Mechlin Lace Makeover Part 2

Part 1 of the story 

Mechlin Makeover:  Travels in Time

introduces this 19th century collar fashioned from fine 18th century Mechlin and Valenciennes lace. This chapter delves into why we should care.

art device 1 HR

Altered.  That one word can signal buyers to avert their eyes and move on to the next lot in an antiques auction, and for collectors to devalue or reject items as they come on the market.  


Lace, however, is a special substance.  No other substance was as intimate with moments in history as lace.  People wore it, slept under canopies of it, sat at dressing tables bedecked with it.  They wore it over armor and atop boots to impress their neighbors, friends and enemies.  Examples that have been silent witnesses to centuries of history still exist today.  

Why collect makeovers? 

For me, there are several reasons, and this Mechlin Makeover is an excellent example of several of them.

MECH MKOVR BACK OC 1748 double frills945

It fascinates me that the lace, originally made in the mid-1700s,  was resurrected to live again, attend more parties, witness more history.  Then there is the matter of seeing how the lace was remade. 

We can trace centuries of the evolution of needlework skills through the darns, patches, and pieceworks.  It is tangible evidence of those qualities -- remarkable handwork skills, respect for true value -- that are the opposite of the overall throwaway society we so lament today.  

With makeovers, we can watch fashions evolve and tastes change.

The Mechlin Makeover started life near the middle of the  1700s -- parts of it as pairs of lappets streaming from an elegantly contrived headdress, other parts perhaps as frills on a court gown.

Victorian 1840s berthe godey

It was remodeled a century later, at a time when machine lace was galloping onto the scene, "real" lace as something available only to the nobility was completely a thing of the past.

Fashion was extremely important but now available to a much wider clientele.  

Lacemakers displaced by machines often turned their needlework skills towards remodeling and recycling old lace that was still "too good to throw away."

How lace pieces were reshaped, and the fact that lace of amazing levels of quality were seen as nothing more than yard goods is also telling of the times. Perhaps an example of loving something to death?

Here in the United States we certainly realize the Victorians thought the supply of everything, animal, vegetable and mineral, was inexhaustable.

How pieces were stitched together tells us something about the skills of the day.  (See Binche Cuff with Dorset Buttons for an example of unique “stitching” with bobbins. )  

This collar was assembled not with bobbin "stitching" but with a needle and thread.

It appears that the outside edges of this piece -- the top, where a narrow edging of Binche finishes it off on the inside and the bottom edge that may or may not have had an additional ruffle of lace -- both were stabilized by rolling the raw edge around a thread and stitching.  This created a smooth even edge.  This is visible where the lace is coming apart.

Mech seam w carry thread

Seam 2608

It is extremely difficult to figure out exactly how the strips were stitched together.  Edges with different profiles had to have been brought together. 

Seam 1607

Scallop and straight for example, raw and finished.  All seams were worked extremely closely with very fine thread.


What is even more curious is that there are so many mends and some patches and some of them appear to have already been in place before the lace was made over into this collar.

Left, overview of the back of the collar. A casual view might overlook the patches.

Backlighting the lace makes them obvious (below).


Mechlin patch in canezou533

The center of the back has several seams, suggesting that several pieces of lace, rather than one long strip, were used to make this key part of the collar.  Lace can be backlit either by holding it up to a window or light or placing it on a light table.

The patch in particular is interesting: it is handmade Mechlin mesh.  That certainly is a clue that the patch was inserted at a time when the handmade mesh was widely available, very likely the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries. 

Mechlin patch XCU534

Darn back mend XCUMECH FLAT OVER

Here is where my typical scheme of judging antiques by design, technique, workmanship, and condition falls apart.  Are we only judging the physical appearance of the item, or are we judging the spirit of the item, and how it connects us to history, and what stories it tells us about the life it appears to have lived?

This large collar, so obviously assembled from strips of lace and bits of 18th century Mechlin bobbin lace lappets, with all of its patches and darns tells us so many stories about life.

It reminded me of the days when my dad would visit my home in Michigan to repair things.  

Ordinarily his work was excellent, but occasionally an out-of-character flaw, perhaps an obvious patch of replacement of a rotting board in the back deck, as obvious as the glaring patch in this lace would show up. At first it frustrated me, until I realized it was his way of reminding me that he had been there and was fixing things.  

How should we judge the design of the collar?   Certainly a makeover that most effectively hides the fact that pieces were repurposed and reshaped shows more skill and ingenuity on the part of the maker that this collection of stripes.

My first reaction is to say this collar was not well designed, because the stripes so obvious scream “makeover.”  From an artistic perspective that is not ideal. Time-travel back to the mid nineteenth century, however, and maybe our judgment should change.  

Comtesse artois lowes943

These lace pieces would have been high fashion during the 1750s, when Madame de Pompadour was the chief mistress and confidante of Louis XV.  They would already be going out of fashion by the time Marie Antoinette married Louis XVI of France in 1770.  It appears they were well worn, mended and patched by the mid-1800s when this collar was fashioned.

Darns and mends are everywhere, and in the center of the back there is that very prominent patch of handmade Mechlin mesh.

What was the aim of the maker, and the wearer?    

In the mid-1800s machine lace was taking over, destroying the market for handmade lace.  Some might have been thrilled to wear the newest, “high-tech” lace, others would prefer “the truliest things.” Perhaps the owner and wearer of this patchwork collar was happy to have something that was a real conversation piece. What fun is it to wear the lace of royalty if no one notices?

All our speculations are folly of course, we can never know for sure.  But it certainly is not impossible that the maker and the wearer were happy to have people know they had access to lace, real lace, that certainly had once been worn by nobility.

So -- why collect patchworks?

The current owner of this long-lived collar perhaps puts it best:   “...I prefer the pieces ... which wear their histories proudly.  We are all damaged goods.  Any human who’s interesting is scarred and flawed and essentially a patchwork, and so with lace…."


Posted August 17, 2013


More stories of fascinating and quirky makeovers are available in "The Many Lives Of Old Lace." 

Click for a link to the book.      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014