Throughout much of fashion history, the socioeconomic symbolism of lace cannot be underestimated. Anyone who reads historical romance understands the significance of any mention of a four-inch lace hem or lace-trimmed ruffles or a froth of lace at throat and cuffs. Lace, intricately patterned and difficult to manufacture, indicated wealth and power, which the nobility sought to preserve for its own. From the 7th century BC to the 17th century, sumptuary laws in Europe, China, Japan, the Arabic countries, and Colonial America enforced social and political hierarchies, regulating who could wear luxury items such as lace and when they could wear them.
The Lace Guild reports literary evidence of lace sometime around the mid 15th century, although “[o]pen woven fabrics and fine nets are known to have existed for centuries.” The Nüw Modelbuch, printed in Zurich in 1561, shows patterns of simple plaited laces that were commonly used to adorn the costumes of the affluent and aristocratic. The book states--and the Guild concurs--that lace was introduced to Switzerland from Italy around 1536.
The 16th century witnessed the rapid expansion of lacemaking, particularly the “development of lace as an openwork fabric, created with a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace).” Lace further evolved from fabric-based openwork to cutwork, which started as “decorative stitching within small space cut out of linen.” The transfer from fabric-based cutwork to parchment-based needlelace allowed manufacturing to break away from geometric patterns and established punto in aria (stitches in the air) to grace the clothing of both genders.
Lace ranges from simple, narrow, 4-strand patterns woven by children to intricate patterns that could span several inches and miles of silk and metallic threads. The Industrial Revolution saw the decline of handmade lace with the advent of John Heathcoat’s machine in 1809 “to produce a wide net fabric that did not unravel when cut.” The production of this fabric gave way to the creation of a new type of lace stitched onto the delicate backing.
By 1870, nearly every kind of handmade lace could be replicated by machine in greater quantities and with tremendous speed. The ready availability of lace resulted in the drastic lowering of the price per yard for lace and the virtual elimination of lace making as a viable cottage industry.
Surprisingly, when one considers the telltale significance in lace as a historic status symbol, literature features little mention of it beyond instruction manuals and histories. Readers seeking to learn more about this fascinating industry can refer to such books as History of Lace by Mrs. Bury Palliser, The Romance of the Lace Pillow by Thomas Wright, and Lace Making and Collecting: An Elementary Handbook by A. Penderel Moody.
Few fiction books focus on lace. We have the children’s tale Little Grey Rabbit Makes Lace by Alison Uttley to the autobiographical novel Lark Rise to Candleford by Flora Thompson. More recently published, The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry is set in Salem, Massachusetts during the infamous witch trials and The Lacemakers of Glenmara by Heather Barbieri fill the reader’s mind with the plaintive voices of oppressed women. LaceNews mentioned another book in a 2010 article, “Lace in Literature--Harry’s Monkey; How It Helped the Missionaries.”