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History-Inspired Patterns
Working with Lace

Working with Lace: A Brief History, Sewing Tips and More

There is perhaps nothing more elegant and history-inspired in fashion than a garment embellished with lace. For the history enthusiast with even the most basic sewing skills, any ordinary white blouse can be transformed into an homage to past fashion trends by simply adding a lace collar or cuffs. Or a plain jumper dress suddenly takes on a Victorian feel when paired with a petticoat trimmed with lace at the hem. So keep reading for a brief history of lace, a primer on the types of lace, and practical suggestions for working with lace.


A Brief History of Lace

The constant drive to make clothing more attractive is responsible for the creation of the finest and most costly trimming we now call classic lace. Lace-making is an ancient craft. Those first steps were taken in the land of the Pharaohs, who used flax cloth decorated with colored threads and worked them into geometric designs. The ancient Greeks and Romans also ornamented their togas with colors or gold. A new garment needed no ornament about the immediate edge, but as it became worn and frayed, the threads had to be twisted and stitched together. Lace was derived from the twisting techniques used in decoration of the fringe ends of woven fabric.

True lace was not made until the late 15th and early 16th centuries. In Flanders, lace is called "kant", meaning border or edge. The birthplaces of lacemaking are generally recognized as Flanders and Italy. A true lace is created when a thread is looped, twisted or braided to others threads independently from a backing fabric. Originally linen, silk, gold, or silver threads were used. Now lace is often made with cotton thread. Manufactured lace may be made of synthetic fiber. A few modern artists makes lace with a fine copper or silver wire instead of thread.

For firm evidence of the origins of lace, written history indicates that Charles V decreed that lace making was to be taught in the schools and convents of the Belgian provinces. During this period of renaissance and enlightenment, the making of lace was firmly based within the domain of fashion. To be precise, it was designed to replace embroidery in a manner that could with ease transform dresses to follow different styles of fashion. Unlike embroidery, lace could be unsewn from one material to be replaced on another. Lace became fashionable on collars and cuffs for both sexes. Trade reached a peak in the 18th century.

Additionally, the vogue for lace also is recorded in pattern books as early as 1540. Early reticella designs usually included pointed or scalloped edges. By the time of Charles I, lace was used extravagantly for both costume and interior decorating; by 1643, lace making had become an established industry. In France patterns became increasingly more detailed and delicate; the light, flowery point de France was used for every conceivable decorative purpose. Later the laces of Alencon, Argentan, and Valencienne exemplified French style and design. The making of bobbin, pillow, or bone lace, which is mentioned as early as 1495, passed from Italy to Flanders, reaching its height of production there in the 18th century.

Machine-made lace first appeared circa 1760, and by 1813, a bobbinet machine was perfected. After 1832, cotton thread somewhat replaced linen. In the 20th century, many lace patterns have been revived and modified, and called Cluny lace. The chief modern centers of lace making are France, Belgium, England, Ireland, and Italy.


Types of Lace

There are many types of lace, defined by how they are made. These include:

(1) Needle lace. Made using a needle and thread, this is the most flexible of the lace-making arts. While some types can be made more quickly than the finest of bobbin laces, others are very time-consuming. Some purists regard Needle lace as the height of lace-making. The finest antique needle laces were made from a very fine thread that is not manufactured today. The most delicate and precious type of needle lace is known as "Rosepoint lace." The pattern is first designed on paper, often reinforced with a piece of tissue, on which the design is realized. The design usually represents a rose or some other flower. To start, the lacemaker elaborates the flower's outline with a thicker thread, so to add relief to the work. The next stage is to fill in the interior of the flower design with much finer thread and a variety of different stitches. A fine handkerchief medallion takes three days' work. To produce larger pieces, all the medallions are sewn together with a thread so fine that it can only be detected by the eye of an expert. A certificate dating from 1922 states that the veil made for Queen Elizabeth required 12,000 of work and is made up with 12,000,000 stitches.

(2) Whitework. There are many types of whitework, but three main methods are usual, including openwork, cutwork and classic whitework. Openwork draws and pulls threads. Norwegian hardanger comes in this category. Cutwork involves cutting out fabric shapes from the background and then neatening the edges in a decorative manner. Broderie Anglaise and Italian Reticella are both cutwork methods of whitework. Classic whitework uses white embroidery stitching of various depths to create soft and darker shadows. This is often down on exceptionally fine cottons such as fine linen, batiste, muslin, organdie or on nets. Typical classic whitework includes Irish Carrickmacross, Scottish Ayrshire which uses pulled threads with embroidery, Dresden and Chikan a floral variety of patterning from India.

(3) Bobbin Lace. As the name suggests, this is lace made with bobbins and a pillow. Bobbin lace is made by using spools called bobbins (as many as 1200 in elaborate examples) and a stuffed pad called a pillow. The pattern is drawn on paper or parchment, and pins are inserted along the course of the pattern, through the parchment into the pillow. The loose ends of threads wound on the bobbins are looped around selected pins, and the bobbins are then passed over, under, or around one another, plaiting, interlacing, and twisting the threads as desired. The patterns may be connected by brides or a reseau. Also known as "Bone-lace."

(4) Tape lace. This term refers to laces that include a tape in the lace as it is worked (or a machine- or hand-made textile strip formed into a design, then joined and embellished with needle or bobbin lace). Through the centuries tape lace has had several names including, mezzo punto, Renaissance lace, and more recently the coarser Brussels tape known as Battenburg. Luxeuil is also famous for tape lace. This is a comparatively quick method of producing lace fabrics using pre made tape lengths mostly now made by machine. The lengths of narrow tape are joined together with connecting hand stitches, worked in an open manner. Machine made tapes have more folded kinks in them because they don't easily navigate corners. Some tapes have a thread running down one side which can pulled to help it curve more. Bobbin made tapes being hand made are usually designed to curve corners more naturally. Washing the item usually reveals differences as machine made laces don't lie so flat after laundering.

(5) Knotted lace; including Macrame and Tatting. Tatted lace is made with a shuttle or a tatting needle. Macrame is an ancient knotting technique which reached Europe in the 8th century when the Moors brought it from the near east. From Europe sailors took the craft all over the world. In the 19th century it gained in popularity and has moved in and out of fashion ever since. It can be used to create fringes, braids and tassels, bags, belts, chair backs and hammocks.

(6) Crocheted lace. Crochet is a chain technique made by catching loops on each other with a crochet hook. Each loop is pulled through another so the whole becomes a chain. The chain is worked into with even more loops one at a time and a fabric forms as chains build up. Pieces can be worked in one continuous thread interlocking on itself and forming a fabric made of chains. The looping arrangements can be doubled and trebled and this creates areas which are more solid or more loopy and lace like in effect or raised to create rich areas of texture. The yarn thread used is important in achieving a particular end result. Crochet is a simple, fast, easy and transportable technique. Probably the most famous crochet technique is Irish Crochet.

(7) Knitted lace, including Shetland lace, such as the "wedding ring shawl", a lace shawl so fine that it can be pulled through a wedding ring.

(8) Machine-made; any style of lace created or replicated using mechanical means.


Tips for Working with Lace

While lace can be a little expensive, nothing makes a statement on a garment like a beautiful piece of lace. And, if you know the right techniques for working with it, there will be no waste. First, choose the best and most appropriate type of lace that you can afford. Consider the fiber content. Cotton laces which have a 10% polyester content for strength in the heading, are more expensive but will last longer and will not yellow with age and laundering. They are much more beautiful than nylon lace to stitch and wear. Nylon lace can melt if it comes into contact with a hot iron. Additionally, consider the type of lace in accordance with the use (i.e., the amount you will need and the placement on your garment). "Alencon lace" is a floral motif on a net background outlined in silken cord, threads or whiskers on the lace. "Chantilly lace" is a soft lace that can be embellished and ruffles nicely. "Guipere lace" is embroidered on a foundation that is later dissolved leaving only motifs. The pattern is usually directional and easy to cut apart and embellished.

Always press lace prior to using it. Position it face down on a terry towel with a silk organza pressing cloth on top of it and press. Waxed paper may be used for pressing lace to restore the quality. Using spray starch, spray on and wait a couple of minutes to soak into the fibers before pressing, and use a pressing cloth. Be careful not to use too much heat and/or steam.

After pressing your lace, you are ready to begin the sewing project. Begin with a full set of pattern pieces in muslin and mark the top edges and side seams, etc. of the pattern. Use wide seam allowances. Position the lace on top of muslin fabric and pin. Allow for generous seam allowances and use small sharp scissors to cut the lace. Double check lace pieces against the border layout. Overlay or piece the lace where lace has been cut or where lace doesn't match the pattern. Mark the fabric underneath; join the two and then treat the layers as one piece of fabric. Pin the lace to the muslin and thread trace with a contrasting thread all the important seam lines.

For lace borders, line up the apex of the scallops (where the scallops come to a point) and place right at the edge of the fabric. Pin and, using a narrow zigzag stitch, stitch the lace onto the fabric or hand stitch. Press to flatten. Finally, shape borders around curves. For a convex curve, pin at apex and shape around fabric to flatten the lace. Trim the netting, trying to avoid cutting through the cords, and then sew by machine or by hand. For a concave curve, cut into lace and spread it out. If the hole is too large, patch it with a little piece of lace.

To create invisible darts on lace, find a leading or a corded edge, overlap the lace, and pin and hand-stitch into place. Trim away the excess lace.

Side seams often need to be pieced. Overlap the lace, pin, hand-stitch and cut away the excess lace.