Lace Collection

In 1907 Mrs. James W. Pinchot proposed to assemble a collection of arts and crafts for the Smithsonian Institution. To start this endeavor, Mrs. Pinchot and her collector friends loaned or donated over 500 pieces to the National Museum, “many of them old, rare and costly, and covered a very-diversified field of European art craft.”  The primary goal of the first textile exhibit in the newly built Arts and Industry Building was to enable collectors to identify their heirlooms and to create greater interest in the textile arts, by displaying a variety of lace and art textiles—both widely collected at the turn of the twentieth century. The textile exhibition also aimed to highlight women’s contributions in the arts. The original donations of a great variety of fine old European laces form the nucleus of the lace collection at the National Museum of American History. It has grown mostly by generous donations since 1908, and now includes specimens from many parts of the world, numbering approximately 6,000 pieces.

One very special group within the lace collection was made by Belgian lacemakers during World War One, and bought by American collectors to help support the Belgian people through the hardships of the war, while thecountry was occupied by German forces. These fascinating laces and the history behind them can be viewed in the World War One Laces Object Group.

Lace is an ornamental openwork fabric created by looping, twisting, braiding or knotting threads either by hand or by machine. The main categories of handmade lace are needle lace, bobbin lace and decorated nets. Needle lace is created by making looped or knotted variations on the buttonhole stitch with a threaded needle on top of a pattern. Bobbin lace is created by twisting, crossing or plaiting multiple threads wound on bobbins. It is also made on a pattern, called a pricking. Bobbin and needle laces can be combined in the same piece of lace, and handmade or machine made nets can be decorated with various forms of embellishment, including darning or embroidery, or the application of motifs made by needle or bobbins. Among the many other lace-making techniques are tatting, netting, crocheting, knitting, macramé, and sprang.

Decorated nets have existed for thousands of years, but the rapid development of needle and bobbin lace started in earnest in the early 16th century in the Venice and Milan areas of current Italy and in the Flanders area in northern Europe. The very fine linen threads from Flanders, imported silk threads from China as well as gold and silver threads were used to make the fine laces. Cotton was not used for making lace until approximately 1830.

Handmade lace was expensive and highly sought after; the trade in lace always had an aura of mystique and intrigue. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the handmade lace industry played an important part in the economies of many European countries. Members of royalty, the aristocracy, and the Catholic Church were the main consumers for fine laces. Men and women competed to display the most exquisite lace on their fashionable clothes—King Charles I of Great Britain, for example, bought 1600 yards of lace to ornament his shirts.

wedding veil  designed and made for Princess Stéphanie of Belgium for her wedding to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in 1881

This veil was worn by Princess Stéphanie of Belgium in her wedding to Crown Prince Rudolf of Austria in 1881

Sumptuary rules restricting extravagance in consumer goods were in effect very early. Queen Elizabeth I of England passed a law dictating the maximum width of the fashionable ruffs in 1580 and a 1634 law in the Massachusetts Bay Colony prohibited settlers from wearing gold, silver, or thread laces.  These laws were mostly ignored, as the ones in power were the ones demanding lace. However, the sumptuary laws and other bans made smuggling very lucrative. Stories are told about bodies being replaced by lace in coffins before being shipped across borders, dogs being wrapped in lace and covered with a larger hide; hollowed out loaves of bread filled with lace, and many other ingenious ways of getting laces to the rich and powerful.

By the 1660’s the French Treasury was losing huge amounts of money going to Venice for lace. When it became obvious that the numerous embargos and bans levied on lace imports only led to more smuggling instead of stopping the imports, King Louis XIV’s Secretary of the Treasury, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, clandestinely invited around 200 Flemish and some 30 Italian lace workers to upgrade the skills of the lace makers in the French workshops.  The result was an elegant needle lace called Point de France.

Lace merchants grew very wealthy from the upper classes spending enormous sums on lace. Lacemaking was mostly a cottage industry with individual lacemakers working in their homes for a lace dealer, who would supply the threads and patterns and collect the finished lace from the maker. The lacemakers were mostly women and therefore not allowed to form guilds that would protect their livelihood. Children were taught to make lace in orphanages and convents to help them earn a living, and workhouses for the poor and prisons benefitted from incarcerating lacemakers, enabling the prison to sell their lace. A painting by Dirck Santvoort from 1638 shows lace made by prison inmates being evaluated and sold by the Regentesses and Matrons of the prison.  

Producing a piece of lace by hand is very time consuming, making the delicate fabric a very expensive and desirable fashion accessory. In 1685 a cravat (collar) would cost four and a half times the annual salary of a servant8.  The extremely fine linen thread used for Valenciennes bobbin lace in the early eighteenth century made it a very expensive lace. In 1765 a lace worker would have worked 15-hour days for a full year to make one meter (a little over one yard) of a Valenciennes sleeve ruffle or engageante.  A pair of sleeve ruffles would require at least 4 meters, and more for women of higher social standing. At that time the annual wage of the lace maker was less than the customer would pay for one of those meters, or less than a quarter of the cost of a single pair of sleeve ruffles . Even though the lacemakers were very poorly paid, lacemaking still helped thousands of peasant lacemakers support their families in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

By the end of the eighteenth century men had stopped wearing lace, and fashion also changed to a much simpler, unadorned styles for women. The demand for most handmade laces declined, and although nineteenth century women’s fashions did periodically revive the market for lace, handmade lace had to compete with lace fabrics made by machines—some of the earliest automated textile-making machinery developed in the nineteenth century was for manufacturing lace. This effectively spelled the end to much of the handmade lace industry.

Lacemaking in America came mostly with European immigrants, who practiced their craft in communities all over the country. The only well documented large scale handmade lacemaking industry in the US was in Ipswich, Massachusetts in the late 18th century. Ipswich might already have had lacemakers by 1639 as a law from that year decreed “that henceforward no person whatsoever shall presume to buy or sell, within this jurisdiction, any manner of lace, to be worn or used within our limits.”  The Ipswich lace industry is best documented by the white linen and black silk bobbin lace samples made in Ipswich between 1789 and 1790 and sent to Alexander Hamilton as samples of an important industry in the newly established country. However, that also came to an end with the change in fashion and development of the lace machines in the early nineteenth century. Currently lacemaking traditions are being kept alive by modern lace makers who research and create lace as a hobby.