Be Your Own Sherlock!

When I first started getting interested in collecting lace the focus was on collecting as a traditional sport, like stamp collectors search for a penny blue Mauritius or baseball card collectors look for a 1909 Honus Wagner.  Get one of each, or each of the best, and voila, a collection.

That didn't last long for me.  First of all there was no good scorecard.  What was "one of each?"  Second, no one I talked to or took classes from agreed on labels.  Finally, what I found didn't match any of the above.  

Having been once apon a time, right out of college, a scientist,  I took a totally different approach.  Like Charles Darwin on the Beagle, I began asking "what are the features of these strange creatures I see before me, and what does that mean?"

This shredded table runner is a good example.  Nothing about it fits any of the classic laces defined in textbooks, but the homespun feel and charm of the animals parading around the edge are fascinating. Where on earth was it made, and what made it so unusual?

Ankmal four


I began to channel the inner Sherlock Holmes.  

Anybody can be Sherlock Holmes these days.  The plethora of Sherlocks on TV tells us that.  Even Dr. Watson now is a woman, in a contemporary update of the famed detective series.

The new versions focus on different aspects of the amazingly effective detective.  Style and personality apart, the essence of Sherlock Holmes remains his amazing powers of reasoning, and wide knowledge of many subjects.  He picks up on clues, understands the meaning of those clues in a wide context, and applies them to a solution.

I aim to do that with lace.  For me, applying a label to the lace was never the fun part.  I wanted to know the whole story.  This view was encouraged in my first real "Lace Identification" class taught at an International Old Lacers, Inc. convention by Jules Kliot of Lacis.  Jules brought a lighted-stage microscope to the class, and we freely explored the amazing world of lacemaking, with an emphasis on the remarkable connection of lacemaking to the spirit of humanity.  A new world opened.

So on to how to start becoming your own Sherlock.

First step -- get your brain in gear.  Think while you are looking, and think about what you are seeing.  Being your own Sherlock means keeping lots of things in mind at the same time.

Remember the iconic Sherlock tool?  Get comfortable with magnifiers.  They are an essential tool for viewing lace at flea markets, garage sales, auctions.


Clockwise from top right:  traditional jeweler's loupe is a high power magnifier -- about 10-16x -- and will reveal individual thread manipulations.  This is essential for seeing the clues that separate handmade from machine, and identify meshes of classic handmade lace techniques. 

Two hand-held magnifiers  at the bottom are low-power, usually 2-5x and show some clues but not the most essential. They do, however, show a much wider field than the loupe. Three-way magnifier at top left combines several glasses to offer both low and high power magnification.  Not shown:  Linen tester, also known as a thread counter.  High power like a loupe, but designed to sit on the object being viewed. Other useful tools:  old unused camera lenses serve as good, large magnifying glasses, and with the age of digital upon us, many have become obsolete and inexpensive.

Good jeweler's loupes and other high-power magnifiers are available online at jewelry supply houses, and various science supply sites.

When researching your own home collection, nothing beats a good digital camera or scanner and the ability to view high resolution images greatly magnified on the computer screen.  The lace does not move in and out of focus as it does with hand-held magnifiers, and you can easily move around the image to see different details.

Some purists might argue that the bright light of the scanner might damage the fibers.  I feel it is of such short duration, and the benefits of being able to study the lace endlessly without handling it makes up for any concern.


Tricky ways of looking at lace can reveal a lot. I often will do what I call an "X-Ray" of a piece of lace.  

Holding it up to a bright window, or any way that back-lights the lace will reveal errant lines, heavy lines that indicate remodeling or unexpected seams.

Beyond the tools, we need to know how to approach pieces of lace to analyze them.

It would be useful to read the article in this website "Lace, A Thing Sui Generis".  It addresses the basic way lace comes into existence:  threads are manipulated to make bits and pieces of lace; those bits and pieces may be combined to form larger pieces of lace; various kinds of lace may be assembled into objects.  

Clues exist all along that chain.  Thread manipulations, bits and pieces, the overall object.  All those aspects are important.  

Always consider both the object (fragment,  collar, tablecloth, whatever) and the lace, and how it is used. Is the lace the basic fabric of the object, or is it used to embellish, such as an edging, insert, etc.

Keeping all that in mind, consider: 

- Design.  This offers clues to how old it is, how good it is. Consider the design of the object and the design of the lace that it is made of or that embellishes it.  Always remember:  Design does NOT identify the lace.

- Technique.   Technique is at the level of thread manipulations. This tells us how the lace was made.  What skills were required offers clues as to how good or rare a piece might be. This is where your Sherlock skills with the magnifiers comes into play. 

- Workmanship.  This shows us how well was it made. Offers clues as to whether it was made by a skilled lacemaker, a sweat shop of harried and hurried lacemakers, or a home-made just-have-fun project. 

- Condition.  Original, damaged, recycled, remodeled. The kind of shape the lace is in gives us an idea of what life the lace has lived.

The relationship between all these viewpoints is important.  Top rating in any of these categories is of course good, and top ratings in all make it quite rare indeed.

When looking at the lace, WHERE DO YOU YOUR DIRECT YOUR EYES?

To make sure all the essential parts of a piece of lace are looked at I devised my own memory device, which I call the COMBO method.  The significance of that term "COMBO" is a reminder that combinations of specific elements -- Clothwork, Outline, Mesh, Bridges, and Ornament -- characterize and identify many of the classic collectable vintage lace types. 

These terms I have defined as follows: 



Dense areas that define the design. 

MESH LACEclothblue


Outline -- Edge of the clothwork


                                                                             Mesh -- background filler (below, right)


Bridges or Bars  - background filler, connections between parts of clothwork. (Not every piece of lace uses bridges or bars)



Any of the preceding elements -- Clothwork, Outline, Mesh, and Bridges can be decorated or ornamented.

Clothwork can have decorative elements inside of it. 

Bars can be festooned with picots, and/or they may be arranged in a distinctly decorative way.  


Fancy filling stitches can be used in the middle of flowers or other motifs. 

Other types of lace can have highly ornamented and raised outlines, or combinations of all of the above.

Specific combinations of thread manipulations in each of these elements helps identify many of the classic collectable laces.

Stay tuned as we apply all of these Sherlock methods to try to decipher the secrets of the mysterious Parading Animals runner and many other curious pieces of vintage lace.


June 2013      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014