The Story of a Lace Coverlet

MoMu - Fashion Museum Antwerp

an exploration of 18th century lace making

The Coverlet

This 200 x 150cm (78 3/4 x 59in) coverlet ranks among the outstanding achievements of Belgian bobbin lace makers. It was made around 1750, and probably commissioned for a European royal family.

It would have been used on special occasions, like weddings or births. The custom for a mother to receive visitors in her bedroom shortly after giving birth was wide spread throughout Europe. The most luxurious textiles one could buy would enhance the festive nature of this occasion.

Bobbin Lace

Contrary to other textile techniques like weaving and embroidery, which are thousands of years old, bobbin lace only emerged around 1550 as a development of earlier braiding techniques. Initially, threads wound on bobbins were interlaced into simple geometric designs.

Bobbin lace seems to have been invented in several European countries at roughly the same time. International trade and printed pattern books published in Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and France promoted its fast acceptance as a fashion accessory.

Composition

By the mid 17th century, making detailed compositions involving floral compositions and even human figures testify to the fast evolution of lace techniques.

This fragment, showing a medallion with a monk or a priest, was once no doubt part of an altar cloth or a priest’s alb, both used in Roman Catholic churches.

Craftsmanship

Towards the end of the 17th century, the linen threads used to make the finest bobbin lace had become almost as fine as human hairs. Lace reached a pinnacle of refinement.

This sleeve part was probably made in the area around Antwerp and shows delicate floral designs hiding on a spidery background of snowflake meshes. Antwerp and Brussels were the hubs of international lace commerce.

18th Century Uses for Lace

Lace was mostly sold as borders or valances, used to trim costumes, lingerie, household linens and garments for the Roman Catholic church. This border was probably made in Brabant Eastern Flanders, or in Hainaut.

It is a good example of the naturalism achieved in the rendering of plants and flowers in the early 18th century

Empress Maria-Theresa and Lace

In the 1740’s, lace making was a substantial contributor to the economy of the Austrian Netherlands, to which a good part of Belgium belonged. As a present, and arguably as a way to pay taxes, the States of the Netherlands presented the Empress Maria-Theresa of Austria with the dress shown in this Meytens painting housed at Stad Gent.

Complete dresses in lace had probably never been made before. But by then, a large reservoir of technical prowess was available to dealers, with the ability to commission the designs and distribute the work to many workers, who would each make a small part of a total concept that they would probably never see.

Fragments and Dress History

The Empress’s dress has not been preserved. It was no doubt taken apart after use. This sleeve fragment in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, NY, may once have belonged to Maria-Theresa’s dress. Its design certainly looks very similar to a design on the skirt. But in Meytens’s painting, the cape hides the sleeves and leaves the question tantalisingly open.

The coverlet in our collection reveals many similarities with the dress. The dress must have had a very similar feel, and many of the designs are similar too. The coverlet abounds in fertility symbols...

...like a laurel wreath

....flowers

...butterflies

... and cornucopias bursting with flowers and fruit.

The palm tree in its own vignette has volume and elegance.

The palm tree in this priest’s alb flounce is a symbol of abundance.
But, whereas the palm tree in the coverlet no doubt symbolises fertility, in the religious sense of the alb flounce it becomes a representation of Christ.

Fine Threads, Fine Designs

Like engravers, 18th century lace makers developed an artistic sense that enabled them to interpret a naturalistic design into a graphic medium. Substituting the engraver’s lines for the lace makers extremely fine threads, this comparison becomes even richer.

Even the best artist’s design could be marred by a lace maker who did not possess a feeling for the design elements that became their responsibility. Mere knowledge of a technique would not have sufficed to create even the smallest leaf or butterfly in a way pleasing to the eye.

Lace commissions were seldom documented, and lace never received a maker’s mark, like a silversmith’s hallmark. So far, we know nothing of this coverlet’s early history. There is no way to link it to the artist who designed it, the lace dealer who organised its making, or the lace makers, all of whom were probably spread over a wide area and worked at home.

It is not possible even to estimate how many workers collaborated, and how much time it took to create this masterpiece. And we do not yet know which noble family linked their dynastic hopes with this extremely luxurious object.

Credits: Story

Special thanks to Stad Ghent for allowing our use of Martin Van Mytens II's Portrait of Empress Maria-Theresa.

Thanks to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the European Sculpture and Decorative Arts Curator Melinda Watt for fascilitating our Open Source access.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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