Looking at Lace

Lately, lace is everywhere you look. In December 2013 the de Young Museum opened Lace: Labor and Luxury, a small installation showcasing prints from the Achenbach Foundation of Graphic Arts featuring fashionable lace-wearing men and women alongside fine examples of lace from the costume and textile arts department. Just a few months later, in February 2014, the SFO Museum opened Lace: A Sumptuous History (closing July 14). Drawing on the lace collections from the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley and The Lace Museum in Sunnyvale, this exhibition explores the wide range of laces made over the centuries and their many uses as accessories, trims, fashions, and decorative arts. And with the upcoming International Organization of Lace’s 2014 annual convention coming to Sacramento in August, lace has truly landed in Northern California.

To learn more about lace, curators and collection managers working with lace collections in Bay Area museums gathered in conversation to share insights and observations on this hot topic.

Nicole Mullen, Curator of Exhibitions, SFO Museum, San Francisco International Airport

When I first began working on the exhibition at SFO, I discovered metallic lace—the ultimate luxury. Gold, silver, and other metallic threads were long used for various trimmings and ornamentation prior to the manufacture of lace, so it is no surprise that metallic bobbin lace developed sometime in late 1500s. This luxury edging trimmed skirts, gloves, and adorned jackets. Metallic lace was sold by weight because of the high gold and silver content. Monarchs such as Queen Elizabeth I famously wore metallic lace. In fact, it was worn in such quantities in England and France that sumptuary or regulatory laws were enacted to restrict its importation, creation, and use.

Typically, weavers made metallic threads by twisting fine metallic strips around silk thread; silver plated with gold was most common. Today, not much remains of early metallic lace because it was ultimately melted down to recover the precious metal.

Edgings,  late 1800s–early 1900s. Metallic gold bobbin lace. France. Collection of Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, Berkeley, CA. JTB23789, L2013.3501.057, JTB23779, JTB23791, JTB23775, L2013.3501.057, 058, .059, .095

Kristen Stewart, Curatorial Assistant, Department of Costume and Textile Arts, de Young Museum, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco

What struck me most in the preparation for Lace: Labor and Luxury was the high value placed on laces made of even humble linen threads. In the 17th century, the best laces came from Italy and Flanders. These were so expensive that their popularity with the French court was seen as a threat to the national economy. In 1565, these imported luxury goods were outlawed in France, giving a new meaning to the term “fashion police.” One anonymous author at the time personified the outlawed laces as “heroes” fighting for their place in court in a satirical epic poem titled The Revolt of the Trimmings.

Engraving of grandson of Louis XIV wearing Point de France lace cravat. Gérard Edelinck (Flemish, 1640–1707). After François de Troy (French, 1645–1730). Portrait of Louis, duc de Bourgogne, ca. 1697. Collection of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Dr. Ludwig A. Emge. 1971.17.872

In the poem the imported laces gave up their fight. In reality, in 1665, the French financial minister, Jean Baptiste Colbert, began to lure the Venetian and Flemish lacemakers to France with lucrative employment opportunities. Colbert placed the technical expertise of immigrant lacemakers under the direction of French designers and created a government-backed lace industry renowned for both quality and design.

Flounce, late 17th century. Linen needle lace (point de France). France. Collection of Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. Gift of Mrs. D. L. Wemple. 1984.38.12

Pat Wootton, Director, and Donna LaVallee, Collections Manager, The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA 

War lace is one of the unique highlights featured among the Lace Museum’s rich collection of laces, costume, household items and lace making tools. World War I was devastating for the Belgian people including 50,000 lace makers. All supplies were blockaded and the people were starving. In 1914 Herbert Hoover was asked to solve the problem of the Belgian people. He created the Committee for the Relief of Belgium (CRB) to provide humanitarian aid and income opportunities. His wife, Lou Henry, had a particular interest in the lacemakers.


Table runner,  ca. 1919. Flemish bobbin lace. Belgium. Collection of The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA. 2013.3001.001 (and details)

The hand-made lace industry was already unstable due to competition from machine lace, poor working conditions, and low wages. The CRB arranged to import much needed thread for the lacemakers.  Belgian artists used patriotic heraldic shields and animal symbols of the Allies to augment the beautiful old designs. These laces have been nicknamed “the war laces.” The CRB marketed this lovely, well-crafted lace in Britain and America. That such beautiful lace creations were crafted out of the horrors of war is truly a tribute to the human spirit.


Table cloth, ca. 1919. Flemish bobbin lace and pulled thread embroidery. Belgium. Collection of The Lace Museum, Sunnyvale, CA. 1994.3001.002 (details)

Erin Algeo, Manager and Curator at Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, Berkeley, CA 

When I began working with lace, I encountered two stories about the origin of lacemaking that intrigued me. One involved a princess observing a spider making its web. She became so inspired that she took threads and mimicked the spider, making lace for the first time. She then taught the skill to her ladies-in-waiting. The second story about the birth of lacemaking described lace as originating from the nimble fingers of the wives of Mediterranean fishermen. These women repaired the nets that had been damaged with intricate stitches. Their work was so beautiful that the nets were bought by wealthy passersby.  These two origin stories told me a lot about lace, lacemaking, and lacemakers.

Lace has been a graceful past time, a skill taught to young ladies as a leisure activity, and a money making venture engaged in for sustenance. For most of its existence, lace was expensive and highly sought after. As a result, lacemaking travelled the world, with lacemakers moving from one place to another. Lace styles appeared in pattern books and at world fairs and exhibitions. Manufacturers, wealthy patrons, governments, and churches brought lacemaking to communities to set up cottage industries or factories. 

Lappet, early 18th century, Mechlin bobbin lace made with handspun linen thread.  Collection of Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles, Berkeley, CA.  L2013.3501.057, JTB23779, JTB23791, JTB23775, L2013.3501.057, 058, .059, .095

Love lace? Then be sure to visit the de Young’s Lace: Labor and Luxury, on view now, as well as the SFO Museum’s Lace: A Sumptuous History, which closes July 14. Later this summer, don’t miss the International Organization of Lace Convention in Sacramento from August 3 through 9.