Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

Textile Production in Europe: Lace, 1600–1800

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Lace developed from the embroidery technique of cutwork, whereby a design is cut out of a woven cloth and the edges are secured with thread to stabilize the voided design and to provide further decorative texture. During the sixteenth century, the technique of lacemaking was freed from a woven foundation, and became a fabric in its own right. A number of notable pattern books for both needle and bobbin lace were published in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century and these illustrate some of the pictorial designs which became possible using true lace techniques (37.47.2). Examples of lace exist which attest to the fact that these pattern books provided inspiration to numerous lacemakers (33.90.47). There are essentially two methods of making lace: both involve the manipulation of fine linen thread and they are commonly referred to by the names of the tools used. Needle lace requires the use of a single thread and a needle to make stitches one after another which gradually build up a fabric. Bobbin lace uses many threads attached to small bobbins, which are interwoven in various combinations to create a pattern.


High-quality lace was extremely expensive, and was the subject of sumptuary legislation.

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Fashions in lace change markedly during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, from simple geometric edgings of the early seventeenth century, to the Baroque three-dimensional needle lace of the second half of the seventeenth century, to the airy decorated net of the late eighteenth century. As with silk weaving, Italy was the main producer of high-quality, expensive laces during most of the seventeenth century, although Flanders produced fine laces during the late seventeenth century as well. As with embroidery, much professional-quality work was produced in convents in Italy. Venice in particular was known for the marvelously sculptural fabric known as gros point lace (33.90.35). This type of openwork structure was created by working fine linen thread with a needle, in a variety of stitches, building up a network of interconnected textures and patterns.


As with other textile industries, lace production in France was organized and promoted under Colbert beginning in the 1660s. French production was centered in the towns of Valenciennes and Alençon, and Flemish production in Brussels and Mechelen (to name a few). These town names have been adopted to describe particular styles of lace. By the late seventeenth century, the Northern European centers surpassed Italy as producers of the most fashionable designs. Although France was the trendsetter, Flemish laces always rivaled the French due in large part to the unsurpassed quality of their linen thread. The combination of climate, soil, and the skill with which the flax crop was processed in Flanders produced thread with the sought-after qualities of whiteness, fineness, and strength that could not be replicated anywhere else in Europe.


Bobbin lace technique was perfected to such a high degree during the eighteenth century that the pictorial possibilities were virtually limitless (48.41.1). Lace and woven silks were closely related in design during the mid-eighteenth century, with patterned silks displaying ribbons of lace in meandering patterns, and lace designs reflecting those of silks.


The finest laces, both needle and bobbin-made types, required many hours to produce. Even after techniques for "part lace" were perfected and lace could be made in pieces by several workers, each one specializing in one type of stitch or pattern, it was still tremendously slow work. High-quality lace was extremely expensive, and was the subject of sumptuary legislation.


The last quarter of the eighteenth century saw the development of machines for making lace netting. This technology was based on already existing knitting machines and was perfected in the first decade of the nineteenth century. The machine changed the lace industry permanently; while handmade lace continued its status as a luxury item, machines made simple, inexpensive lace available to customers at many economic levels.

Melinda Watt
Department of European Sculpture and Decorative Arts, The Metropolitan Museum of Art