ExhibitionsLace: Stitching in the Air

Museum Exhibition 2003

True lace is a decorative fabric rather than a decorated fabric, however there is no doubt that many lace-making techniques grew out of earlier embroidery techniques.

Early embroiderers withdrew threads and cut holes in their embroidery fabric and filled the spaces thus created with delicate webs made solely with needle and thread. Over the years larger and larger spaces were filled with ever more decorative fillings until the need for a base fabric, laboriously hand-spun and hand-woven, became unnecessary. Threads were simply laid across open spaces on a parchment pattern to form the basis of the needle-made lace. No longer using a base fabric, the embroiderers were now ‘stitching in the air’.

This enabled much greater freedom of design, as patterns no longer needed to follow the strict geometric lines of the woven fabric and free-flowing patterns of great beauty resulted.

The invention of a reliable machine-made net early in the 19th century provided new opportunities for the lace makers. Needle-made and bobbin-made motifs could be applied to the net, obviating the tedious task of making the background net by hand, thus reducing the time spent in the manufacture and the subsequent cost of the lace.

Furthermore, the net itself could be embroidered or appliquéd thus opening up a vast new field of lace-like embroideries.

When the later invention of lace-making machines produced cheaper laces and, to a great extent, excellent imitations of the hand-made laces, it was largely only the embroidered nets that were able to compete.

The mid-19th century saw a revival of an earlier style of lace in which tapes wee laid down (now using machine-made tapes rather than the earlier bobbin-made ones) and linked together with needle and thread, with decorative lace stitches used to fill the voids. This style of lace was produced commercially and was also a popular form of home needlework. The fact that so many partly worked pieces are to be found indicates that the process, although quicker than making lace entirely by hand, was still a rather tedious one for the home needlewoman.

Over the centuries, other lace-like embroideries have been made in many places by embroidering on hand-knotted square mesh net. The net was simply a finer version of the fishing nets on which so many communities depended, so it is little wonder that a way was found to use this net-making skill to embellish clothing and to decorate the home.