Bobbin Lace History - Overview
About Antique Bobbin Lace
© 2009 Lorelei Halley
Bobbin Lace: Two Structural Classes
The earliest unmistakable documentation of bobbin lace is the pattern book of LePompe, published in 1559. The woodcuts are clearly representations of bobbinlace designs, and can even be used still as a basis on which to make bobbin lace. (The full facsimile is available online at http://visualiseur.bnf.fr/CadresFenetre?O=IFN-8622058&M=chemindefer ) There are references in inventories of the late 1400s to "bone lace" which was probably bobbin lace. It is commonly believed that early lace makers used chicken leg bones to wind the thread on and manipulate the threads. However it is also believed that early passamenterie - gold and silver braids meant to be laid onto the surface of velvet or brocade garments - used pig knuckle bones for the same purpose. These passamenterie braids are probably the origin of bobbin lace. We have no way of knowing what these "bone laces" referred to in the inventories looked like.
Contrary to what seems logical, bobbin lace did not start simple and become complex as the years passed. Rather it shows complexity and variety of working methods from the very earliest. The laces in LePompe are of three types: the majority are braid based (plait based) straight laces. Some of these show sections of cloth stitch to vary the texture and thickness of the lines of the design and some show five hole ground (Flanders ground) as the crossing of two braids (4 pairs). The next largest number of laces are tape laces where a meandering strip winds around making loops, and touching itself and attaching to itself (using the part lace structure). Some of these show tiny figures, which can only be made by hanging in and cutting out threads as needed (also using part lace structure). The third type are geometric straight laces where the woodcut shows little diamond shapes. The most likely interpretation of these woodcuts would be torchon type laces (straight lace). See Bobbinlace: Two Structural Classes for an explanation of straight lace/part lace/mesh and guipure. See Lace Terminology for the names of the parts of a lace with pictures .
The history and development of bobbin lace is highly complex and tangled, which makes it fascinating. In very broad terms one can divide its history into a few periods:
1559-1700 Early development of a variety of working methods and styles: Antwerp, Genoese, Milanese. But only very rarely do laces of this age appear in private collections and I have almost no pictures to show you (only some I have made from LePompe patterns or other old laces). (See below for red highlighted kinds.) Many beautiful examples do exist in museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago.
The LePompe style braid/plait based laces developed into Genoese style laces, with tallies made of 6-8 pairs, fans and other motifs. The widest braid laces often have 2 braid crossings worked as 5 hole ground. So grounds may have originated in braid/plait based laces. The tape laces of LePompe developed into Milanese and Flemish tape laces, which began to include fancy decorative stitches in the tape itself. Some of these transformed into part laces, with individual motifs which changed width and required temporary threads to be added. The conceptual origin of the Antwerp straight laces is difficult to identify. Laces from the St. Carolus Borromeuskerk suggest an origin in cloth stitch strips with openwork areas. They may be a development of the torchon laces of LePompe, but are much more complex, with floral and vine-like designs. The complexity is against a torchon progenitor. These laces tended to use Flanders or Paris grounds.
1700-1790 The eighteenth century was the height of lace complexity, delicacy and fine quality in nearly all categories of construction and style.
The city of Mechlin (Malines) in the territory of Flanders became the primary source for straight laces. During the early part of this century many grounds might be found, including Flanders, Paris, Binche snowflakes and snowballs, Valenciennes and Mechlin. Towards the middle of the century the variety of grounds reduced and Flanders ground became the most common, with Mechlin appearing often. Some of these laces used gimp to outline the motifs and make them stand out. Paris, snowflakes and snowballs disappeared as grounds, but continued to be used as fillings. Laces of this type without gimp are often called Valenciennes or Binche, but the designs and working methods were all similar.
Just as the century began one finds tape laces with a curlicue tape wandering through the design, and the tape has pinholes only on one side. In the first decade one begins to see laces with a motif outlined in this narrow kind of tape, and filled with half stitch. In other words, this is the beginning of raised work.
In the early part of the century the headside edge was mostly straight, but shallow scallops began to appear on the edge in the 1720s and became more pronounced in the 1730s and 1740s.
In the early years laces, whether straight laces or part laces, tended to have motifs which covered nearly the whole surface, with very little space given to the ground. As the century progressed this proportion changed, and ground occupied more of the surface area of the design. By c 1750 the division was about 50/50, but by the 1780s ground might occupy 80% of the surface area.
During this period- the 1700s - braid/plait based laces virtually disappeared.
Plain machine made net began to be possible in the 1780s, and the continued proliferation and availability of this clear net began to influence the style of handmade laces and provoked the development of new styles and working methods in bobbin lace. The use of clear machine made net as the background with handmade motifs appliqued onto it, began to be common c. 1825-1850. It also became easily available circa 1820-1840 for use in in hand embroidered laces (darned or chain stitched/tambour), and later.
1790- c.1825 The Napoleonic era. Laces of this period are distinct and quite different in style from earlier laces and are easily recognizable.
They have small repeats -- an inch or less in length -- at the headside, with an expanse of empty ground between the motifs and the footside. The headside was nearly straight. As time went on, small spots began to appear in the ground, at first square tallies dotted in a regular way throughout the ground. As time went on little gimp circles replaced the tallies, then small gimp motifs, then slightly more complex motifs. And the headside became more scalloped, with prominent scallops being the norm in the 1820s. As this happened, the length of the repeat also increased. All these Napoleonic laces used either Mechlin ground or point ground. But as time went on the Mechlin ground was permanently replaced by point ground.
c. 1825-late 19th century. The nineteenth century in general saw various attempts to design laces which would be quicker to work than the 18th century varieties. Point ground laces dominated the mesh straight lace category for this reason. It was much faster to work than the earlier complex grounds like Binche snowflake, Flanders or Paris. Cluny laces were created in the early to mid century following the design style and structure of the Genoese laces in the Cluny museum. These in turn were the source of inspiration for Maltese and Bedfordshire laces. New styles continued to develop, but in general they all show simpler structure which allows for greater speed in working. The primary exception to this was the development of braid based laces in Bedfordshire, especially the Thomas Lester Bedfordshire, which were highly complex, detailed and difficult to make. Rosaline was one of these new styles which attempted to make lace faster. It developed out of Duchesse, and usually uses a pin after 2 edge to its motifs instead of the pin after 4 edge. Designs consist of stylized flowers, leaves and scrolls. It often has needlemade rings (called pops) appliqued, instead of bobbin made raised work which is part of the best Duchesse.
1890-1910 Revival era lace. The time boundaries of this era may not be exactly these years, but was generally the late 19th and early 20th centuries. During this period lace merchants, designers, and teachers were trying to inject life into an old industry, trying to keep it alive amidst clear signs that it was dying. The efforts at designing faster laces, as was done during the 19th century generally, was found to be insufficient to achieve this. They looked at old laces and tried to simplify the designs and working methods to make laces even faster. They resurrected styles that had gone dormant and tried to design new pieces using some of those techniques. For the most part revival era laces are stylistically distinct from their older sources (motif shapes had to appeal to a then modern taste), and somewhat simplified in working methods. When the pieces were made into wearable objects clothing styles had changed since the 18th century and collars had to fit in with modern taste. The shapes of these wearable laces changed from the shapes of the much older laces, and this is often the easiest way to distinguish them from their older parent. But the merchants were trying to compete with machine made laces. This was their mistake. They were trying to sell lace as yard goods; they should have been marketing it as wearable art (or marketing it as modern high priced dress designers market their $20,000 dresses). Much of the lace that modern lacemakers make is derived from these revival era versions.
After the first world war hand made bobbin lace virtually ceased. There still were schools and teachers and some still continued making it, but there was no international trade and its use in fashion ceased, and it ceased to be a way of earning a living.
1970s to present: the New Revival. In the 1970s there began a resurgence of interest in bobbin lace, but by hobbyists, not as a commercial venture. These new lace makers started with the simpler laces, then moved on to the old Revival era types. During the 1980s some designers began researching the old laces in museums and trying to make accurate patterns from these laces. At first they focused on 19th century laces. There were several books published of point ground laces and Bedfordshire laces from small local museums. But during the 1990s, and still continuing, they are studying and documenting the 18th and 17th century laces, making accurate and detailed diagrams of the most complex old laces and thus making them accessible to modern lacemakers. But in addition to all this "retrieval" activity, some are also designing new laces using all the most complex old working methods, but with flower shapes and designs more in keeping with modern taste. This is a very exciting time to be involved in bobbin lace.
Antwerp Pottenkant, Milanese tape lace and Flemish tape lace throw this neat list into disarray because they overlap several periods. Pottenkant was an Antwerp straight lace which started in the mid 1600s, c. 1650. According to Santina Levey it started as a high fashion lace, but fashion changed. The old style continued to be made until about 1850 but the latter 75% of this time period it was sold to the peasantry as part of their costume, especially cap lace; but also was used locally as furnishing lace. This makes it very difficult to date any particular piece with any accuracy. The style stopped changing. It is changes in style and the shapes of the pieces (dictated by fashion) that allow us to date laces. When the lace ceases to follow this pattern of changing styles and shapes you can't pinpoint its time of origin. A somewhat similar situation occurred with Flemish and Milanese tape laces, particularly the latter. They were made continuously from about 1650 to about 1850. But around 1700 the style and delicacy of fashion lace changed drastically. Laces from the old patterns couldn't be sold as fashion laces, but were useful as furnishing linen and for church use.
I have used Santina Levey's book LACE, A HISTORY, published 1983 by the Victoria and Albert Museum to develop my understanding of bobbin lace history. Also, during the 1980s I did a lot of private study at the Art Institute of Chicago, viewing their bobbin lace collection under the microscope. Just prior to the time I started this study Ms. Levey had been invited to identify and comment on their lace collection. So the descriptions of the individual pieces that I heard from the staff were Levey's comments and interpretations. The collection held nearly 1000 pieces of bobbin lace. I saw several hundred, more actual examples than are in her book.
In general there are several factors which one looks at in determining the age and provenance of a particular piece of lace, all factors which change over time and therefore may give clues.
I have divided the photographs between several web pages so each page will load more quickly, while still trying to maintain historic cohesion. Please be patient, there are a lot of photos and some of the pages are slow to load. All the images on these pages are thumbnails, reduced versions of the original photograph. Click wherever you see a hand to view the original image, with all its detail.
For questions and comments go to http://laceioli.ning.com/group/identification-history Joining is free.
Bobbin Lace Bobbin 2 structural classes
1559-1700 Pottenkant/Milanese 18th c Bobbin Lace Napoleonic era
19th c Straight Bar Lace 19th c Straight Mesh Lace 19th c Part Lace
Revival Era Straight Lace Revival Era Part Lace New Revival Era
Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org Last edited: 10/19/13