an exploration of 18th century lace making
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.
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.
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.
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.