Every so often, I come across a piece that reminds me why the kind of work we’re doing is so vital. This is a piece of handmade silk Chantilly lace from France. It is elegant, delicate, and beautifully made. It is also, as much as an inanimate object can be, dying.
Over time, everything degrades. Silk, eventually, begins to shatter. Black silk, due to the high heat and chemicals used to dye it, is particularly susceptible to the process. Proper storage and care when handling can stave it off, but once it begins, there’s no turning back. At the lightest touch, the lace will simply fall apart.
Of course, old lace often has tears. However, shattering is different. A tear doesn’t damage the overall integrity of the lace. A tear will stay the same size unless you pull on it more. When treated with care, a tear will never be more than small imperfection that shows the piece was used. When a piece is shattering, the tear will keep unraveling even if left alone. When you move the piece, it sheds, leaving behind tiny particles of black silk dust. With a piece as far gone as this one, there is little you can do but hold it gently, honor it, and say goodbye.
There are lessons to be learned, even from a piece on its last legs. I know that Chantilly lace is made in strips of about 4”, not all at once. I know they’re stitched together so carefully that even when Elizabeth points out the seam, even when I take out a loupe and stare, I cannot see it. It is one thing to know this, quite another to watch the seams give way and see the four individual pieces it once was. In a way, as I watch this piece die, I am also watching it move backwards in its life cycle. More importantly, though, it makes me confront the mortality of this work.
When you hold a perfectly preserved piece, it’s so easy to forget how old it is and how astounding it is to be able to see it. When I see something unfinished, or imperfect, or marked by a maker’s hand somehow, I am reminded how far it has traveled to be in my hands. The past is so close to me. This piece of lace didn’t spring up out of nowhere. It was made by a person (realistically, probably a woman) who poured hundreds if not thousands of hours into making something beautiful. When a piece of silk lace shatters, we lose not an inanimate object, but the mark of a maker from long ago. Maybe there are other things she made floating around out there. Maybe not. I’ll never know. All I know is this particular one won’t be here much longer.
Ironically, it’s the oils from our hands that will degrade lace faster than anything. It was made to be used, but using it destroys it. I think that’s part of the beauty, though. As fiber artists, we don’t make what we do because it will last forever. We make it because it will be beautiful now, and pour countless hours into making it as beautiful as it can be. With the current conversations on sustainability, there’s a large question of if we even want our work to last forever. We’re moving back towards natural fibers because it will eventually degrade, not in spite of it. Like a living being, our work has a natural life cycle. That doesn’t mean it’s not sad to see it end. That doesn’t mean we don’t wash our hands before touching it, hold it carefully and package it lying flat, out of the sun. That doesn’t mean I don’t pause my work to write a eulogy for a bunch of silk threads. Inevitability doesn’t have to mean we don’t care.
What it means is that this conservation and documentation work is vital. I can’t stop this lace from shattering, but I can take photos of it. I can learn what I can from it and say goodbye. I can post it so others see it too. Maybe they’ll find it as beautiful as I did.
The dust left behind