Making Lace By Hand - A Study in Patience

bobbin lace, hand made lace, handmade lace, history of lace, making lace, origins of lace -

Making Lace By Hand - A Study in Patience


Bobbin lace necklace in Vologda style set on a background of pale blue linen
A bridal necklace done in Vologda lace 

Making lace is nothing more or less than twisting strands together, but this simple definition seems inadequate for some of the great lacemaking traditions. Lace grew out of passementerie - the art of plaiting cords or ribbons, the best of gold or silver metal threads - in the 1400's. Switching to fine white linen thread and the obsession with ever finer patterns led to fantastical results by the 1600-1700's. 

There are two rough groups of 'true' handmade lace; bobbin (or bone) laces, which are formed using the aid of dozens or hundreds of tiny bobbins, and needle laces, which are formed using nothing more than a needle to guide the shape of the lace. These definitions are a bit fuzzy, though; certain laces like filet laces are hand-darned onto machine-made net, and antique Brussels lace was made of needle lace inserts carefully attached to a background of handmade bobbin lace. 

Here in the shop, we produce bobbin lace in a variety of styles. The narrow tape- or ribbon- laces are made by following a pattern wrapped around a bolster so that pieces of any size can be made. The pillows that accommodate this style look rather like a little bed, and the most common antique models are called Princess pillows. They're not easy to find anymore, so we had to make our own lace pillows to work on. We've named them the Belle pillows in honor of the old Princesses. 

Deep blue lacemaking pillow in Princess style with torchon lace in progress using dozens of bobbins
Torchon lace in progress on a Princess-style lacemaking pillow

Belgium (Flanders in particular) and Italy were two of the first producers of lace. No one will ever know just who made bobbin or needle lace first, but many historians agree that Belgium was an early center for both bobbin and needle lace, and Italy shows records of needle lace that go at least as far back. Even now, Burano lace (from an island off of Venice) is hailed as some of the finest needle lace in the world. 

Europe went lace crazy by the 1500's, and it was no surprise. Noblemen bragged about how many acres of good vineyard they had to sell for a ruff, and lace was left alongside estates and jewels in wills and trousseaus. It was a perfect form of portable wealth and could be transferred to different pieces of clothing as they wore out. Except for the a dip because of the French Revolution, lace reigned supreme for nearly 400 years.

In 1802, census records show two of my whole-bunch-of-greats- grandmothers as lace makers in England. One was a lace cutter, which was a much more difficult job - she had to cut motifs out of the other girls' laces, and repair the tiny threads when necessary. It was a bit like being a bomb specialist, but with emotional instead of physical blowout in case things went wrong. 

In 1840, Good Queen Victoria shocked the world by wearing what eventually become a classic - a pure white wedding gown. It was covered in handmade Honiton lace and was a huge boon to England's lacemakers. Everyone had to get married in one. Godey's Lady's Book, published some 10 years after, erroneously states that white had been the traditional color for hundreds of years because of how hard this trend swept the world. Royals had been married in white before, but no one did it better than the Queen. She later used her bridal lace on many other occasions, and used pieces for the royal family. 

Painting of young Queen Victoria, 1847

It wasn't long after my ancestor's days when the high cost and incredible amount of working hours spurred interest in developing machine-made laces. It was the Industrial Revolution! Machines could conquer the world! Though the first decent Leavers machine was patented around 1814, it didn't find its final form until the 1840's. With over 40,000 moving parts and dozens of steps to completion, machine made lace didn't really gain a secure foothold until the Great Depression brought luxuries to a crashing halt.

Desperate to make ends meet, without the money for clothing, food, or other necessaries, most lacemaking came to a grinding halt. But Nature abhors a vacuum, and determined girls found a way to get a semblance of that ethereal design onto the most homely of materials - gingham. 

Detail of red and white gingham apron, showing chickenscratch heart design on pocket
A cheerful apron pocket in classic chicken scratch

Called snowflaking, Depression lace, or chickenscratch, this homely form of embroidery stepped up as a way to make something out of nearly nothing. It might be a far cry from a queen's bridal gown, but it brightened up the cheapest of materials and lent itself to many cute designs. 

Gingham apron hem in blue and white check, embroidered with blue, red, and white chickenscratch design
Chickenscratch isn't always restrained to the gingham colors - introducing a new shade can be striking

Modern lacemaking has neither the vicissitudes of courtly life nor the hardscrabble bleakness of a depression to deal with - and with some fairly fine machine-made laces for cheap, it is almost a harder struggle. But with lacemaking, as well as with most things, there is no substitute for quality. 

Vologda white lace necklace, shown from the side close up on pale blue linen
Machine-made lace can never compare to real handmade lace

We're proud to offer handmade lace, to teach those willing to learn, and keep this beautiful art alive. Though it took me over 20 years to learn the basics, I'm happy to report that my students have picked up the craft in a fraction of the time. We hope to offer many more designs in the shop for years to come. 



  • Ezrah Richardson

    Dear Miss, just curiouse but do u think that Lace making once one gets the hang of it , that it could be a Money making Hobby? i mean odviously it will not make you rich but lets say it u r a Homemaker as your main occupation but u feel like u might want to do something a hobby to bring just a bit of extra cash into the home no matter if its 20 dollar or 100 at a time … it helps. I suppose what i am asking is could well done finnished Products be put on line to help bring a bit of money to the home …. cottage industry i suppose u would call it. Your thoughts, it seems like such a interesting art form/hobby that seems like it can be put to practical use as well. your thoughts.
    Sincerly yours
    E. Richardson

  • Juliana

    On line lessons, Jenny Brandis on YouTube. Laceioli. Hope it is useful

  • Broiderie Stitch - Jackie

    Thanks Jessie!

    I’m self taught as well, and online resources have been invaluable to me – although sometimes they can be tough to find. For learning stitches and bobbin lace grounds, Youtube has lots of tutorial videos. For patterns and designs to use them on, a search through the Antique Pattern Library will probably turn up some good patterns. Message us with what kinds of lace you’re interested in and I’ll see if I can find some more specifics for you.

    Best of luck!

  • Jessie Herman

    I recently picked up my embroidery hobby, and after reading this article I’m amazed, that lace can also be a form of embroidery!
    I’m in South Africa, is the lace training available online?
    Kind regards,

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