Museum Life: Valenciennes lace in detail

Thinking about my post on Curatorial qualifications, I thought I’d share with you, as promised, a bit about my current study and research of the Powerhouse Museum’s lace collection. Working with Lace expert and former Curator, Rosemary Shepherd I have been learning the basics of bobbin lace making as well as studying, under a magnifying glass, the structure of 18th Century laces. The sheer intricacy and complexity of the technique of bobbin lace continues to amaze and intrigue me. These 18th Century laces are far more complex in structure and technique than most contemporary textiles. We do not have the skills, fibres, knowledge or technology to recreate these incredible items. In our digital age, we like to think contemporary society is at its most advanced and yet many current textiles and garments are far, far less intricate and complex than in the past.

Looking specifically at Valenciennes laces, I thought I would talk about the incredible structure of some pieces I have looked at. Valenciennes lace is a type of continuous bobbin lace, originating in the town of Valenciennes, formerly inWest Flanders. Rosemary Shepherd describes the technique of bobbin lace,

The bobbin lace process is best described as a form of weaving, in which the warp and weft threads are constantly changing places. There are only two basic movements, the cross and the twist, which always involve two pairs of threads. Bobbin lace is worked over a card pattern that is fastened to a pillow stuffed hard with material such as straw, sawdust, or horsehair. As each stitch, or row of stitches, is formed it is held in place with a pin pushed through the appropriate point on the pattern and into the pillow. The shape and size of both bobbins and pillows varies considerably from region to region.

Early Valenciennes lace is characterised by scrolling motifs and no raised work. Valenciennes lace from the beginning of the 18th Century often employed more than one ground stitch with the same number of stitches used in the motifs as with the ground. The threads in the motifs were carried through into the mesh stitches. This resulted in a dense, almost cloth-like appearance of the motifs.

A9148-22, Binche or Valenciennes lace border, [Flanders or France] c. 1710. Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Sydeny, Australia

This example of Valenciennes lace from 1710 uses partridge eye and snowflake ground stitches typical of earlyValenciennes lace. You can see in the detail that threads in the motif continue into the ground stitches and how they form a ground which is only slightly less dense than the motifs. This piece of lace would have been extremely expensive in its day, due to the fineness of the linen thread used, complexity of the design and the time it took to construct.

H5111-41 Joined lappets, possibly assembled from a length of a galloon (a lace with two shaped edges), Valenciennes bobbin lace, linen, Flanders, Belgium, c. 1720. Collection, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia


These joinedValenciennes lace lappets, c.1720 are constructed with the use of cloth stitch and half stitch in the motifs and with a five hole stitch for the ground. This different ground marks the change between 1710 and 1720.Valenciennes lace moved from a dense, intricate and irregular ground to a more open ground mesh. Visually the result of this is that the motifs become more prominent in the design as the mesh is more regular and open.

H5111-54 Valenciennes lace border, continuous bobbin lace, linen, France or Flanders, c. 1750. Collection; Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia

Finally this Valenciennes lace border from 1750 employs a round plaited ground which became popular in such laces around this time. With a tendency to squareness and less fluidity in design to the earlier laces this lace border is far less elaborate than the lace from 1710. The round plaited ground allows all the threads from the cloth stitch motifs to be carried from motif to ground while still allowing the motif to be more prominent.

The differences in the stitches in the ground of these laces spark the question, why? What led makers and designers to reduce density in the ground of Valenciennes lace towards the round plaited ground in the second half of the 18th Century. Perhaps the desire and fashion for laces during this time encouraged an increased in production, achieved by reducing the number and complexity of ground stitches therefore allowing laces to be made slightly faster and possibly by less-skilled workers. Also the introduction of the Valenciennes round plaited ground stitch may be indicative of the formalisation of the industry during the mid 18th Century. Rather than using a range of intricate and challenging ground stitches, a single simpler round plaited ground became the norm. This ground also allowed the motifs to dominate the ground rather than compete with it. Perhaps an adjustment to taste, this contrast between ground and motif would have allowed the lace to be more noticeable when worn on a garment. During this period elaborately patterned and lighter coloured woven silks were in fashion which needed visually simpler laces as a contrast.

These are some of my ideas as to why the change in the design and construction of 18th Century Valenciennes lace. Change of tastes and increase in demand has often affected the way textiles have been manufactured through history. From these Valenciennes laces, to the manufacture of cotton moving from India to Europe in the early 19th Century to the contemporary ‘fast fashion’ industry, the structure of textiles can tell much about prevailing tastes, wants and consumption of fashion.

First image: A9148-22 Binche orValenciennes lace border, [Flanders orFrance] c1710. Collection: Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia

Further reading:

Pat Earnshaw, ‘The Identification of Lace’, Shire Publications Ltd, UK, 1980

Bridget m. Cook and Geraldine Stott, ‘The Book of Bobbin Lace Stitches’, Anchor Press Ltd, UK, 1980

Margaret Simeon, ‘The History of Lace’, Stainer & Bell, London, UK, 1979

Santina M. Levey, ‘Lace: A History’, Victoria and Albert Museum, W.S Maney & Son Ltd, UK, 1983

Heather Toomer, ‘Antique Lace: Identifying Types and Techniques’, Schiffer Books, 2001

Rosemary Shepherd, ‘Introduction to Bobbin Lace Making’, Kangaroo Press, Australia, 1995

Rosemary Shepherd, ‘Lace Classifciation System’, Powerhouse Museum, Sydney, Australia, 2003 



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