Lace is a decorative and delicate fabric or trim made by twisting/looping thread together in patterns or by embroidering on to a base fabric such as net. Sometimes small areas of the base fabric are cut out, e.g. for Broderie Anglaise. It is often white or cream, but is also available in many other colours. Botanical designs usually feature.
Traditionally lace was made by hand using either linen, silk, gold or silver threads using a needle and single thread (needle lace) or with multiple threads (bobbin lace). It was very complicated and time consuming to make and the threads were very expensive. By the early 1500s, lace was used to decorate clothes and household linen in wealthy households and for the clergy in Europe and Northern America.
Lacemaking methods developed when the industrial revolution took place. The first machine made lace was made in the late 1700s using cheaper fibres such as cotton, making it more affordable.
Fashion drives lace production. In the Tudor period needle lace was an essential part of every European court costume for men and women. Lace was used to display wealth and to demonstrate the good taste of the wearer. However, following the American and French revolutions the wearing of lace was considered a distasteful symbol of a defeated aristocracy.
Hand Made Lace
This is now generally only commercially made in specialist areas such as Burano in Italy and is very expensive. Methods include:
Bobbin Lace - Threads are wound on to wooden or bone bobbins and the lace is made in a pattern by twisting threads around each other and holding in place with pins on a firm cushion.
Needle Lace - Made using a needle and thread. Hand stitched motifs are attached to a fine net backing. Stitches are worked between the motifs to complete the pattern.
Embroidered Lace - Motifs are embroidered directly onto a fabric such as linen. The edges are finished in buttonhole stitch, then the spaces between the motifs are cut out. More stitches are worked on the fabric to link up the motifs. Broderie Anglaise is a version of this using small floral patterns composed of round or oval holes.
Crocheted Lace - Made with a very fine crochet hook and fine cotton or linen thread. It is either worked in one piece or individual motifs are made and then joined together.
Other methods include knitted lace (for items such as shawls) and tambour lace, where a chain stitch is worked through net stretched over a frame.
Machine Made Lace
After the industrial revolution, Nottingham became the main centre of the decorated net lace industry in England. Today most lace is made in China.
Depending on the quality of lace produced and the method of production, it can be reasonably priced (e.g. for a lace made from synthetic filament such as nylon or polyester and used for an everyday garment), or more expensive (e.g. for a heavy beaded and corded lace used for a wedding dress).
Machine made lace is available in many colours, and in several types - lace trims, lace fabrics and lace motifs.
Beaded/sequinned lace - Usually used for evening and bridal wear.
Corded Lace - Cords are stitched on to net based fabric to outline designs. The designs are filled in. Mainly used for evening and bridal wear.
Broderie Anglaise - Usually made of cotton in a similar style to handmade Broderie Anglaise. Used for tops, ladies nightwear etc.
Embroidered Chiffon - Chiffon fabric is embroidered with motifs (usually floral) to look like lace. Beads are sometimes added to enhance the decoration.
Embroidered Tulle - Fine tulle (a fine and soft, quality net) is embroidered with designs – generally floral. Used for dressmaking and for net curtains.
Other types of machine made lace include guipure lace – a heavy thread is used to embroider a prominent but simple pattern such as daisies onto a backing fabric; laser lace - satin fabric is laser cut into various shapes and then embroidered in striking patterns and 3-dimensional designs; ribbon lace – ribbon is sewn onto an embellished mesh background in large swirls and rose patterns.
Narrow lace (up to about 10cm wide) is made to stitch on to garments. One long edge is usually straight (the edge you sew to the garment), and the other long edge is either shaped or straight and embroidered to stop it fraying. Types available include broderie Anglaise, crochet style, embroidered tulle – and guipure.
Find out more on how to care for lace