Lace, ornamental, openwork fabric formed by looping, interlacing, braiding (plaiting), or twisting threads. The dividing line between lace and embroidery, which is an ornamentation added to an already completed fabric, is not easy to draw; a number of laces, such as Limerick and filet lace, can be called forms of embroidery upon a more or less open fabric. On the other hand, fancy knitting, however much an ornamental openwork fabric, is not usually thought of as lace, though in some museums it is so classified. Openwork fabrics made on a loom (for example, brocaded gauze) are not considered lace.
Before 1800 the threads of lace were usually linen; after 1800 cotton was more common. Silk and metal thread and occasionally such other materials as wool, aloe fiber, and hair of various kinds were also used.
Almost all laces that have some claim to be called works of art are made in one of two techniques, needle lace and bobbin lace. Needle lace involves a very difficult technique and has seldom been used in folk art or, except at the beginning of its history, by amateurs. Bobbin lace in its simpler forms is a widespread craft and amateur pastime, but the more elaborate laces require the highest degree of skill. There are a number of minor techniques of lace making, including the following: drawn-thread work, or punto tirato; cutwork, or punto tagliato; filet, or network, lace; macrame, or knotted lace; punto a groppo; punto avorio; crochet; and tape lace.
Though ornamented openwork fabrics have been found in ancient Egyptian burial grounds, fully developed lace did not appear before the Renaissance; and, although some of the simple techniques may have originated in the Middle East, the art of lace is a European achievement. Some late 15th-century Italian and Flemish paintings show elaborate hemstitching and narrow lacelike insertions at the seams of linen garments and cushions, which represent the beginning of needle lace. The first bobbin lace is not well documented, but it probably originated early in the 16th century. Whether these lace techniques were developed first in Italy or in Flanders is a question that has remained unresolved. Most authorities, however, agree that needle lace originated in Italy, bobbin lace in Flanders.
By 1550 both of the main kinds of lace and a great deal of cutwork, drawn-thread work, and filet were being made. By 1600 lace, which had begun as a modest ornament for underlinen, was a fabric of the utmost luxury and an important article of commerce. Great quantities of lace were worn by both men and women. The chief centres of production in the 17th and 18th centuries were Italy, Flanders, and France, though lace was also made in Spain, Germany, and England.
In the 19th century the French Revolution and the Industrial Revolution led to great changes in the character of lace. The use of machine net for free-bobbin lace became general soon after 1800, making it considerably less expensive. Lace was no longer worn by men, and during the early part of the century women’s fashions did not call for much of it; when the mode changed about 1840, enormous quantities of lace were readily made. Cotton, a cheaper but less satisfactory material, replaced linen. The design also deteriorated. The chief lace-making centres were Italy, Belgium, France, England, and Ireland. But lace was also made in Spain, Russia, Denmark, Turkey and elsewhere in the Levant, and in South American countries such as Paraguay and Brazil. The introduction of lace making into East Asia, especially China, took place late in the century.
Much handmade lace continued to be produced until World War I, despite increasing competition from machine-made types. A great deal of bobbin, needle, and filet lace was made in China for export to Europe and the United States. But by 1920 the industry was dying everywhere. In the second half of the 20th century, lace was still being made at such centres as Burano and Bruges, but chiefly as souvenirs.