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August 9, 2005 > Lace's legacy

Lace's legacy

by Ceri Hitchcock-Hodgson

When looking at lace, most people think of weddings, christenings or doilies on the back of Grandma's couch. Lace is so much more than a simple decoration. It is an art form being kept alive by patient and talented lace makers who see the importance of creating this complicated craft.

Derived from the exquisite and renowned Venetian embroideries of the 1500s, "True Lace" relied on a geometric framework joined by decorative stitches. This early lace style, created by needles, was called "punto in aria" (stitches in air).

During the Renaissance, "passaments" - ornamental braids - were popular and contributed to the growth of the lace industry. Passaments of ribbon, silk and strands of precious materials were created on special looms that used pins to control the position of the threads and weights to avoid tangling. This method evolved into the lace maker's pillows and bobbins.

Books filled with lace patterns helped spread lace making rapidly throughout Italy, Flanders, France and England and girls as young as five were apprenticed to learn the craft. Lace was considered the prime indicator of status during this time and "Sumptuary Laws" were enacted that regulated who could wear it, how much could be worn, and its placement in garments.

Although lace is considered a "feminine" fabric, at the height of its popularity, it was mostly worn by men. In the 16th century, Henry the Third was said to have worn over four thousand yards of pure gold lace as clothing. Numerous laws were passed attempting to stop the "excessive luxury of veils" and smuggling became rampant as lace became more valuable than currency.

From the 1500s to the late 1800s, lace was considered more precious than gold or gems and provided income for entire villages and towns. Some countries outlawed imported lace from other countries to protect their local industry.

During the late 1700s, the art of handmade lace began to wane as machine lace came to the forefront. It was discovered that a machine that made fancy knitted stockings could also produce looped fabric that could be embellished to create affordable lace. The advent of machine lace made it more accessible to the masses and, at the same time, created a special market for handmade lace.

At the height of its popularity, lace making was taught in schools as well as to residents of almshouses (privately financed homes for the poor), orphanages and other charitable institutions. Once the skill was learned lace makers could earn enough to support themselves. Infatuation with lace was confined primarily to Europe and extended to other areas of the world through association with Europeans.

Lace lost its status after WWII however antique lace has seen a resurgence of collection as of late. Hand stitched lace is so intricate and time consuming that some patterns require many hours of work to produce a one square inch of fabric. Antique lace, dating back a hundred years or so, can be priced as much as $200 per yard.

The art of lace making is still very much alive, particularly in the Bay Area. The Lace Museum of Sunnyvale is known worldwide as the place for lace-lovers to go. The area is also lucky enough to have the Golden Gate Lacers, a group dedicated to preserving and creating handmade lace. You can see lace making demonstrations at the popular Art and History at the Park on Saturday, August 13. Ardenwood is located at 34600 Ardenwood Blvd in Fremont. For more information, call (510) 796-0663.

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