Wednesday 31 January 2024

Renaissance lace on Elizabethan dress


This lovely lace on the edge of a ruff is depicted on the Rainbow portrait of Queen Elizabeth, which was painted in about 1600, probably by Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger although there is a possibility that the painter may have been Isaac Oliver; it can be seen at Hatfield House.

Early needle lace developed from cutwork, in which fabric was cut away from a background, leaving a pattern of threads that were then oversewn. Eventually the background fabric was dispensed with and the pattern was laid out in threads which were then joined by stitching. The lace on the edge of her ruff shows a combination of these two types of needle lace, with cutwork on the lower part of the lace and a free edging around the outer part of the lace where the stitches were worked on free loops of thread. Early bobbin lace developed from the plaiting of cords, using thread wound on bobbins, to become a more open design and the figure of eight edging round the bodice may be a plaited cord. Patterns for both types of lace were available in pattern books that circulated widely in western Europe.

This pattern comes from Frederic Vinciolo’s pattern book for needle made laces, first published in France in 1587 and dedicated to his patroness, the Dowager Queen of France, Catherine de Medici, who had brought her knowledge of lace from her native Italy. It is similar to the edging on the Queen Elizabeth’s ruff with two layers of lace patterning and a more freely worked picot edging. This type of work was also known as ‘punto in aria’ (stitches in air) and as the book does not include instructions we must admire the lacemaker who could conjure such wonderful lace seemingly out of the air.  

Wednesday 24 January 2024

Filet lace dress decoration


Filet lace was popular for dress decoration at the beginning of the twentieth century, as these images show, and many were made by the home dressmaker. A special issue of the magazine Needlecraft, dedicated to filet lace, notes that stock collars (high neck collars as shown in these illustrations) ‘give an air of distinction to the simplest dress’. The magazine gives detailed instructions for making these collars, including the types of thread required, how to make the foundation net, and a variety of patterns, from the simple to the intricate.

As well as stock collars, both of the blouses shown here also have a filet trim running from the neck to the waist. One is based on an antique border pattern and the other is composed of square animal motifs. The magazine suggests that longer matching lengths of filet lace could also be made to trim a ‘dainty skirt’. It estimates that about 3 or 4 yards of lace would be required and should be placed 8 inches above the hem. If that doesn’t sound enough work, it also suggests that tucks above and below the lace would form a neat frame for the lace and that the material behind the lace should be cut away so the filet lace ‘shows transparent’. It does not suggest this cutting away of fabric for the lace on the blouse – in fact it explains that the animal motifs are worked in white thread and backed by pale pink material. It also advises that the animal motifs are separated by floral or geometric patterns because ‘too many quaint animal patterns together have a tendency towards the comic, which is most undesirable’.  

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Needle-run lace


Needle-run lace is essentially embroidery on net, which combines the beauty of stitching with the lightness of lace. It can be used to make quite large pieces of lace far more quickly than can be done using traditional handmade bobbin and needle-lace techniques. Needle-run lace was very popular in the early nineteenth century when lace machines could only produce net, but not patterned lace, so lace ‘runners’ were employed to embroider the net to make veils, stoles and collars.

To work needle-run lace the net background has to be stretched in a frame to keep the work taught. The pattern can be drawn in water-soluble ink on to the net or drawn on paper and tacked underneath it.

The design is then worked using a blunt-tipped needle and thread, first by outlining the design in a running stitch and then adding decorative stitches to produce shading. I enjoy making needle-run lace because it allows me to produce quite large pieces of lace with bold designs fairly quickly. For example, I used this technique in the series of mats that make up the body of work in Marriage bond, my research into Amy Atkin, the first female Nottingham machine lace designer who had to give up work on marriage; and you can see an image of one of the mats at the head of this blog.

Wednesday 10 January 2024

Harry Cross: Nottingham machine lace designer


I’ve been interested in the work of Harry Cross ever since I was commissioned to produce a response to his famous Battle of Britain commemorative lace panel and was introduced to the beautiful paintings he made of his designs for that iconic lace. I have written several articles about the Battle of Britain lace panel, but Harry Cross also left an archive of many other machine lace designs for curtains, tablecloths and bedspreads, as well as some beautiful sketch books, and I felt these should be more widely known about, hence my recent article in Text, the magazine of The Textile Society. The image above is a page from that article showing the completed Battle of Britain lace panel and two preparatory designs for it, one of the bombed Guildhall and the other of the lower section of the panel.

However, the focus of the article is not the Battle of Britain panel but rather how Harry Cross went about designing his work. It considers his art school training, and  how he learnt to develop pattern repeats and used his sketchbooks to play with designs and jot down ideas. It then looks at specific examples of his designs for lace fabric, tablecloths and curtains to explore his working practice, showing how he built up designs, how they developed from ideas in his sketchbook and how he presented the options to possible buyers. The final section about the Battle of Britain panel shows how Harry Cross developed his designs for the side columns from photographs of bombed London scenes and how he amended the words from  Winston Churchill’s famous speech about ‘the few’. It was particularly interesting to see how designs were produced before computers were available both for research and for designing.

My thanks to Barbara Cross (the granddaughter of Harry Cross) and the Lace Archive at Nottingham Trent University for access to the archive and The Textile Society for publishing the article.