemish supplied small linen and metallic bobbin lace edgings, needle lace edgings, and cutwork, along with embroidered linens. By the seventeenth century, the Flemish became well known for their light, delicate bobbin laces.

Both the Venetian needle laces and the developing Flemish bobbin laces were well suited to new fashions of the seventeenth century that favored flat band collars instead of standing ruffs. Fashionable dress also began to feature softer, lighter fabrics, such as satins and taffetas, as opposed to the heavy velvets of the previous century. Dark colors predominated and provided a suitable surface on which to display the increasingly refined bobbin and needle laces.

In seventeenth-century France, lace became extremely important among Louis XIV's courtiers and, because of France's fashion dominance, thus all the courts of Europe. Courtiers wore flat band collars of heavy Venetian lace that showed off beautifully against the lavish fabrics then in fashion. French courtiers spent huge sums of money, most of which left France for Italy and Flanders, to prepare for obligatory visits to Versailles. Eventually Louis and his finance minister, Colbert, despaired of the large sums of money being spent on foreign lace, and they established a lace industry in France. They brought lace makers from Flanders and Italy to France and settled them in select towns including Sedans, Argentan, Valenciennes, and Alençon. These towns developed distinct styles of lace that are still identified by the names of the towns in which they were made.

By the end of the seventeenth century, fashion again impacted the lace industries as a preference grew for lighter, airier laces. The thicker needle laces of Venice went out of fashion and the bobbin laces of Flanders and the new French centers began to take prominence. One of the reasons for this change was the increasing importance of ruffles that were used to decorate the shirtfronts and cuffs of men's clothing and the skirt fronts, necklines, petticoats, headdresses, and sleeves of women's dress. Complete lace ensembles were made at extraordinary cost and worn by the elite of Europe into the eighteenth century. The 1764 probate inventory of Mme. de Pompadour, mistress of Louis XV, lists many lace accessories, including a set of Argentan-needle lace accessories for a robe de chambre that included dress trimmings, sleeve ruffles, stomacher, neck ruffles, and a cap. The set was valued at 3,000 French pounds, more than a set of seven buttons set with yellow diamonds and rubies that was valued at 2,600 French pounds.

Lace remained an important fashion accessory throughout the eighteenth century, although by the last quarter, designs had begun to simplify and lace with simple net grounds patterned with small floral vines became particularly fashionable. This simplification in the design of lace occurred at the same time that changes in consumerism and technology impacted the fashion and textile trades. Increasing numbers of people aspired to fashionable dress and acquired the means to afford it. This increase in demand coupled with the simplification of design led to the exploration of techniques of production to bring down the cost and the time involved in its manufacture. Along with the development of new machines to spin yarns and weave fabrics, those at the forefront of the industrial revolution experimented with ways to create machine-made nets and laces.

While lace remained a luxury good, available to few men and women before the late eighteenth century, its subsequent history is one of expansion throughout the social classes and an increasing identification with femininity. As men's clothing moved away from the colorful fabrics and luxurious accessories of the previous centuries and democratized with the development of the three-piece wool suit, lace, ribbons, and trims became the purview of women's fashion. Lace developed into a purely feminine fabric that, because of advances in technology, became widely used in lingerie, evening wear, and as accessories. The invention of machine techniques, the increasing development of new hand techniques by which to create lacelike fabrics, such as embroidered nets, crochet, and tape lace, and decreasing expectations among consumers led to lace and lacelike fabrics' widespread availability. Fine laces continued to be made, especially in Brussels, where needle, bobbin, and combination laces and lace accessories were produced. Centers in France were also celebrated for their lace, especially Chantilly, which became famous for its fine black bobbin lace accessories, such as shawls, fan leaves, and parasol covers.

Despite the continued production of handmade laces, the real story of nineteenth-century lace is the development of fine machine laces that could compete with the handmade ones. The first lace machines, developed during the eighteenth century, actually produced fine net, which was then hand-embroidered to resemble lace. It was not until the early nineteenth century, when the jacquard was attached to the net machines, that patterns became possible. Improvements to the earliest lace machines, such as the Pusher and Leavers machines, continued throughout the century. Soon machine lace could compete with some of the finest handmade laces, and lace became available to almost anyone interested in wearing it.

By the middle of the nineteenth century, when lace became a standard fashion element and no longer a luxury good, a renewed interest in historic laces began. Those who could afford to started to collect historic laces and put together large collections of examples dating from the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries. Some, like Mrs. J. Pierpont Morgan, would use their historic laces to trim their Worth gowns and would have stood out from their peers who were wearing mechanically produced laces. Other women restyled historic laces and made them into collars, cuffs, and other fashionable nineteenth-century accessories.

The interest in historic laces at the end of the nineteenth century also led to a revival of handmade lace. Italy, in particular, became a center for training young girls in needle and bobbin techniques. Schools such as Amelia Ars and the Burano Lace School taught young women to reproduce many designs from the past, especially the Renaissance. Their work was so good, that it continues to fool collectors in the early 2000s.

Lace in the Twentieth Century

Craftspeople and artists continued to make lace into the twentieth century. It was taught at art schools in Austria, Germany, Denmark, and Czechoslovakia, where designs followed the then current early-twentieth-century art movements, such as Wiener Werkstaette and the German Secession. By the middle of the twentieth century, artists began to explore the artistic potential of lace, and large hanging sculptures and hangings were made.

While artists and craftspeople continue to explore handmade lace techniques, the twentieth century is the time in which machine lace emerged as a true fashion fabric. Machine lace borders made with the Raschel, Leavers, and Pusher machines were incorporated into many fashionable dresses of the first three decades of the twentieth century. Floral and geometric designs were most common. However, novelty laces also became popular. Clowns, Greek maidens, and even one of Columbus's sailing vessels (used to commemorate the 400th anniversary of his voyage to the Americas) were incorporated into lace designs and could be found trimming women's skirts, bodices, and lingerie. During the 1920s and 1930s bolts of machine lace were produced and became a fashionable fabric out of which designers such as Gabrielle Chanel began to construct luxurious evening dresses. Lace continued to be used as a fashion fabric throughout the twentieth century, enjoying popularity during the 1950s, and again in the 1980s.

Lace continues to enjoy a place in fashionable dress and especially in lingerie. Its light, delicate, feminine qualities make it a fashion perennial, even into the twenty-first century, when the September 2003 issue of Harper's Bazaar proclaimed lace "fashion's most romantic fabric" (p. 364) and dedicated the fashion spread to current designs exploiting its seductive potential.

See also Embroidery; Lingerie.


Levey, Santina. Lace: A History. London: Victoria and Albert Museum and W. S. Maney and Son, 1883.

Levey, Santina, and Milton Sonday. "Contact, Crossover, Continuity: The Emergence and Development of the Two Basic Lace Techniques." In Contact, Crossover, Continuity: Proceedings of the Fourth Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America. Earleville, Md.: Textile Society of America, 1994.

Pfannschmidt, Ernst-Eric. Twentieth-Century Lace. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1975.

Sonday, Milton. Lace in the Collection of the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. New York: Cooper-Hewitt Museum, 1982.

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