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Lace in Fashion at NGV

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by Courtney Symes (subscribe)
Courtney is a freelance fashion, art and design writer and content creator for - an online boutique specialising in quality gifts for men. Read more of Courtney’s work at
Like many beautiful things man has created, lace developed out of boredom, explains Patricia Begg during her Floor Talk for the Lace in Fashion exhibition at NGV. Lace was originally developed as a decorative fashion textile during the sixteenth century to add interest and individual flair to plain garments.

Lace in Fashion showcases exquisite examples of lace developed over hundreds of years and highlights the changes in this intriguing technique up to the present day. Lace is an "illusive material that covers many mediums", explains Begg. Hand or machine-made lace cannot be unpicked. The word 'lace' originated from the Latin word for noose knot, referring to a knot that does not slip. Some of the different styles of lace making include Irish Crochet, Tatting, Broderie Anglais (embroidered cotton) and Macramé (a Turkish form of knot-making that was originally utilised for making fishing nets and tent fringes).

The development of lace was also effected by the ever changing and developing textile industry. During the 13th and 14th centuries, the manufacturing process of linen was perfected, which coincided with society's increased interest in decorating and adorning clothing. During this time, women would wear an apron over their 'good skirt' to keep it clean. This prompted them to experiment with cutting holes in their aprons to reveal parts of their good skirt underneath. Overtime, this practice developed into 'cut-work'. Cut-out sections of the apron were stitched over with button-hole stitch, creating sheer, decorative lace-like panels. These needlepoint embroidery techniques developed to the point where the base fabric was no longer required - just the stitches were created, forming the first types of lace.

Different types of lace began to develop, such as needlepoint (embroidery) and bobbin lace (weaving). Needlepoint was one of the earliest styles of lace to develop, using a pattern template that was attached to a cushion as numerous button-hole stitches formed the piece of lace on top. A detailed piece of lace could have 6000-7000 stitches per square inch, taking a painstakingly long time to create.

Lace making was not only a labor-intensive, but also a personal skill. Due to the thread tension involved in creating a piece of lace, only the lace-maker could wind their bobbins. Just winding the bobbins was a time consuming activity and for this reason making a piece of lace could take months, if not years depending on the size and complexity of the piece. "The level of work involved in these products we cannot understand today," as there was an "extraordinary time factor involved" says Begg.

The main fibre that was used for lace-making was linen. The quality of the linen fibres used at the time were so fine that you could not feel the fibre when you rubbed it between your fingers, resulting in pieces with 6000 plus stitches to the inch. Unfortunately a virus spread through Europe, devastating most of the flax crops (as well as wheat and barley) and linen fibre this fine has been difficult to recreate. Flax was the preferred fibre over silk as it was more durable and lasted longer. Horse hair was also occasionally used as padding in the lace design and stitched over for a three dimensional effect.

Lace became popular in society as the fashionable people that everyone idolised (such as Lucrezia Borgia and Elizabeth I) started to wear lace. Begg tells the story of Napoleon, who insisted on wearing a lace veil on his wedding day. The date of his wedding was even moved to ensure that the veil was completed on time.

As lace became more popular and accessible, it was used in all sorts of products, from decorative handkerchiefs to lappets (worn around women's heads) to skirt hems and dressing table decorations. In past times, the front of a woman's dressing table was adorned with a piece of lace - a surprisingly important feature in a household. A lot of entertaining was traditionally done in the bedroom, so the dressing table became "a mark of wealth" for its owner. Begg explains that the lace displayed on the front of a dressing table was the best your family could afford.

From 1850-1870, the increased size of crinolines lead to a demand for larger pieces of lace to be made via machine. The industrial revolution saw the rapid growth of machine made lace. Production of lace on a mass scale made it cheaper and more accessible to all members of society. Flax was also replaced with spun cotton. It often took one to two weeks to set up a lace machine and once running, the machine would not stop until the lace was completed with factory workers working in shifts to monitor the machine. Some of these original machines are still in operation today. Although there was a level of labour and skill involved in running lace machines, it was not anywhere near the level of time and care a lace maker would have originally invested in producing a much smaller piece.

The fragility and intricacy of the lace samples included in this exhibition will leave visitors with a deep appreciation for lace-making and these timeless pieces of beauty we can still admire today.

Don't miss Patricia Begg's (OAM, President, Ceramics and Glass Circle of Australia) The elusive beauty of lace Floor Talk on 19th January 2011.
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Why? what's not to love about lace?
When: unit 23 January 2011
Where: NGV International, St Kilda Rd
Cost: Free
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