Stitches in the Air

Published on 21 March 2021 at 21:44

Surely the 17th Century must be the century of lace. It was high fashion for both men and women - in the form of ruffs, collars, cuffs, coifs and caps.


A Brief History of Lace

Lace developed out of drawn thread work or reticella, a technique where threads are drawn out of linen fabric and the resulting holes were filled with decorative stitches. Over time the holes got larger and larger, until there was more ‘hole’ than fabric. At some point someone realised you could get rid of the fabric altogether and just use a series of foundation threads to work the fancy stitches over. And needle lace was born!


Needle lace versus bobbin lace

Reticella and early needle laces were geometric in style, being worked over a grid of supportive threads. Early bobbin lace imitated these designs but used a very different technique to do this.




To make needle lace you stitch lots of little buttonhole stitches along and between foundation threads, making it a form of embroidery. The Italian term used to describe early needle lace is punto in aria – stitches in the air.



Bobbin lace uses bobbins to hold, move and add tension to the working threads. The lace maker moves the bobbins to plait and weave the lace, using pins to hold the pattern to a supporting pillow. Frequently, one of the bobbins (known as the ‘worker’) is used like a weft thread. Therefore, bobbin lace is akin to weaving.

Lace as fashion

The first use of lace seems to be on ecclesiastical robes, then was used to trim items of household linen such as tablecloths, napkins, and bed clothes.


From the mid 16th Century reticella was decorating the linen underclothes of the wealthy. Simple needle lace edging started to appear on cuffs and neck frills of shirts and smocks soon after.




These cuff and neck frills soon became deeper and developed into separate starched ruffs. As these became wider the lace edging became more complex, often combining several different pattern motifs creating rounded scallops and points.



Ruffs remained high fashion into the 17th Century, but other forms of neckwear were also worn, using excessive amounts of lace. Flat ‘falling bands’ or collars had been worn as an alternative to ruffs since the time of Elizabeth I’s reign. These took over prominence when ruffs finally went out of fashion about 1620.



Its interesting that as wide flat collars came into fashion, the type of fashionable lace changed too. Whilst ruffs held sway, it was the fine, geometric Italian needle laces which were most popular. But heavier Dutch bobbin laces were the fashionable choice for falling bands.


Women also had a wider choice of neckwear to adorn with lace – both needle and bobbin – during the 17th Century. These included broad pinners and tuckers (which fitted around the fashionable low necklines of gowns and waistcoats), partlets which modestly covered exposed throats and chests, kerchiefs elegantly draped around shoulders, as well as masculine style bands, worn during riding and hunting. Best of all, if you couldn’t decide which to wear you could wear them all together.


If something was made of linen, you could put lace on it. This included women’s coifs and cross cloths, and men’s night caps, worn informally at home. Straight edged laces could also be inserted between the seams of linen undergarments.


Gilt laces – made using gold or silver wire – could be sewn flat onto the surface of other outer garments, such as petticoats and doublets. Used like braid, lace trimmed hems and outlined seams.


In a reversal of fortune, as heavy bobbin laces continued to be fashionable, needle laces began to imitate their more scrolling, floral patterns.


Worth its weight in gold

So – why was lace so fashionable?


To be seen wearing lace was a huge status symbol and a sign of wealth. The lace makers were poorly paid, and the basic material (linen thread) commonplace and readily available. Before mechanisation lace was extremely expensive, mainly due to the amount of time it takes to make by hand. Despite a burgeoning domestic lacemaking industry in England, the most fashionable laces were from Italy and Flanders, adding import costs to an already high price. Laces of both varieties cost more than their weight in gold.


A fabric or textile intended for wear should meet two main objectives – to keep you warm and cover nakedness. Lace fails on both these counts, it’s one aim is to look pretty. To choose to wear lace might be considered frivolous, which is why many wealthy individuals of a godly ‘puritan’ leaning abstained from wearing lace. The wearing of lace was also frowned upon during periods of mourning.

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