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