Antiques: The delicate story of lace – Desert Sun


The making of lace is one of those things that almost defies belief. The eyesight, the patience and the steady hands that are required almost seem beyond the ken of mere mortals, and the results can be equally other-worldly.
All the same, the history of handmade lace goes back through the ages in a manner virtually unchanged since its beginning. If you have old family linens that rarely see the light of day, take another look at them after you finish reading this. You might find them to be a lot more interesting than before.
First of all, non-sewers like me need to know the difference between knitting, crocheting, tatting and lace-making. They are all different forms of lace, some requiring two or more needles along with plenty of practice and care. For its part, traditional lace-making is single-needle work requiring a needle, thread and maybe a bobbin. At its essence, lace is a lattice-work of patterns held in place by a series of what might be described as netting. Almost all lace made today is machine-made; making lace by mechanical means dates back at least to the American Revolution. Still, its handcrafted origins go back even earlier when lace was a luxury fabric of the highest order.
By the beginning of the 19th century, the quality of machined lace had improved to the point where it could compete with the handmade variety and soon was being added to all kinds of couture collections. Artisan lace makers fought back, introducing new styles and complexities that machines couldn’t match.
Nonetheless, the mechanized shops upped their game, and by World War I lace had become an affordable addition to wedding dresses, household linens and other products. Over the years, lace has been made from a variety of materials, including cotton, linen, silk, wool, synthetic fabrics and even metal thread. It may not be as popular as in years gone by, but the patina of elegance that it conveys remains unmatched.
Among lace enthusiasts of today there are connoisseurs who can tell not only the country of origin but also what type of machine made any given type of lace. For the rest of us lay-people, it is enough to be able to distinguish handmade from machine-made lace, and it’s generally not difficult. Handmade lace has an irregularity that is simply unavoidable in its manufacture, while machined lace is relentlessly uniform. And given the high degree of artisanship required of the best handmade variety, it is rather surprising that there are few if any recognizable rock stars among early lace makers. Most lace made by hand was done so anonymously, often by nuns or others only to be sold and resold until the authorship was lost. If there were exceptional makers, as there surely were, they are all but unknown today.
So, getting back to your linen closet: Take a look at Grandma’s old handkerchiefs, napkins and table runners. Some and perhaps many will include lace trim or edgings of a delicacy worthy of admiration. Before a move or generational transition, many grannies carefully packed their linens in trunks or crates in preparation for travel, never to be opened again. Go up and take a look if you have one of those in your attic. If not, galleries like ours often have a wide range of antique linens at very moderate prices. Those are time capsules of artistry that should be taken out and enjoyed just as in the past.
Mike Rivkin and his wife, Linda, are longtime residents of Rancho Mirage. For many years, he was an award-winning catalogue publisher and has authored seven books, along with countless articles. Now, he’s the owner of Antique Galleries of Palm Springs. His antiques column appears Saturdays in The Desert Sun. Want to send Mike a question about antiques? Drop him a line at [email protected].

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