Metropolitan Museum – Laces

The Collection of Laces of the Metropolitan Museum is one of the finest, if not the finest in the world. When the Nuttall collection was presented it became among the foremost. In this collection of almost one thousand pieces some thirty two countries are represented, covering an area from the Orient to England, from Norway to Madagascar, and from Mexico and Yucatan to Brazil and Paraguay. With the addition of the Blackborne collection, recently purchased, the Museum collection has been placed in the first rank, as it contains nearly three thousand pieces more than half of which antedate 1800, including some of the rarest antique laces, which were bequeathed by Mrs. Hamilton W. Cary.

A survey may be had of all the intricacies of lace work from its beginning to the present time. The specimens are exposed in the galleries with a symmetrical decorative effect of line and colour, neither trivial nor too rigid to be in keeping with the grace and delicacy of these beautiful fabrics.

Lacemaking is the youngest of the textile arts, its period of highest development does not go back farther than the Iast part of the 16th century, and may be considered to extend to the latter part of the 19th century. A rough chronological division may be made into Late Renaissance (late 16th and early 17th century), Baroque (17th century), and Rococo (18th century).

Lace generally consists of two parts — the ground and the pattern or ” gimp.” The gimp is either made together with the ground, as in Valenciennes, and in Mechlin (Malines), or separately, and then either ” worked in or ” sewn on,” applique. Some laces are not worked on a ground. The flowers are connected by irregular threads, overcast (with buttonhole stitch), and sometimes worked over with pearl loops (picots). This method is followed in the points of Venice and Spain, and most of the guipures.

Lace is divided into point and pillow. The first is made by the needle on a parchment pattern, and termed ” needle-point.” Point also means a particular kind of stitch, as ” Venice point,” ” Brussels point.” Pillow lace is made by twisting and crossing the threads (on bobbins) around pins stuck on a pillow to form the pattern.

Venice was celebrated for her point, while Genoa produced almost exclusively pillow lace. One fine Venice lace, the richest and most complicated of all points, is made with all the outlines in relief formed by means of cotton placed inside to raise them. An infinity of beautiful stitches are introduced into the flowers, which are surrounded by pearls of geometric regularity, the pearls being sometimes ” scalloped (campane). This is the ” Rose ” (raised) Venice point, so highly prized, and so extensively used for albs, berthas, collarettes, and costly flounces.

The term ” guipure” is now so variously applied that it is impossible to limit its meaning — silk twisted around thick thread or cord was its original meaning. The modern Honiton (English) and Maltese lace are called guipure.

From cutwork developed reticella. In this the grounding is almost entirely cut away, or the threads withdrawn, leaving only occasional supports for the design which, in the earlier pieces, is always geometric.

When the workers gradually realized that no frame work was necessary, punto in aria was evolved, which gave more freedom of design, and floral patterns with scrolls became possible.

The brides developed into the fine net-grounding (reseau) of the 18th century laces. The de-signs present two kinds of flowers — those made with the needle, called point a l’ aiguille, and those made on the pillow, point plat.

Among the Italian specimens of the Museum collection a great variety is shown in the different classes. Early Italian bobbin laces illustrate the work of the different provinces. In these early laces there are many designs in which animal life figures, but as a rule the effect produced is one of balance. In later work the motives are apt to be scattered through the design in an irregular way. A magnificent example of this is a representation in thirteen panels of the story of Judith and Holofernes, in the free-hanging, clearly out-lined, foliated pattern, punto in aria. Another specimen of punto in aria is a beautiful example in three large points in which the worker has wrought with exquisite delicacy the snowy petals of the edelweiss. The earlier typical geometrical pattern, reticella, is also shown. The gorgeous Baroque laces made at Venice have characteristic scroll patterns, and are rich in figured pieces.

Venetian points are shown in the three varieties, ” Flat,” ” Rose,” and ” Gros ” point. The most delicate of laces are two pieces of ” Point de Venise a reseau.” Further we note fine examples of network, the punto ricamento, and the punto avorio from the Val Vogna; cutwork embellished with punto reale and punto riccio; drawn work from the shores of the Adriatic; needlepoint edgings in coloured silk from Ragusa; examples of filet; and tape lace and bobbin-made guipures in imitation of Venetian point.

Next in importance to the Italian laces are those of the Netherlands. The character of the Nether-land laces is not so free and lineal in pattern as the Italian, but they are more picturesque in giving contrasts between light and dark.

Prior to 1665 nearly all Flanders laces were known under the name of Mechlin. The laces of Ypres, Bruges, Dunkirk, Antwerp and Courtrai, according to Savary, passed under that name. Old Mechlin is one of the prettiest of laces, fine, transparent, and effective. It is made in one piece, on the pillow, with various fancy stitches introduced. Its distinguishing feature is the flat thread, which forms the flower, and gives to this lace the. character of embroidery. It was most used for trimming, and for ruffles at women’s sleeves and men’s cravats. It is of all laces the easiest to copy in machine-made lace. Its design is in general floral in character.

Brussels lace is the most exquisite, filmy, airy fabric. Its thread is of extraordinary fineness. The best quality of thread is spun in underground rooms, as contact with the dry air causes it to break. It is this fineness which makes real Brussels so costly. It is worked both needle and pillow, the needle-point being superior to the pillow-made. Brussels lace is worked upon by different persons, some work the flowers, others the ground, etc. — seven distinct` persons perform the various details of its creation.

Antwerp is remarkable for only one type of peasant lace, the Patten Kant, so called from the representation of a pot of flowers with which it is always decorated. These various laces are worthily shown in the collection.

The early French laces are difficult to be distinguished from the Italian, because Venetian artists introduced the art in France (about 1670). Later they reflected the temper of the new age in exquisite refinement of design and technique. We note the luxurious bouquets and ornate designs of the baldachino curtains of the Louis XIV period, the neat and small all-over flowers of the Louis XV and the straight lines interspersed with flowers and gardening utensils of the Louis XVI period.

The famous Valenciennes developed from the filmy Brabant lace. This, as well as the different styles of Alencon and Chantilly, Argentan and Point de Sedan are well represented. Notable is a flounce of Point de France of the 17th century.

In England the first record of cut work, opus scissum, is found in Queen Elizabeth’s time. She was exceedingly fond of the fabric, but did little to foster it at home, purchasing largely the Flemish or Italian product. Some of the best pieces of cut work (punto togliato or point coupe)are shown in a chalice veil of the early 16th century, exquisite in design and technique.

Lacemaking was introduced into Devonshire by some Flemings, refugees from the persecutions of the Duke of Alva. Honiton lace, so called from the town where they settled, preserved its Flemish character. The peculiarity of Honiton is its being made in sprigs, made separately, and joined by purlings, or by the needle in various stitches.

Honiton is well represented here, together with a beautiful example of Carrickmacross cut work, which is among the finest guipure that Ireland has produced. A piece here, so delicate in texture and pattern as to resemble closely the finest Carrickmacross, differs only in the outlining stitch, which is solid buttonhole, and in the many needlepoint ornaments of the intervening spaces.

The scope of the collection is so extensive that it is only possible to call attention among the wealth of examples to only a few specimens, and to give this general outline to indicate what may be found here. But in addition one will find Dalmatian needlepoint, of the 19th century; Slovak drawn work and cross-stitch embroidery, of the 18th century; rare pieces of Burrato, of the 17th, and Abruzzi, of the 18th century, of Italy; Spanish blonde, and black work, as well as Manilla lace ; and Russian network.