The Lacis store was established in 1965 by Kaethe and Jules Kilot, “as a haven for the textile community and all involved in virtually every aspect of the textile arts,” according to their website. It is a truly unique store that offers antique garments, as well as reproduction underclothes (like the crinolines creating a chandelier effect in the image above) and clothing for living historians and reeneactors, a magnificent bookstore and library, as well as supplies for every textile art imaginable. It is truly a haven for practitioners and lovers of the textile arts alike.
Following Kaethe’s passing in 2002, Jules Kilot founded The Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles above the store in 2004. Over the years Kaethe and Jules had collected thousands of specimens of textiles, including examples of pre-Columbian Peruvian handiwork, 17th-century European lace, and 19th-century machine-made lace. Jules told me during my visit at the end of March that the museum was born out of his desire to preserve “the humanity” of the textile arts, and to keep that aspect of them alive. Since one of the things that has always attracted me to material culture in general, but dress and textile history in particular, is that sense of being connected to the people of the past, this is a sentiment I very much agreed with, without expressing half so eloquently. After his wife passed away, hundreds of letters poured in to tell Jules how Kaethe had touched their lives — establishing that Lacis was much more than a retail store, it was a community in and of itself.
Tucked away in Berkeley, the museum does not get much attention, when it really should. I was there to see their current exhibition, Smocking: Fabric Manipulation and Beyond. Mounted as a joint venture between Lacis and the Smocking Arts Guild of America, this excellent exhibition gives visitors the entire history of smocking from its origins in English peasant workclothes to its current use as decoration or even a technique to practically sculpt using fabric. The museum has even displayed one of Anne Hathaway’s costumes from Les Misérables, which makes use of smocking as both shaping and decoration (no photos allowed, unfortunately, so you’ll just have to go yourselves if you can).
At first sight the exhibition appears deceptively small, but it is not. There is a great wealth of objects of various styles, regions, patterns, and periods; the pieces are not placed in any particular chronological order, nor are they ordered by style or technique used, instead seemingly haphazardly about the exhibition space as they fit. Rather than confusing the visitor, I feel this emphasizes the universality, beauty, and usefulness of smocking throughout history as you look at pieces from the 19th century next to contemporary gowns. And yet as you move through the exhibition you notice there is a methodology in place — objects are grouped together by their type rather than the technique. You will observe an entire wall of christening gowns (seen above), without knowing until you read the labels which are antique and which are contemporary. This is a masterful stroke by the museum, drawing visitors to examine the garments more closely, so that after you have identified the 19th-century christening gowns, you start to notice details that were common place then, but that we — with our mass-manufacturing-influenced aesthetics — no longer think to add. Such as the pin-tucks and embroidery you see in the detailed shot below to conceal where the hem of the gown has been sewn since white cotton’s naturally being somewhat sheer would otherwise show a stark line.
Smocking’s beginnings can be traced — as I said above — to the work clothing of English peasantry. Large shirts were sewn to cover the worker’s regular clothes and protect them from dirt, and wear and tear. Smocking was developed as a way to fit the garment to the individual without losing the freedom of movement needed for the manual labour tasks required. It was also a way to make this somewhat mundane garment beautiful.
In the usual trickle-up-affect of fashion, the technique was copied by the middle-class; looking at the dress below, I found myself wondering if it wouldn’t have been worn by a woman who ascribed to the dress reform and aesthetic movements. The borrowing of a “country” textile technique, and the looseness of the fit seem to point in that direction. It is certainly quite a contrast with the lattice-smocked costume from the BBC series Copper set at about the same time, which has a much more fitted waist and the expected mid-19th-century silhouette.
Smocking experienced a revival first in the 1930s with the advent of the home pleating machine, and then in the late 1970s when it was popularized as part of the artwear movement as a way to manipulate and sculpt fabric. During the 1930s, the advent of the home pleating machine (seen below) was rather well-timed considering that the economic depression of the decade meant there was a new necessity to sewing at home, and smocking is wonderful for growing children: its stretching ability means the clothes can grow with them (provided the shirt or dress is long enough, of course).
This is what I typically think of when I think of smocking: children’s clothes. According to both Jules and Erin Algeo, the store manager who curates many of the museum exhibitions, this is quite a common perception of smocking, and it is a practice you still see today (that stretch ability for movement and growth is more durable than lycra and far prettier). There are quite a few children’s pieces on display, below are two of my favorite examples: a child’s dress from the Lacis collection from circa 1940, and a contemporary piece called “Golden Gate Bridge Dress” by Sarah Douglas, one of the women who brought smocking back in the 1970s.
The 1970s shared a trend with the 1930s: the “peasant” look, with bloused sleeves, “ethnic” details (such as smocking), and revival of handcrafts made its way into fashion.
This exhibition began with the donation of Sarah Douglas’s collection of not only antique pleating machines, but all her archives, notebooks, patterns, and other materials to the Lacis Museum. Sarah Douglas, along with Nellie Durand and Mimi Ahern helped to bring smocking back into the focus of the textile arts community in the 1970s, publishing books of instruction and patterns. Before them, Grace L. Knott had taught English smocking in Canada through her own school in the 1930s through the 1970s. Today smocking is used not only in clothing, but in any decorative textile arts, such as the ornaments pictured above. The archival materials of all four women, including their notebooks, smocking samples, patterns, instructions, etc. are on display in the museum.
Since the Lacis staff are so knowledgeable in the textile arts, this is a truly informative exhibition, tracing not only the chronology but the breadth of this simple, historic technique. I won’t say I came away brave enough to smock myself, but I certainly know where to go should I decide to start and have any questions. They have published a book to accompany the exhibition that gives instruction in the techniques as much as it gives smocking’s history.
Off in the Lacis classroom area — they offer several classes on various sewing techniques, their most popular recent course being on corsetry — there is a smaller exhibition space showcasing several of their historic lace pieces, and the Les Misérables dress.
After visiting the exhibition, I went down to thoroughly poke about the store. I spent a large amount of time in their absolutely amazing book/library section — including antique or out of print texts that ranged from 19th-century how-to textile arts books to Aileen Ribeiro books. There were shelves upon shelves of vintage garments and textiles, and the shop was never empty. The staff’s knowledge of the textile arts is incredible, making it possible for them to help people even through email inquiry or over the phone. They work to restore historic garments and host classes to teach living historians, reenactors, costumers, or anyone really how to make historic recreations, the basics of sewing, or how to care for their own antique and vintage textiles.
The San Francisco Chronicle called Lacis Berkeley’s “best kept secret,” I found it to be a treasure trove of knowledge of the textile arts, their practice, preservation, and history. That’s even before you step into the museum upstairs. Lacis, I will be returning!
Are there any treasure trove museums, shops, or organizations in your area or experience that you would like to share? Have you been to Lacis? What did you think? As always share your thoughts in the comments below, and if you have any events or exhibitions you want to share with Worn Through be sure to email me.