Now that I understand lace well enough to have some idea of what I’m looking at when I see a piece of lace, I’m able to supplement my work with primary sources. Sorting endless boxes of lace pieces can feel abstract. We can look at a piece and see that it is a collar, or know that it was made by hand in, say, turn of the century England, but it is still a single piece on a card. Pairing extant pieces with primary sources helps me better understand what I’m looking at. It puts the extant pieces into context while bringing the book illustrations to life.
The source I am currently working with is old volumes of La Mode Illustrée, a French fashion periodical that ran in the second half of the 19th century. Elizabeth has volumes of them collected and bound into yearly tomes. Thumbing through them is a treat for any lover of historical fashion. Each page is full of delightful pen and ink drawings of all the latest fashion styles along with instructions for how the stylish young woman could obtain them for herself. Often, this means lace diagrams, sewing patterns, and cross stitch or embroidery guides.
To start, I looked through the 1889 book looking for anything that reminded me of a piece I had filed away in the previous days. One page that caught my attention me was this gorgeous floral lace diagram:
Immediately, it reminded me of a few extant pieces of Honiton lace I had worked with.
The first is this example, likely a piece from a wedding veil. It is all hand worked bobbin lace depicting Tudor roses alongside Irish shamrocks linked together with bars rather than a mesh ground. The detail is truly exquisite: look at the delicate shading created by tightening and loosening the weave in the leaves.
Here is another, larger piece of Honiton lace I catalogued, this one a complete collar.
It more closely resembles the picture, with nearly every motif being made from these thick and thin bands of hand tied bobbin lace.
Again, look at the gorgeously fine detail. Though this piece does not attempt the realistic shading the previous one did, different types of fills make up each motif to make for more visual interest. Even though they all appear to be solid shapes, there is subtle variation between them.
It is easy to see the catalogue drawing inspiration from pieces like these- the floral motifs, the undulating thick bands which make up the design, the bars with picots joining them together- however, the book does not depict Honiton lace. In fact, it isn’t bobbin lace at all.
Note the way the bars overlap each other and fold at the corners, that the bars are all uniform length rather than changing shape with the design, and that all the motifs are made from these uniform strips rather than the strips becoming other shapes. And, of course, note the caption:
Rather than hand-tied bobbin lace, this is an illustration of a time-saving alternative, a kind of assembled needle lace called tape lace. It is exactly what it sounds like: strips of premade tape laid out into shapes and stitched together. Luckily, I have extant pieces of that to study as well.
At first glance, this closely resembles the Honiton lace, but note the uniform width of the strips that make up this abstract pattern, the overlapping elements, and the folding inside the tighter curves.
Up close, you can see a small premade tape carefully arranged into an abstracted motif joined together with bobbin lace. While the delicate pattern is clearly designed to emulate Honiton and similar style bobbin lace, even the finest tape cannot emulate the level of detail characteristic of fully handmade lace.
Of course, this piece of tape lace is much finer than what we see in the book. It’s even possible that the tape was handwoven before being tied into lace. The pattern in the book would likely be made with commercially made tape such as this:
This tape even has threads at the sides that can be pulled on to curl it slightly. When done carefully, this would allow it to lie perfectly flat even when arranged in curves. This would minimize the puckering and folding that is often characteristic of tape lace.
Doing more digging into the boxes of laces at my disposal, I was able to find a few pieces made in this style, including one very familiar looking one.
Though simplified, this lace could easily have been directly inspired by the illustration. The leaf shapes made of graphic, thick tape and filled in with two rows of a classic six-sided ground pattern are near identical, as is the use of roundels joined by bars filling in the more open areas.
La Mode Illustrée was something of a fashion Bible for the time. Finding examples like that, illustrations that are near exact matches of extant pieces, is not so unusual. I even found another later in the book.
Like the drawing, this piece was done with thicker tape for a bolder, more graphic look and a heavier style of ground to match. Another interesting characteristic of this lace is the bars. The floral example, designed to emulate bobbin lace, shows plaited bars. These are done with incredibly fine buttonhole stitches, how all needle lace is traditionally made.
Using the context of the primary source to guide me, I gain a deeper understanding of the extant pieces I am looking at. It shows me how women of the past might have been looking towards each other for inspiration, as well as how they simplified processes to save time. With the floral-patterned illustration to guide me, I was able to see the connections between pieces of lace that, at first glance, appear very different and gain a fuller understanding of the pieces I’m working with.