Monday, November 14, 2011



 Hi, I'm Erin Grace and I adore writing historical romance. Anyone who has read my bio may have noted that I credit my love of lace and lace-making to help inspire many of my story ideas. And, it’s true, the history of lace is a vast, fascinating one that goes back to ancient times and involves almost every country and level of society.
 When demonstrating or speaking to people about lace, I find one of two perceptions generally come to their mind. Their experience of lace either relates to ‘the lace found trimming the ends of sexy lingerie’ or ‘those little doilies Gran throws on every available surface in her house’.
 Less than glamorous, huh?
 But, would you believe that for a long time lace was such a valued commodity that people would sell land for it, steal it and even smuggle it – or die trying.
 What is lace?
 In its simplest form lace is defined as a fabric where the open areas are just as important as the worked areas. (sorry, but moth-eaten clothes are the exception here...) But it’s the effect and quality of the delicate fabric that has always drawn attention and made it a prized possession.
Now, many associate lace with being specific to the UK and Europe, but would you believe that most countries have their own style and form of lace?
In fact, the history of lace days far back to ancient Egypt where many elaborate forms of ‘drawn-work’, ‘cut-work’ and other needle-style laces have been found in tombs, used as mummy wrappings and included in the trims of ornamental robes. These early laces were generally made from fine flax linen thread, but were also found in silks and gold thread.
As history progressed, there are references to lace in the bible, Paris had brought Sidonian woman to Troy to make veils, and even Cleopatra was said to have worn an exquisite Sidonian veil at a feast in honour of Ceasar.
That’s some pretty impressive ancestors for the humble doily.
Throughout time, lace styles and techniques varied with each area it was introduced, but unlike other weaves and fabrics, one thing remained the same – the open areas were still just important as the worked. That’s the amazing thing about lace. In fact you could almost compare it to a language, one that kept a core value, yet could be translated and adapted world over.
To try and document the complete types of lace made is almost an impossible task, as you’ll always come across some style just a bit different from those known before. These are but a few...Reticella, Romanian Point, Punto Tirato, Bedfordshire Bobbin, Limerick, Tatting, Crochet, Fillet Netting, Knotted, Guipure, Venetian Needle Lace, Mechlin, Bucks Point, Torchon, Gimp, Honiton...and the long list goes on.
Well, that’s all very interesting – I hear you say – but what about the smuggling and dying bit? Good question!
In 1662, the English Parliament brought in the first of several rulings banning all foreign made lace, and most other fabrics. Unfortunately, it had been long considered at the time that English made lace was no comparison to the much finer imports (sorry about that), and it forced many of the nobility to seek their lace via a type of black market – or attempt smuggling it in themselves.
But the Customs officers of the day were incredibly vigilant to the point of extreme.
In wasn’t unheard of for a lady to be stopped in the middle of the street and have her lace mittens cut from her hands. Mechlin lace caps would be taken right of a woman’s head, and houses suspected of using foreign lace would be kept under close surveillance.
Friends or family would write to people intending to visit England and literally warn them not to bring more than two lace shirts for fear they would be taken and the person fined or imprisoned!
And, today we worry about drugs!
The fines and punishments were as extreme as the measures taken to find the lace. In 1752, a collection of gold and silver lace was seized from a London tailor. He was fined one hundred pounds and the lace was publicly burnt.
It’s sad to note that burning lace in public was a daily occurrence.
Ladies travelling in private chairs would be stopped and have their lace collars removed, carriages would have their liners cut open to check for hidden lace – even loaves of bread would be found to have ‘lace stuffing’.
The situation only worsened when, in the mid 1700’s, King George III declared that no one of nobility invited to his daughter’s wedding could wear anything but English made laces.
Naturally, it seemed most of the nobility decided to do as they wished. However, a mere three days prior to the wedding, Customs raided a famous court milliner and modistes, confiscating over eleven thousand pounds of lace and trim, again burning the precious fabric.
After many years, the matter of lace use and smuggling appeared to had gone out of the limelight somewhat until the Napoleonic War, where again severe trade embargoes were placed. Lace would be smuggled in by ‘The Gentlemen’ along with brandy and other desirable cargo.
There have been several well known stories of corpses being sent back to England from France to be interned, only to discover that the body was replaced by lace – just the heads, feet and hands remained. Dead dogs and other pets would also be stuffed with lace and sent back to England.
Why all the trouble?
Like gold, silver and spices, Lace really was a valuable commodity. It was expensive to produce and beautiful to the eye. Royalty even included it when taking account of their treasuries (lace would be measured and weighed). It was a symbol of nobility and wealth...but only to those permitted to wear it.
You see, lace has its own ‘Underbelly’, tales of the severe restrictions between social classes, and the often horrible conditions worked in to bring about the delicate fabric.
But, that’s another story....

*References: History of Lace – Palliser
Dover Publications – New York
ISBN: 0-486-24742-2


kellyethan said...

I knew lace had been important but didn't quite realise how much. Certainly didn't realse there was an underbelly of lace ;)

Love the pikkie btw, love a lace shrug.

Kelly Ethan

Allison Butler said...

Hi Erin,

I love lace. It's beautiful. Thanks for the gorgeous sample picture. I didn't know the history of lace was so fascinating, but thanks to your great post, I do now:) Thanks for sharing.

Christina Phillips said...

Erin, what a fascinating post. I had no idea lace had such a colourful history! I hope you plan to share with us the Underbelly story of lace, too :-)

Maggi Andersen said...

Tell some people they can't have something and they'll go to all lengths to acquire it! Valuable research here, Erin, thank you. And I'd risk smuggling that collar.

Eleni Konstantine said...

I do love lace. It reminds me of my grandma who made some really lovely pieces and left me some. I'm thinking of having them framed one day as her work is so exquisite and an artwork all on its own.

Thanks for the interesting post, Erin.

Elle Fynllay said...

Hi Erin,
I've always loved lace also. I hand sewed my multi tiered wedding veil with an intricate lace edging. Talk about lace weighing ! I was lucky to walk down the aisle with a straight gait with the weight of the veil.
Would love to hear more of your racy lacey tales.

Sheridan Kent said...

Hi Erin,
What a great post! I had no idea about the ban on imported lace. So interesting.

I hope your next post is about the 'Underbelly'of lace. Would love to hear more.


Barbara Monajem said...

Fabulous! I too would love to hear more. :)

kellyethan said...

This is a complete sideways comment and I do apologise about being off target but have you heard that they think Jane Austen may have been murdered? They are tossing around the idea her untimely death was caused by Arsenic poisoning.


Jess Anastasi said...

great post, Erin, now I understand your obsession, it's fascinating that something many people see as daggy or mundane was once so valuable.

Cassandra Samuels said...

Absolutely fascinating Erin.

I can't believe that Lace was such a comodity that they stuffed dead dogs with it and shipped it in from overseas.

It is such a shame that most of the lace we see today is not really lace but synthetic made on a machine. I prefer the real thing.

Anyone who has seen Cranford will remember the hilarious scene where the cat swallowed the lace trim that had been soaking in milk and the extremes they went to to get that lace back.

Fantastic post.

Erin Grace said...

Glad you all enjoyed it! Yes, there is a lot of history to lace that many don't know about, and I'd be happy to do another blog telling of just how some laces were made and the terrible conditions suffered by its makers.

Erin xo

Anonymous said...

Erin, I have to agree, to such a waste of beauty and to have it burned as well, what stupid stupid laws.
I have a few of my mothers lace crocheted doilies, but they are a little tarnished around the edges now.
Is most lace produced by machines these days do you know Erin and is lace woven as well as knitted and crotchet. I am not quite sure and just curious.
It is a really lovely shawl you have pictured.

Anonymous said...

Sorry Erin,
this is my third attempt at posting a reply in as many days... hmmmmm. (Says waiting on approval- but not there when I come back)
Anyway -
I love the information you have given on lace, so far. And I would be interested in a follow up. :))
The lace shawl in your picture id simply divine. There is something very delicate and exquisite with lace isn't there. Very feminine and classy.
I have a few of my mum's lace doilies, but they are tarnishing a little on the edges. Well used and worn I'm afraid.
Sacrilege that they actually burnt sooo much through petty laws, but