Carnival of the Animals:  A Bobbin Lace Mystery

This shredded lace runner has befuddled me for decades.  I've never seen anything like it before or since, and I have seen a fair amount of lace.


It was part of the estate of a collector who lived in Douglas, Michigan, just down the road from its sister city of Saugatuck.  During the Arts and Crafts movement at the end of the nineteenth century, Douglas and Saugatuck were noted for their arts, and even today remain the summer playground for Chicagoans.

The estate sale of this collector included not only his excellent lace collection, but exquisite cameos and other fine jewelry, paintings, crystal, silver, fine books.  When he traveled, he always left the suitcases containing his lace collection with a trusted friend -- the only possessions he truly worried about protecting. This piece possibly was not considered part of the lace collection, but maybe something used. Perhaps something brought back as a souvenir from travels?  He was traveling the world in the first half of the twentieth century.

This peculiar ragged piece was the only bit of lace that did not sell for full price at the estate sale.  The estate gave it to me as a gift for helping appraise the lace for the sale.  It remains one of the most baffling pieces of lace I’ve ever handled.

A careful “Be Your Own Sherlock” approach to studying it reveals lots of clues, but no answers.  Even Pat Earnshaw was mystified, but suggested, with a shrug and comment of “what else could it be?” that it might be Greek.  Neither of us had ever seen Greek bobbin lace with a point ground, but I certanly do not have a lot of knowledge of Greek lace.

Let’s review all the clues in the object and in the lace, and hope perhaps someone out there in the wide world of the internet will solve the mystery.

It is a runner or dresser scarf.  The fabric is about 42 inches long and at the widest part of the scallops, about 9 1/2 inches wide.  It has a border of bobbin lace which is about 5 1/2 inches deep, and needle lace inserts about 2 inches across in the embroidered center.  It does appear to be commercially made, and not a home made item.

AnSher LONG overview

The design, technique, and workmanship of the lace and embroidery elements all are fairly simple and straightforward. It looks like a everyday piece for home decorating from early in the twentieth century.

An Sher embcloseup601

The central fabric is embroidered with simple overcast, satin, and seed stitches in a meandering simple floral design.  (Click on image for larger view).

The outside border of lace has been attached to the fabric with very closely worked overcast stitches. (click on image for larger view)

An Sherovercast attach593

An Sher square 2 close591

Five inserts of a needle lace are spread across the center of the fabric.  One has little figures, the others are geometric. 

There is no way of being sure that these inserts were made in the same place as the lace.  It was not uncommon for items to be gathered from various sources to be made into larger composed items.

(click on image for large view.)

Center w figures CU583

An Sher square 3 close592

The border of lace is worked in a fairly coarse cotton thread spun rather loosely. The border with the animals has a point ground, and is finished off with a simple braided, scalloped edge. 

An Sher tally flower602

The inside of the scallops is filled with simple braided lace with a daisy-like flower of long, relativey thin tallies (wheatears.)  The braided inside scallop appears to be stitched to the border.

CLOSE connections581

An Sherconnectlaces600

The animals are worked in a very simple cloth or whole stitch or linen stitch.  The various holes worked in the cloth stitch to define features on the animals are the only ornament.  A heavy gimp outlines the animals, and provides additional detail.

Workmanship of the animals in the bobbin lace -- donkey, elephant, pony, sheep, hound dog, rabbit, and in each corner, a rooster head -- seems to show a lacemaker who cared both about the animals she was depicting and the craft she used to portray them.  

All the critters have attitude and personality: laughing, prancing, contemplating.  The condition obviously is a disaster, but fortunately enough is there to provide lots of clues and information. (click on image for larger view.)

An Sher Donkey over584An Sher elephant close590

Prancing Pony closer580An Sher dog close589An Sher rabbitclose587

An Sherc Rooster w pony596

An Sher Sheepclose586

PI or Column

Finally, what is the significance of the curious shape between the animals.  Does it look just a bit like an Ionic Column?  Or the Greek letter Pi?  Or something else altogether.  

Those are all the clues I could think of to provide on this wonderful imaginative piece.  If there are other views you would like to see, or other questions, please email

This mystery is now turned over the the LaceCurator readers and their lacemaking friends.  The internet now makes it possible for worldwide access.  Do any Greek lacemakers recognize anything familiar in this piece?  What is the relationship beween the animals? Is it just pure fun and whimsey, or is some symbolism or other meaning involved? What is the significance of the pillar-like device that separates the animals in the lace?  And certanly if anyone has anything like this, please send pictures!

Please pass this mystery along, and let me know if anyone has any additional ideas as to where it was made.


July 5, 2013

Comment added July 8, 2013

Hello Elizabeth and everyone

I have a few thoughts to share about the mysterious lace. I had a conversation with a couple of lace friends not on the lace list.

The piece puts us in mind of a dresser-scarf of the Arts & Crafts era.

One of us recalls seeing a photo of lace from either Ceylon or India with animals, and in her collection, owns a hanky with an edging featuring elephants (likely machine-made and likely not from western sources).

Another clue about an Asian source, fine embroidery work was exported to Europe for christening gowns at the end of the 19th C. - mainly from India.

Side notes: The embroidery on this resembles some found on the modern reproductions from China currently being sold to unwary tourists...
La Dentelle published a series of animal laces in the '90's issues and they are quite whimsical, and the mystery lace brought to mind those in La Dentelle.

We wish we could turn up some documentation readily. Only have opinions so far. We think it is Asian made, for export maybe, or to sell to the colonials during the British Raj? The elephants, plus the combination of techniques suggest somewhere on the subcontinent as a source (however, just as readily, it could be a textile made in China by commission from an outside source). The divider-shape could be the Greek symbol pi or just an attractively composed framing element, as part of the overall design?

We might be all wet with these thoughts, but it has been fun to speculate. The closeup detail of each photo is amazing.
Thank you for posting this item, and we'll hope something turns up to solve the mystery!

Bev Walker

Posted July 17, 2013

Hello Elizabeth,

I read with interest both your article and Bev Walker’s comments. I don’t have enough experience to give an opinion about the lace, but unless I’m mistaken, one of the animals (upside down, between the horse and the donkey) is a ram with what looks like a fat tail. Fat-tailed sheep (and similar fat-rumped sheep) are not common here, where most sheep have fairly small tails that often seem to disappear into their coats, but they are quite common in Asia and northern Africa (see ). Hope that helps!

Karen Ann Saunderson

Note:  I didn't realize I had not included a big image of that sheep.  Have added it!  Thanks for pointing that out.

EMK      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014