What It's Like To Be A Lace Minion

Hello, internet! My name is Irish Harvey and I'm interning with Elizabeth Emerson Designs this winter. As part of my job helping document Elizabeth's massive collection, I'll be putting together some blog posts about the interesting things we uncover. As my first, though, I wanted to talk about what exactly it is we're doing and what it's like to do this kind of work.

            When I accepted my internship with Elizabeth Emerson Designs, I knew a few things going in: 1) I would be working with her to catalogue incredible extant pieces of antique lace, 2) I would learn a lot, and 3) it would be very hard to explain any of my work to my family. Beyond that, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As a third year fibers major in a BFA program, I spend most of my life learning about and getting hands on with all sorts of fabrics and fibers. However, lace is something I know very little about. The history of it, even less. What I did know is this opportunity was too good to pass up, so I boarded a plane to Grants Pass ready to work.

            The first thing I learned, before we ever opened a single box, was just how much stuff there is. Elizabeth said a few times while we prepared, “I don’t think people have any idea how much stuff I have,” and she’s right. I thought I had an idea. I’m sure you do too. Whatever it is, double it. At least. Her home is a verifiable museum- it’s impossible to turn a corner without finding some sort of treasure there. My first night I ate my dinner with antique silver tableware, curled up under a handmade quilt, and slept under a bookshelf stuffed to the gills with vintage fashion catalogues and lace making manuals. Elizabeth lives and breathes her work, and for the time I’m with her, I get to as well.

Shelf antique French vintage ribbon lace
Just a small fraction of the workshop...

            This first week has been what I’m calling lace boot camp. We work organically through her stock. First, we pull as many boxes as we can onto a banquet table. Then we go through each piece inside one by one. If it needs a label, I take a guess at what it is, she tells me if I've gotten it right, and I write down as many characteristics of the piece as we can think of. I study it, trying to internalize what each type of lace looks like. Valenciennes is done in strips. It’s a bit blocky looking, but still delicate and beautiful. Cluny is chunkier, with a leaf motif. Needle lace as a whole has the finest buttonhole stitches I’ve ever seen and even thinking about trying to recreate some of these stitches makes my fingers cramp up. When I’m finished looking, each piece is arranged on low-acid paper (blue and purple are the best colors to photograph lace on), wrapped in archival mylar and categorized into the proper box subdivided with dividers. We do this for each and every piece. When she first showed me the sheer volume of what we were doing and told me we’d be done within a few days, I balked, but after going through the first pile I’m beginning to understand. It’s meticulous work, it’s careful work, but it isn’t slow. The biggest limiting factor to our progress, really, is how much information I can retain in one sitting. 

            One difficult, yet crucial step is identifying whether a piece of lace was made by hand or machine. Every so often, I’ll be given two pieces and asked to tell the difference. The differences are often minute. You’ll squint at a picot and look for distortion around it, imagining if a pin ever really sat inside it or if it was only made to look that way, or stare through a loop trying to decipher how individual threads lock together. Sometimes it is a matter of searching a piece for the tiny mistakes that betray a maker’s hand, but when the lace maker dedicated her life to the craft, those mistakes are few and far between. I get it right as often as I don’t, which probably says more about it being a 50/50 shot than my own abilities. It takes years to fully internalize the nuances of the structures for reliable identification. I’ve had days.

            What we are doing is as much an art as it is a science. At one point, I asked about a delicate, tiny piece of bobbin lace at the collar of a doll’s chemise. Hand or machined? Elizabeth determined quickly that it was machined but couldn’t pinpoint an exact reason why. With some things, she said, you’ve been doing it so long that you just know. Later, she handed me a small scrap of handmade bobbin lace to try and identify on my own. After careful consult with the resources she’d sent me, I could tell it was either Duchesse or Honiton lace but had no idea which. A deeper dive into the difference between the two revealed that the construction methods for the two can be so similar, it comes down to subtle differences in how the motifs are stylized. On simple enough pieces, it becomes impossible. You just have to make a judgement call. We labeled it as my initial guess, Duchesse, and moved on. The next time we saw a piece of Honiton, though, I could identify it with some confidence. Enough time staring at comparison charts, studying minute details you internalize it.

            Once we get past the organizing phase, it’s time for photography. This is the part I’m itching for—I can’t describe the feeling of examining 200 year old embroidery or bobbin lace in your hand and knowing you’re holding someone’s life’s work. I can, however, show you just how beautiful it is. Contemporary fiber artists and costumers like me owe a lot to people like Elizabeth that believe in beauty, handicraft, and ensuring the past is preserved and enjoyed not just for museums, but to be used, and I am so excited to be a part of it.

Posted by Irish Harvey on


Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published