Mechlin Lace Makeover:  Travels in Time

This frayed and very old collar fairly shouts “I have lived!”

mech flat overview enhancedjpg

It arrived grubbier than Eliza Doolittle fresh from the steps of Covent Garden.  A long soak and careful bath were required before it was admitted to the collection for study.  Balancing the dangers a bath posed to the fragile and aged threads and the dangers its filth posed to it and everything around it, I opted to carefully submerge it and hope for the best. 

(A more thorough discussion of how to support fragile pieces in net for washing, is avaiable in  “Stop, Look, and Think Before You Wash it,”  The Lace Collector Newsletter, Vol. I #3, Summer 1991” )

Even long soaking and very mild detergent left plenty of stains and discoloration -- no instant transformations here.  It is very old, very worn, and looks it.  Yet there is magic in the exquisite motifs of the lace, and even more magic in the time-travels these tattered threads connect us to. 

The lace is remarkably complex, as is the story of this collar.  Pour yourself a glass of wine, relax, and begin the long slog into the labrynth of this fascinating old collar.

It is pretty obvious from the straight lines of seams across the collar that the lace was not made especially for this collar.  The collar was pieced together from strips of more than one kind of lace.

 It is obvious that this lace was worn and used. 

When the lace is as fine as this, with such a dense pattern, it is the first thing I want to look at.  How was it made, and how old is the lace?  Then I want to know more about the piece it was made into.

The color-coded image shows lace from three distinct pieces of lace.  

The front (green) is made up from strips of lace with a definite scallop on one side.  Because the strips overlap, we can’t tell if the other edge is straight or not.  

The shoulders and back of the collar are made up of two others (blue and orange) both with finished, slightly scalloped edges on both sides.  

The designs in these alternating strips match.

trio of bobbin

The design, technique, and workmanship in each of these three pieces of lace will give us clues as to how old the lace is.

The stylized designs evoke floral and scrolling designs without being realistic. The design overall has less than half of the area being background.  This is consistent with lace from the mid 18th century, about 1750 to about 1760.  (Santina Levey's book, Lace, a History, ISBN 090128615X is an excellent reference for seeing images of laces from specific time periods.)

The clothwork, or dense areas that define the design, in all three laces appear to be woven cloth -- threads passing or weaving over and under each other. 

All of the thread manipulations are kinds of weaving, or braiding and twisted threads.  All are typical of bobbin lace.

Now we want to determine what KIND of bobbin lace. We will use the COMBO method outlined in “Be Your Own Sherlock” and look at the basic elements of lace:  Clothwork, Outline, Mesh, Bridges, and Ornament.


First, the lace in the pieces that make up the front stripes.

left pat repEdge pat rep 1jpg

If we match up the short cut sections, (above)

we can see that the design is a mirror-image, with two stylized floral designs separated by sections of small scrolls.  This is very typical of mid 18th century lace designs. 

We can’t tell what both edges look like because of the overlapping strips, but the vertical designs suggests it is an edging scalloped on the bottom edge.

Edge XCU color coded

The clothwork is whole or linen stitch, looking like woven cloth.  Threads from the background go directly into the clothwork.  This is important to note. It defines this lace as a continuous or straight lace, where the background and design all are made at the same time.

The background mesh looks like a tiny checkerboard -- this is the five-hole or cinq-trous mesh typical of early (first half of the 18th century) laces, often used in early Mechlin, Valenciennes and Binche laces. How do we know which this is?

There is no outline or heavy thread (called a "gimp" threas) around the edges of the clothwork. Instead, the clothwork is separated from the background by pairs of twisted threads.  One pair forms an outline, separating the clothwork from the mesh by twisted threads.  This is known as a “ring pair” (red).  It is typical of Valenciennes and Binche lace.

The centers of the scrolls have a filling of little snowballs with a tiny hole in the center, a mesh sometimes called “pigeon-eye”.  This mesh or filling stitch is typical of early Valenciennes and Binche.

Now on to the other two kinds of lace used to make the strips in this collar.

Vertical mechlin designs

The designs in these pieces are decidedly crosswise in this collar, meaning that they were meant to run up and down rather than side to side.

That directional design, and the appropriate width of about 4 or 5 inches, along with the scalloped sides, all suggest these originally were sections of old lappets, or headdress streamers. (Below, Brussels bobbin lace lappets also circa 1750-1760.)

Brussels lappets over641

Mech mesh color coded

The clothwork areas of the lace to the left (also to the left in the collar view above)  are OUTLINED with a heavier gimp thread that separates it from the background, and adds definition to the design. The gimp threads in this lace vary in thickness, as hand-spun threads do, and in some areas almost disappear into the lace.

Each mesh is roughly hexagonal, with braids on two parallel sides and twisted threads on the other four. 

Note also how the threads go directly from the mesh into the clothwork (green). This is the classic Mechlin mesh, and it is characteristic that the mesh is an integral part of the lace, and not added in later.

Darn  little motif COPY606

The lace in the picture to the right (also to the right in the view of the collar section above)  also has the gimp thread outlining the clothwork. Instead of the Mechlin mesh it has a five-hole or cinq-trous mesh.  

This is the same mesh as in the little strips in the front ends of the collar.  The difference here is that there also is a gimp thread outlining the cloth work and other areas of the lace.  This is typical of Mechlin lace.

This lace also is exceptional in the ornamental filling stitches used.

All of these characteristics define the two laces as Mechlin bobbin lace circa 1750-1760.

All three laces, the two Mechlin laces and the Valenciennes or Binche lace were made at about the same time.

Now to take another look at the overall collar, and determine when these mid-18th century laces were assembled into this piece.


How can we determine the approximate age of the collar as it appears today?   The shape of the collar, and how it likely was worn gives us our best clues as to when it was worn.  

I placed the collar on a dress form to see how it falls most comfortably and gracefully. It seems to be more of fichu, or scarf-like collar than a berthe, or off-the-shoulder collar.  

Godey collar640

MECH MKOVR BACK O hi contrast

Either of those shapes would be consistent with a mid nineteenth century date, about a century after the lace originally was made.

It may or may not have had a lace ruffle around the bottom edge when assembled at that time in the nineteenth century.

Godey 1844 fashion fichu

The internet of course is a wonderful place to research styles of different time periods.  Calling up dates and time periods reveals many images that show shapes, accessories, etc.  

More specific to lace, two good reference books available on the internet are:

Lace in Fashion, Fashion in Lace, Wardle and deJong, published by Het Kantsalet in conjunction with an exhibition in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  Undated.

Lace in Fashion, From the Sixteenth to the Twentieth Centuries, Earnshaw. 1985, a Batsford Book. 



Posted August 9 2013

to be continued -- 

Why collect makeovers, how the collar was assembled and more about mends.
      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014