lace - the history and origins

written by Jean Gibson in 2010

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You Tube video with Jean Gibson of Linen Lace and Patchwork talking about the fascinating and scandalous history of lace


Lace; it's origins and history.

It's hard to believe but an innocuous doilie, now much derided by the fashion police would have been on a par with something like cocaine today but far more expensive. Much sought after and using any means to obtain it no matter how illegal. So smuggling was rife, resorting to putting lace in coffins alongside the corpses, even dismembering them to make more room for the lace. Aristo's weren't beyond a bit of muff-stuffing either - no changes there then.

There are many theories regarding the origins of lace. There is mention of it in the Bible. And early examples found in Egyptian tombs. Lace as we know it probably originated from Flanders or Venice and was an indicator of extreme wealth on a par with gold jewellery. In England it was unheard of until the reign of Elizabeth 1 due to a ban on the imports of Flemish lace. It was certainly a highly desirable item and people often went to extraordinary lengths to obtain it.

A 9" ruff could take an experienced lace maker a year to make, working 10 hour days. So it was prohibitively expensive. And amongst the upper class ladies it was considered a highly-prized virtue if they made their own lace. Very Jane Austen.

To combat countries like Belgium and Italy who produced magnificent lace, the English government actively encouraged home production, hence Honiton lace as well as many in the East Midlands. Queen Victoria chose Honiton lace for her wedding dress and trousseau which helped considerably in making it very fashionable. Crochet, the word is French and means hook. No-one knows the true origins of this art possibly China, Arabia or South America but it was introduced into this country in the 1800's and was considered the poor man's version of more intricate lace. Though Queen Victoria taking up the practice herself alleviated that image to an extent possibly to take her mind off Alberts death or possibly her Ghilly.

Broderie anglais a French word meaning English embroidery, also known as cutwork, was introduced into this country in the 19th century. It's a series of eyelets overcast like a buttonhole using a satin stitch. But has been around for much longer, possibly originating from Czecho-slovakian peasant embroidery around the 9th century.

Battenburg lace is a fairly sturdy construction, much favoured for tablecloths and wedding dresses. It uses woven tapes and elaborate stitching together to form some of the lovely designs. And possible dates back to the 16th century. But given official recognition after Queen Victoria's son in law the Duke of Battenburg , when every Duke had his own lace pattern.

France also had a huge tradition of lace making. And was a favoured pastime amongst the ladies of the aristocracy. But after the French revolution lace was perceived as synonymous with conspicuous consumption and the guillotine. And the fashion for lace died almost overnight.

Highly prized expertise was garnered from Italy and Belgium, the Italian government often using highly dubious methods to stop this drain of lace-making skills. And if an Italian lace maker didn't return to their home country their nearest and dearest would be incarcerated. Work would be found for them - as an inducement - if they did go back, but if they didn't their relative would be executed.

In what may now seem laughable, only people of a certain status were allowed to wear lace at all, and even then only of a certain width. If this width was transgressed inspectors - placed at city gates - would cut them down to size. Quite literally. With a pair of scissors. And may well have been the source of the term 'cut down to size'.


Jean Gibson runs the Linen Lace and Patchwork House, based at her home in South Benfleet, Essex. She has a fabulous range of white lace duvet covers, bedspreads, cushions, doilies, tablecloths and runners. The website also has a wide range of readymade curtains, cushions, seatpads, lace and bedlinens. She is always delighted to help and advise customers on choice and is considered an expert in the art of dressing beds both Antique and Modern. Her telephone number is 01268 793336 or 07767 403276 where she'll be happy to chat about your requirements.

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