Lace, a labour of love

a painting of a woman wearing a white bonnet sitting next to a window, a large lace pin cushion in front of her.

Follow the evolution of lace craft, from myth to machine

Marta Franceschini (opens in new window) (European Fashion Heritage Association)

Many legends surround the origins of lacemaking. On the Italian island of Burano, not far from Venice, it is believed that the fine spray created by the splashing of a mermaid's tail inspired the elaborate motifs enriching plain white cotton, linen and silk. Another even more romantic story dates back to centuries ago. A woman, betrothed to an Adriatic fisherman, received from her fiancé a fishnet interlaced with a web of glistening seaweed. When the man left for war, the girl studied the weave of the beloved gift and reproduced its pattern: so, lace was created, a true labour of love.

a lace ruff laid down on a gray background, the edges of the ruff have intricate lace details

Legends tend to romanticise the technical history related to craft. However, they also allow us to understand the emotional value of these objects. Not only can intricate lacework feel precious to its creators; it is also cherished by those who desire, buy and use these objects in everyday life. In turn, a well-crafted and well-loved piece of lace becomes heritage, a testimony of the past and a legacy for the future.

Venice seems to be indeed the very first place where lace was ‘invented’, or better, crafted, in the early sixteenth century, as the Nüw Modelbuch, the first book mentioning lace printed in Zurich in 1561, explains: here it is said that lace arrived in Zurich from Italy in about 1536. The beauty of lace quickly made it a sought-after detail of dress for both men and women, and therefore lace objects were brought around by travellers and merchants, as desirable gifts and lucrative artefacts to be sold to admiring clients.

Portrait of a finely dressed man wearing an intricate lace scarf

Not only objects, but workers (and their skills) used to travel too. Experienced lacemakers were called by foreign courts to bring their art to different clientèle. Caterina de Medici asked artist Federico Vinciolo to go to the French court in 1585, where he established a school. Later, the Venetian senate even issued a decree that ordered the return of ‘artists and handicraftsmen’ practising their art in any foreign land.

a painting of a De Medici woman, wearing a wide lace collar ruff, her hair stuck up with a red tiara, and wearing a black dress with pearl accents

There are two main types of lace: bobbin lace, made with multiple threads, and needle lace, made of a single thread. Bobbin lace is an evolution of the braids decorating accessories, clothes and furnishings; needlelace is probably a result of openwork (linking pieces of fabric through seaming and decorating edges with loops) and cutwork (decorative stitching worked within small spaces cut out of linen).

In the Seventeenth century, lacemaking was very much associated with women, who would learn the technique from a very young age. Women of all classes would engage in the craft, which was time-consuming and labour intensive.

Finer threads and more complex designs appeared in the Eighteenth century, when lace was extremely sought after, especially from France, where Argentan and Alençon became the centre for needle lace production. The most exquisite bobbin lace though was produced in the Flanders, with Valencienne as capital together with Mechlin and Binche.

With the industrial revolution came big changes in the processes of lacemaking: machines and human hands would for the first time work together to produce lightweight and intricate nets and, after many experimentations and adjustments, proper lace, very similar to the one crafted by hand in the previous centuries.

Whether it was crafted industrially or by hand: lace has stood for centuries as a symbol of love, finery, caring, and stature. Take good care of the lacework that gets handed down to you: it might carry with it a long legacy.


This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.