LACE:  A Thing Sui Generis

“A piece of lace is an artistic composition expressed in twisted thread, just as a piece of wood carving is the expression of the artist’s idea in chiselled wood.  Lace is not, like embroidery, an ornamented fabric; it is itself ornament.  It is not the application of art to a craft; the whole pattern is the fabric, and the fabric is the pattern. “ 

                                                               Thomas Wright,   The Romance of the Lace Pillow, H. H. Armstrong, Olney, Bucks, England, 1919

Wright does miss a key point with the analogy to a wood sculpture.  If the wood sculpture is broken up, it reverts back to wood.  It might as well get tossed on the fire.  Who would pay major money for a chip broken off a cuckoo clock, unless it was an entire carved rabbit or scrolling piece of ivy that becomes a little sculpture in its own right.

Lace cut into pieces still retains a special essence as lace.  Jewelry broken up becomes bits of gold, silver, diamonds and rubies.  Lace is at the same time the diamonds, the rubies, the gold and the silver.  It is the material as well as the thing it is made into, or the thing it decorates.

Is your head spinning and are your eyes rolling back in your head?  You are not alone.  Lace is not easy to understand.

That special quality of being at the same time the material and the object, the decorated and the decoration makes lace a thing sui generis -- like none other.  Lace is an optical illusion.  It is a Chimera -- the mythical beast composed of elements of many creatures, the essence of things wildly imaginative and implausible.  

Consider how lace comes into existence.

Lace is made by manipulating threads:  weaving, knotting, twisting, looping. 

Bobbin lace  linen and half stitch

Bob whole and half376

Center wheel join022

Bobbin lace is a form of free-form weaving, with thread manipulations of weaving, twisting, braiding.

Needle lace builds on buttonhole stitch

NDL buthle377

Needle lace is stitched with a needle and thread, building on variations of the basic buttonhole stitch.

Needle color in process419

Outlining threads are couched down to the lines of the pattern to form a continuous framework. (Couching stitches highlighted in red below.)

Using double threads, splitting the pair and adding in another thread makes it possible to form a continuous framework that will hold together after the lace is removed from the pattern.

Spaces in the pattern are filled with stitches.  Spacing, extra twists, and other manipulations vary the basic buttonhole stitch for decorative effects.

Needle color in proc marked

Crochet is built up with variations of looping stitches.

Crochet -- basic stitches


Filet during after418

Filet lace, or Lacis, is started with a hand-knotted net, and a design is needle-woven over the little square gridwork.  Excess net is then trimed away to finish the lace.  The basic thread manipulations are knotting, needleweaving, and buttonhole stitching along the edge.

Sometimes bits of lace are made with one way of manipulating threads, then those bits are combined with bits made with other very different manipulations, and then those pieces are assembled into objects.  

Some examples:

Needle lace pieces often are joined with bobbin lace pieces.

Space in Duchesse bobbin lace to be filled with needle lace

PDG Erased in Brussels Mixed

Duchesse erased PDG left

Point de Gaze needle lace piece, right, made to fit into Duchesse Bobbin lace piece, left.

Orvieto Irish054

Crochet can stand alone as a form of lace, in many different styles and guises. At the right are Orvieto crochet, top, and Irish Crochet, bottom.

NOVELTY crochet bib380

But often crochet is used as a way of joining other things, such as rickrack, fancy tapes, or bits of tatting, to form lacy objects.  (Bib-like collar, left, and below with crochet joins erased showing the tape.)

NOVELTY crochet erased bkgrnd

This constant mixing of manipulations makes it really difficult to grasp what we might be looking at.  Thread manipulations or an assembly of pieces mady by various ways of manipulating threads?

There are infinite numbers of ways of combining manipulations and bits, and rescuing and recycling and recombining those bits over the centuries.  

When a lace object is made entirely in one method, usually termed a “technique” it may be identified by that “surname”  or family name:  Needle lace, bobbin lace, crochet, knit lace.  The word “technique” however often is used again to refer to specific sets or combinations of “stitches” within the various families.  When a piece of lace is made entirely in a classic style of that lace, it may additionally be assigned a “given” name:  Duchesse bobbin lace, Alencon needle lace, Orvieto Crochet, Irish Crochet.

Only a small proportion of the volumes of lace “stuff” in the attics, museums, and shops fall into those neat categories.  Collars, cuffs, shawls, blouses, veils, bedspreads, tablecloths, napkins, placemats, centerpieces, doilies, whatever and the broken shredded remnants of all those often have been assembled from a variety of manipulations and techniques.

Get a grip on the basic concept of how lace comes into existence, and it becomes much easier to identify and evaluate lace.

single flr erased

--Threads are manipulated to make bits and pieces of lace.

Rosaline doily erased part

--Bits and pieces of lace are combined to make other pieces of lace.

--Bits and pieces of lace are assembled into objects.

Rosaline doily whole387

Lace, like anyting else, has a life cycle.  It wears out, becomes damaged, or goes out of style.  Fragments can be recycled.

Normandy doily393

Recycling bits and pieces of old lace was a very popular craft in the first half of the twentieth century.

Doily at the left includes (color coded below)

-  Cluny bobbin lace edge and side bits (orange).

-  Crochet center (pink).

- Duchesse bobbin lace (blue, top and bottom)

- Valenciennes bobbin lace (green, side and corner bits).

-  Yellow is an applique patch of machine lace.

Normandy doilycolor code

Putting a market value on lace becomes very complex, because there are markets for these objects and bits and pieces all along the chain.  Different people get interested in different aspects.  A small fragment of an unusual technique may excite a collector.  A decorator finding it in a bag of lace may discard it as something too small to be usable.  A collector may discard a small bit of pretty but ordinary lace, a dressmaker may covet it for a purse decoration.

All that is whole other story for a different day.

 It is enough to understand that the universe of lace is a complex and dazzling place.  Get a grip on the basic idea that all lace starts with thread manipulations and builds and rebuilds from there.  Eventually it all will make sense.

The next factor that complicated this universe of lace is terminology.  People have been talking and writing about lace for many centuries in many languages, and by now few agree on exactly what word or label to apply to what aspect of lace.  That whole universe of words and labels will be dealt with in coming articles.  A lot of articles on a lot of different aspects of naming and labeling!

Y'all come back now, y'hear?


June 2013      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014