Lace is fascinating for its changing and divisive role in history. Desired for its beauty and admired for its technical expertise, the best quality was restricted in use for monarchs and nobility. While sumptuary laws during the 1500 and early 1600s claimed to protect local industries, lace actually helped identify social rank of the individual.
The English Queen Elizabeth 1 (1533-1603) highlighted her role, in part, through wearing such luxurious reticella or ‘cut work’ – the early lace of the day. In an age where an extravagant display of wealth helped support a country’s political power, lace assumed a symbolic role.
Long regarded for its delicate beauty and fine craftsmanship, lace appears as part of the exhibition European Splendour 1500-1800– a show that brings art and design together as it explores the changing notions of luxury in Europe.
We have an example of the early needle lace technique. Here Conservator Anne Peranteau uses a hand held microscope to identify the fibre. The geometric pattern with its picot edging helps to define reticella lace.
Preparation for the show involved decisions around its display. Wanting to depict the lace as it may have been worn during the reign of Charles I (1625-49), we looked at creating an acrylic form to support the fabric once it had been prepared by Conservator Rachael Collinge. Object support specialist Callum Strong formed the acrylic outline having created a template of the lace from a scanned image. The acrylic was warmed then shaped over a mannequin to achieve the correct form.
Rachael Collinge attaches the lace to the acrylic form. Photograph by Justine Olsen.
Lace’s popularity continued through into the 17th century, its versatility enabled changes in style and technique as manufacture spread rapidly through Europe. Engravings by van Dyck show the social change that occurred as regulations relaxed. In this etching a young artist from Antwerp wears needle lace decorating his neck and wrists.
From fashionable needle lace, bobbin lace increased in popularity during the mid 1600s. Bobbin lace was made from a large number of threads controlled by bobbins. Below is a later example in which you can see the fine net-like effect in the background. I like the meandering design of the edging although you can also see the repeat pattern too. Imaginative botanical shapes create a whimsical design.
In the image below you can see another display technique used in European Splendour. Here Rachael Collinge stitches the needle lace to the black ground, creating a flat surface on to which you can view the lace closely .
Curator of decorative art and design