Origins – History of Lace
Posted on 28th July 2017
Louisa of Brighton Lace tells us the story behind this beautiful textile.
It is difficult to know exactly when and where lacemaking started. Some
say it began in Belgium where a painting of a priest wearing a lace trim
collar was found and dated back to 1485. Over in Italy however, a
Milanese family by the name of Sforza was also known to be producing
lace around the same time. Wherever lace first came from, one thing is certain;
it’s popularity quickly swept across Europe, and over the next century lace
was used to decorate everything from dresses to door knobs!
Historians do agree that making lace was traditionally the work of nuns
and high ecclesiastics of the catholic church who used lace in religious
ceremonies to adorn alters as well as the robes of priests. There are a
number of different techniques used in lace creation but needlelace seems
to have been the very first. Fine linen thread was woven from locally
grown flax seed, and this was used to make threadwork, cut work and
darned netting know in Italian as “Punto in Aria” literally, “Stitches in the
It was during the 16th Century that the fashion for lace really peaked, and
there are many extracts in books and diaries that talk of peasants eeking
out an extra living through lacemaking for local aristocracy. Only the
clergy and the very wealthy would have been able to afford lace and for
this reason it was regarded as an emblem of great prestige. You will have
seen paintings of the influential men of the era men wearing sculpted lace
collars and ruffs. A closer look at these laces will reveal the stylised motifs
of flowers and scrolls echoing the grand style in architecture and
furnishings of the time. And not forgetting the iconic image of Queen
Elizabeth in her “Armada Portrait”, where she is decked out in all her lacy
finery with her huge and highly fashionable lace ruffs proclaiming victory
and military might.
Throughout the ages, lace has been a loved by English Royalty. Queen
Victoria had particularly decadent tastes when it came to the stuff, very
often matching her fans and veils to her lace skirts.
And to come to present day any blog about the history of lace could not
forget the remarkable lace dress created for the Duchess of Cambridge for
her wedding in 2011. Sarah Burton, protégée of Alexander McQueen,
designed the dress using six different types of lace including
floral motifs cut out of lengths of lace and stitched to machine net. Three companies
are known to have produced lace for the dress: Sophie Hallette and Solstiss
in France, and perhaps most significantly Cluny Lace Company in Ilkeston, near Nottingham.
Once the beating heart of the world’s industry, the Nottingham lace
district used to employ a third of the city’s working population. Since then
competition with the Far East has seen a radical decline in textile
production in the U.K., and today there are very few people left with the
technical knowledge and skill of the previous generations. Cluny Lace, the
centuries-old family business (with nine generations of expertise) are now
the last remaining lace manufacturer left in England. In order to compete
with the offshore competition they took a risk and sold off their modern
Raschel machines – the huge, computer-driven automatons which now
make mass-produced lace a relatively cheap product across the world.
Instead Cluny decided to rely entirely on century-old Leavers machines
with their beautiful Jacquard cards, intricate patterns and clanking metal
“No-one has the style of patterns we do,” says Charles Mason who inherited Cluny.
“[They’re] the closest you can get to handmade lace that’s made by a machine.”
About Brighton Lace
Because of England’s long history of lacemaking, it was clear to me that I
wanted to start a lingerie company using fabric made in this country. After
some considerable research I discovered that despite the closure of nearly
all of our lace manufactures, a few key individuals managed bridged the
changes, switching from skilled industry experts and manufacturers to
English fabric merchants. Over the course of 15-20 years, a handful of
these people bought up thousands of meters of remnant laces and
leftover fabrics, essentially saving the produce of over a hundred English
factories and lingerie companies that went out of business.
What this means for us is that everything we make has to be Limited
Edition. So, for instance, we may only find say 250m of a particular lace
and that will make around 40 sets. Once that lace is finished it’s gone
forever and we have to start on something new. Recently we discovered
one of our bestselling laces was actually an old lace created for M&S.
Apparently it had designed by the Birkin family who were once renowned
lace Nottingham manufactures with a premises on Broadway in Lace
Market. Each of our laces has a similar story to tell, and for me that makes
that’s where the magic is – there is something special about breathing new
life into fabrics that have taken generations of skill and knowledge to
create, and to me that’s worth celebrating. I like to think that when you
buy something from us, you aren’t just choosing a pretty new lingerie set,
you are selecting something that speaks of the entire history of English
lace, and to all that has gone before.
We love learning more about the materials used by our makers! do you own a piece of gorgeous lingerie from Brighton Lace?
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