Sort That Stash of Old Lace

A bag or box full of tangled, dirty old lace may look challenging, but it is also one of the most fun treasure hunts.  Old lace is a substance like nothing else on earth.  Where else might you find something from the seventeenth century that might have been worn in the court of Versailles, or brightened the wedding shirt of an Romanian peasant?  A few inches of lace three hundred years old might emerge to be the perfect accent for the costume of an heirloom doll, or be worth tens or hundreds of dollars.

Different markets value lace differently, and a scrap of a rare technique can get a collector’s eyes spinning or pique the interest of a doll collector.


But first the stash must be sorted.  Where to begin?  

When Phillips auction house in London was holding half a dozen auctions of vintage lace and textiles each year, each with dozens or hundreds of lots of vintage lace, I had the opportunity to watch dozens of vintage lace dealers sort through bags and boxes.  Each had their own method, but some things were common.

Each would look for the “pony” in the pile -- the one or few valuable objects that would establish the value of the whole lot.  It might be a collar, perhaps a veil, perhaps dozens of doilies.  Or it might be a pair of eighteenth century headdress streamers (lappets), or a length of bobbin lace from a royal costume.

Dry rotted lace

Things damaged beyond redemption were set aside.  Every lot has a few dry-rotted pieces, dry and crumbling bits fit only for the trash bin.  


They will not be hard to find.  They usually are the color of toast, and feel as dry and crumbly.  

Dealers generally tried to be somewhat secretive about their sorting process. Few would be so bold as to start separate piles that identified pieces that might be sold to collectors, decorators, clothing designers.  

You, however would have the luxury of spreading things.  Just close the cat in a separate room.


Finding a collar should set off a search for matching cuffs.  Finding a single cuff should set off a search for the matching opposite. 


 If you find a yard or two of an interesting border, look for more lengths of the same thing.   

Look carefully.  Some might be attached to shredding fabric.  Another piece might be joined in a loop as a cuff. Putting together a yard or two of matching material even in separate pieces adds value by making usable lengths.


Hand and Machine

Separating the tangled spaghetti bowl of yardage comes next.  (For this task, I built my skills unraveling tangled fishing reels for a five year old nephew.)  A tangled mass can yield some surprisingly valuable pieces.  Learn to take the time to inspect each piece closely and carefully, and seek out the handmade yardage.  There almost always is some.  

The secret of separating handmade from machine is in taking the time to see and understand how the threads were manipulated to make the lace.  The design or pattern will not tell you.  Machines copied handmade lace.  Lacemakers in Bedfordshire copied successful designs from Honiton, Malta, or France -- whatever designs would gain them market share.  Irish Crochet copied Italian Gros Point needle lace.  Hungarian crochet copied Battenberg tape laces.

For starters, see the page on Handmade Vs. Machine Made Valenciennes, one of the laces most often found in stashes found today.  Over time, we will provide similar guides for other laces.  Those who just can’t wait can order a copy of Secrets of Real Lace.

Handmade vs. machine is not the only factor that determines value.  Some superb quality machine made pieces may be impossible to duplicate, and more valuable than badly made handmade that any beginner lacemaker can turn out in a few hours.  

Good Bucks POint Machine

Look for quality in design, technqiue, workmansip, and condition in every piece you evaluate.  The machine lace imitation of fine Bucks Point bobbin lace above certainly measures up in most areas.  Superb quality handmade, however trumps everything. Consider this mid-nineteenth century handmade Mechlin bobbin lace below. It imitates a design more typically expected in Brussels bobbin lace, but in a more delicate form.  It was found in a rag bag destined for ebay, but was rescued along with a matching fragment, washed, and voila, a treasure.  Both of these pieces with be featured in more detail in future LaceCurator stories.

Fab Mechlin overview205

As you sort and look at pieces, think “who cares?”  There are a wide range of markets, and types of people who are interested in old lace:  collectors, crafters, seamstresses, decorators.

When I first started collecting antique lace, I was told there are two types of lace -- market lace, or things hippies could recycle and wear, and collector's lace, the rarified pieces from centuries past that belonged in museums.

The folly in that I discovered the first time I set up a stand to sell vintage lace.  Things I considered to be too good to use were being bought by bridal designers with deep pockets, and collectors with minimal means were gathering up the most menial scraps.

Judge each piece of old lace on its own merits:  design, technique (what skills were needed to make it?) workmanship (how well was that done?)  condition, and rarity.

Design trumps everything.  Few people are willing to pay big for a badly designed piece.  Never, however, say never.  Some of the worst designs can have a quaint charm that might appeal to a collector.

Don't shy away from the task of sortin a stash of old lace, but instead revel in the hunt.  You will be well rewarded.


June 2013      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014