by Elaine Merritt
Fashion has always played an important role in the development and production of lace. As lace makers, we are interested in the simple thread lace that appeared on ordinary clothing and household linen sometime around 1500 A.D. However, at that time, the world was far more interested in the magnificence of the clothes worn by nobility. Those garments were made of beautiful materials and were trimmed with jewels as well as lace. The portraits of early kings and queens do show us the importance first of gold and silver lace but also some of them give us excellent examples of early black lace.
The portrait of Anne of Denmark shows delicate Flemish lace in considerable detail1. A painting of Eleanor of Austria (1498 - 1558) by Thomas de Leu shows a tight bodice edged with a border of very simple black bobbin lace2, and one painted by Hilliard in 1575, shows Queen Elizabeth wearing a shift edged in black needle lace to match her ruff. Ruffs made of pulled metal of silver and gold were fashionable in this period but a heavy black needle lace was often used instead.
Chantilly Lace is the best known of the black laces. It takes its name from the French town of Chantilly, where silk lace had been made-- primarily for the Spanish market-- from early in the 17th century. This early Chantilly lace was not black. It was made in strips of a cream-colored silk, with motifs enclosed by a heavier floss silk, and because of its color, was called Blonde. When black thread was used, it was called Black Blonde. The motifs were made in cloth stitch with a gimp, either a thicker thread or several strands of the regular thread plied together as a strand, and used as the worker. Blonde is a fragile lace, since the thin passive threads must support the heavier worker thread.
Portraits painted in the 16th and 17th centuries show that strips and flounces of black silk lace had been made in earlier times in Italy, Spain, France and the Flanders. Almost none of such early lace survives because the iron mordant used to fix the dye caused the thread to rot. Records show that equal quantities of black and white Flemish lace were being purchased in the first part of the 17th century.
The early blonde lace made in Chantilly was not particularly fashionable, nor was it considered to have any great artistic value. However, at a lace school of merit established by Catherine de Rohan, the Duchess of Longueville in the mid-17th century,3 lace makers experimented with and reclaimed the early ground stitches and the double stitch, Paris ground, sometimes called Point chant; and the Flemish five-hole ground. In both these grounds, pins were used to support the stitch, unlike the plaited grounds used in Valenciennes or Mechelin lace. New fillings were developed and given special names after the place where they had been made. To make the lace, these workers used a silk called grenadine d'Alais. When the threads of the silk were twisted, the appearance of the silk was no longer lustrous but matte. Eventually, the two-twist tulle ground was most commonly used for black Chantilly because it put into relief the naturalistic patterns of flowers and garlands with their half-stitch shadows. Chantilly lace began to take on its own style.
The town of Chantilly became an important lace making center in the 18th century. In addition to the Chantilly lace, Guipure, Paris and Mechlin , a tulle lace, was made there. And there were more than 100 nearby villages also making Chantilly. Because a great amount of lace was sent to Spain where black lace was extremely popular, production of black lace surpassed that of Blonde. All black lace, Chantilly as well as Black Blonde, was made fashionable by the presence at the court of the retinue of the Spanish born Queen, Marie Therese. Eventually, however, the revolution would bring production at Chantilly to a halt when lace makers were executed for having served the nobility.
Making the large, beautiful shawls and stoles of the type we now have on display at the Museum was made possible about 1758, when a French lace maker from Calvados discovered the invisible method of joining smaller pieces or strips together with a needle technique called point de racroc4.
Chantilly was also made in Caen and Bayeux in France, and in even larger quantities in the Belgian cities of Enghein and Geerardsbergen (Grammont), where there were 48 lace schools and important exportation to Spain and South America. Quantities of black lace were also made in Le Puy, France. In addition to making a great deal of the Chantilly that went to the Spanish market, the designers in Le Puy were able to design simpler, cheaper types of lace.
One of their nineteenth century innovations was a black silk guipure that imitated the Maltese lace. In fact, many European lace makers took to copying Maltese lace designs because they were quicker to make. Maltese is a straight bobbin lace, characterized by cloth work pattern areas, and a frequent use of 'fat 'wheat ears' with pointed ends, 2 often grouped in star formations. Maltese lace usually includes the Maltese cross which was introduced in the 1850's. This is understandable; after the great famine that decimated the population of Malta in 1830, lace makers from Genoa where lace making traditions had survived were sent to Malta to pass on their lace making skills.
Some Chantilly lace was also made in Bedfordshire in the UK but England was chiefly famous for producing beautiful machine lace, so fine that it was very difficult to tell the difference between it and hand made pieces.
A certain amount of black lace was also made in Ipswich, Massachusetts, presumably about 1767.5
There was also a thriving industry throughout the area. Much of their lace was sold or traded directly by the maker for goods.
However, by the end of the 19th century when fashion had changed, the beautiful large shawls were no longer in fashion in Europe and the demand for Chantilly diminished everywhere.
It is very useful that the excellent collection of black lace belonging to The Lace Museum can be exposed from time to time, so that lace makers and the general public can admire the beautiful work of the early times.
1. Risselin-Steenbrugen, Trois Siecles d'Art et d'Histoire. Musee Royaux, Bruxelles, 1980, p.fig. 382, p 536
2. Pat Earnshaw Lace in Fashion, B.T. Batsford, London, 1985, fig.6
3. Janine Montupet and Ghislaine Schoeller. Fabulouses Dentelles, Robert Laffont, S.A. Paris, 1988
4. M. Risselin-Steenebrugen Trois Siecles de Dentelles aux Musees Royaux d'Art et d'Histoire
5. Marta Cotterell, The Laces of Ipswich, Massachusetts, Textiles in Early New England: Design, Production, and Consumption, pub. Boston University 1999, pp82-99