Guest blog: antique V&A lace on show at Lace Guild in Stourbridge

We like to share the work of other wonderful museums and arts venues across the region, and are delighted to feature The Lace Guild.

The RBSA has a significant number of Members and Associates who work in textiles and many trained or live in the Stourbridge area.

The Lace Guild is currently hosting a nationally important exhibition of lace, Hidden in Stores, in partnership with the V&A.

We take a tour through history, exploring lace making traditions…

Watch any period drama on television and the changing fashions of lace are plain to see. It was once more highly prized than gold and adorned the outfits and homes of only the wealthiest in society.

Prized by Marie Antoinette and the aristocrats of the French court, and later Queen Victoria, who caused something of a revival after her wedding dress featured an elaborate Devon-made flounce and trim, lace was a much sought-after status symbol.

The length of your lappets or the size of your ruff would be a shortcut to gauging your wealth, and lace was the finishing touch that said the most about your status. It was a unisex embellishment, enabling social discourse appropriate to your rank.

Some of the more complex patterns could involve 10,000 stitches per square inch, and a single item could take several years to produce.

Lace was produced by a vast cottage industry across the UK and Europe, largely powered by the wives and children of agricultural workers, each generation learning the craft from their elders. Later, benevolent institutions sprang up and lace became a means of providing employment to the destitute or needy.

To make lace, artists and pattern makers first designed the patterns on paper, and then the lace maker would work directly on the patterns to make the lace. Failing eyesight was common among older lace makers, as you had to possess incredible attention to detail.

Two main types of lace emerged – bobbin lace and needle lace – and centres were quickly established in Italy, Flanders, and France. Needle lace evolved from cutwork embroidery, where designs were cut from a woven cloth – now fabrics were produced using just needle and thread.

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Border, French 19c Point d’Alencon Alcide Roussel © Victoria and Albert Museum

Place names were given to the particular type of lace produced in a village or region, and so we have (to name but a few):

  • Point de Venese
  • Point de Paris
  • Binche lace
  • Milanese Lace
  • Point d’Alençon
  • Honiton Lace
  • Chantilly Lace
  • Point de Gaze

The exquisite work made by rural women and children was sold to dealers who would then make sure they got the highest price. Of course, the workers were only paid a fraction of its market value.

Devon was a hothouse of lace production, particularly bobbin lace, and the East Midlands and the counties of Buckinghamshire, Bedfordshire and Northamptonshire also proved significant centres of excellence.

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Shawl, Honiton circa 1850 © Victoria and Albert Museum

Bobbin lace has a softer look than needle lace and evolved from techniques used to make braids and trimmings for clothing and furnishings. Black lace became popular in the 1800s, with large black shawls, veils, fans and lappets all in demand. The fan was an essential fashion accessory, used not only to assist cooling on hot summer days, but as an aide in courtship.

Lace remained an expensive luxury due to the time it took to produce even a small piece. It was often the most expensive detail in an outfit, used to dress collars, cuffs, shoulders, hands, heads, gowns and furnishings.

Laws were brought in to restrict the importing of lace from other countries – but a thriving black market and network of smugglers and rogue dealers ensured it still got through.

The French Revolution dismantled the French court and all the opulence that surrounded it. Later, the onset of the Industrial Revolution and new technologies gave rise to machine-made lace, invented by an Englishman John Heathcoat. Although this meant the basic mesh ground could now be produced more quickly, the invention ultimately furthered the demise in popularity of more expensive handmade lace.

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Fan Leaf Emma Radford circa 1877 ©  Victoria and Albert Museum

Through the late 19th Century, machine-made lace was combined with applique and other methods of incorporating handmade lace into designs. Simplified needle lace such as Belgian Point de Gaze and French Chantilly ensured ongoing demand for a while. And domestic production was buoyed by homemade tatting and crochet lace.

The onset of the First World War and global economic changes in the first half of the 20th Century sealed the fate of luxury handmade lace. The market turned its attention to antique lace, and individual pieces were recycled and refashioned. In the 21st Century, advances are largely seen through the continued study of lacemaking as part of textiles and design courses, and by a continuing network of global lace aficionados, hobbyists, and devotees.

Visit the Exhibition

Hidden in Stores runs until June 21. The Lace Guild is open Wednesday to Saturday, apart from Bank Holidays, during the exhibition. See their exhibition page for more details!

Workshops taught by national lace experts take place on 27 April, 11 and 12 May, 1 and 2 June, 8 and 9 June, 22 June, at the Red Cone (Sat nav DY8 4AZ), plus 15 and 16 June at the White House Cone (DY8 4FB).

Banner image: Collar, © Victoria and Albert Museum

Sources

Read more about the history of lace here, and here...

Proudlove, C (2016), Right Lace Right Time, in Western Daily Mail, Wednesday March 30, 2016.

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