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Lace and Lacemaking in the Time of Vermeer

in collaboration with Adelheid Rech

Of many Arts, one surpasses all. For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, ... and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of Kings.

Jacob van Eyck, 1651.

LACE (French, dentelle; Spanish, encaje; German, Spitze; Italian, merletto). Lace is properly a transparent fabric worked with needles or with bobbins or with crochet hooks, sewing, knotting, intertwining threads of all sorts: gold, silver, silk, cotton and aloe, but more often linen.

Memlingfig. 1 The Virgin and Child between St James and St Dominic (detail)
Hans Memling
c. 1485–1490
– Oil on oak panel, 130.3 x 160 cm.
Louvre Museum, Paris

The origin of lace, as a separate craft, is disputed by historians. An Italian claim is a will of 1493 by the Milanese Sforza family. A Flemish claim is lace on the alb of a worshiping priest in a painting about 1485 by Hans Memling (fig. 1). But since lace evolved from other techniques, it is impossible to say that it originated in any one place. However, some authors assume that the manufacturing of lace began during Ancient Rome, based on the discovery of small bone cylinders in the shape of bobbins. For firm evidence of true lace we must look back to the fifteenth century when Charles the Fifth decreed that lacemaking was to be taught in the schools and convents of the Belgian provinces. During this period of enlightenment, the making of lace was firmly based within the domain of fashion. To be precise, lace was designed to replace embroidery and easily transform dresses to follow different styles of fashion. Lace developed from the embroidery technique of cutwork, whereby a design is cut out of a woven cloth and the edges are secured with thread to stabilize the voided design and to provide further decorative texture. During the sixteenth century, the technique of lacemaking was freed from a woven foundation, and became a fabric in its own right.

Essentially, there exist two kinds of lace, needlepoint lace and bobbin lace: both involve the manipulation of fine linen thread and they are commonly referred to by the names of the tools used. Needlepoint lace is made with a single-thread technique using embroidery stitches while bobbin lace, developed after needlepoint lace, was made with a variety of multiple-thread weaving techniques. Bobbin lace is also known as pillow lace, because it was worked on a pillow, and bone lace, because early bobbins were made of bone. Bobbin lace, the kind which is represented in Vermeer's famous Lacemaker, had been developed to provide the borders of garment, caps, pillows, tablecloth etc. with tough but likewise decorative elements. The finest laces required many hours to produce. The technique was perfected to such a high degree during the eighteenth century that the pictorial possibilities were virtually limitless. Even after techniques for “part lace” (part lace is made in pieces or motifs that can be joined together in a ground, net or mesh, or with plaits, bars or legs) were perfected and lace could be made in pieces by several workers, each one specializing in one type of stitch or pattern, lacemaking was still tremendously slow work and high-quality lace was extremely expensive.

Lacemaking techniques quickly spread to Spain and from there north to the Spanish Netherlands, France, Germany and England. "In the quintessential Elizabethan era, lace ruffs were worn in various incarnations by all but the lowest classes. Yards of lace were required for a single modest ruff, making elaborate ones were extremely costly. Ruffs were not the only lace items in demand at this time. Lace was used to trim anything from altar cloths to ecclesiastical vestments to tooth cloths and pillow beres (pillow cases)."1 By the late seventeenth century, the northern European lacemaking centers surpassed Italy as producers of the most fashionable designs. Although France was the trendsetter, Flemish laces always rivaled the French due in large part to the unsurpassed quality of their linen thread.

Given the scarcity of dated bobbin lace samples of the mid 16th century, researchers rely heavily on early pattern books of the 16th and 17th centuries to chart the development of the art. The first known lacemaking pattern books came from sixteenth-century Italy. The earliest documentation of bobbin lace—Vermeer's lacemaking girl clearly making bobbin lace—is the pattern book Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn (fig. 2 & 3), by an author known only as "R. M." The Nûw Modelbuch, a copy of which is preserved in the Zentralbibliothek Zürich, was printed in 1561 by Christopher Froschower in Zurich. "The title page of the Nüw Modelbuch is the earliest representation of a bobbin lacemaker known. The bobbins hang off the pillow (fig. 4), and the lacemakers appear to be working with an 'underhand' position, while securing the work with pins with the right hand. The bobbins themselves hang off the front of the pillow. This technique survives today and is referred to as 'working in the air,' and is especially useful for executing plaited laces. It can be contrasted with developments in Flanders where an overhand position is used, and the bobbins are laid flat on the pillow and manipulated with the fingers. This facilitates the turning of corners in the pattern."2

Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschnfig. 2 Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn (cover)
R. M.
Printed by Christoph Froschauer
Zûrich, 1561
Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschnfig. 3 Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn (page VI)
R. M.
Printed by Christoph Froschauer
Zûrich, 1561
Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn, R. M.fig. 4 Nûw Modelbuch, Allerley Gattungen Däntelschn (detail of title page)
R. M.
Printed by Christoph Froschauer
Zûrich, 1561

Another early image of someone producing bobbin lace was produced by the Flemish painter, Maerten de Vos (c. 1534–1603), in a series of etchings called The Seven Ages of Man, which date from c. 1580–1585. The series is based on the planets and in the print called Venus, there is a young girl working on a lace pillow in the lower right hand side of the print (fig. 5).

 Maerten de Vos, The Seven Ages of Manfig. 5 Venus (detail from the series The Seven Ages of Man)
Maerten de Vos
c. 1580–1585
Engraving on paper, 31.1 x 22.2 cm.
Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam

In 1557, the Nûw Modelbuch was followed by Le Pompe, Opera Nova, nella qvale si ritrovano varie & dinerse sorti di mostre, per poter far Cordelle ouero Bindelle, d’oro, di Seta, di Filo, ouero di altra cosa … produced by the Sessa brothers in Venice. After the two mentioned volumes little was published until Isabetta Catanea Parasole's Speccio delle virtuose donne (The Mirror of Virtuous Women), published in Rome in 1595 (fig. 6). Unfortunately, the early pattern books contain no working instructions so interpretation of the patterns is left to the lacemaker. In any case, the pattern books bear evidence that bobbin lace did not start simple and become complex: rather they show from the beginning complexity and variety of working methods.

Parasolefig. 6 Specchio delle virtuose donne
Isabetta Catanea Parasole
1595 (Rome)
lace Click here for a more information about the tools and technique of lacemaking in Vermeer's Lacemaker of garment, caps, pillows, tablecloth etc.

Lace was initially used by clergy of the early Catholic Church as part of vestments in religious ceremonies but did not come into widespread use until the 16th century in the northwestern part of the European continent. The late 16th century marked the rapid development of lace, both needle lace and bobbin lace became dominant in both fashionas well as home décor. Lace was used for enhancing the beauty of collars and cuffs, needle. The popularity of lace increased rapidly and the cottage industry of lace making spread throughout Europe. But "lace was more than just a sumptuous and highly coveted luxury, affordable by only the privileged and well-born. It was also the product of an industry that provided a living to thousands of workers. It formed a considerable portion of the revenue of many nations, and played a role in history that goes largely unrecognized and unremarked today."3

The Flanders, and in particular, Brussels, became one of principal and renowned centers for lacemaking and its trade in Northern Europe. Lacemaking, together with linen weaving and whitework, was nevertheless practiced in the Northern Provinces as well, and the particularly fine woven linen from Holland had been already praised by Fynes Moryson after his journeys through the Low Countries in the 1590s.4 The English diarist Samuel Pepys often wrote about the lace used for his, his wife's, and his acquaintances' clothing, and on 10 May 1669, noted that he intended to remove the gold lace from the sleeves of his coat "as it is fit [he] should", possibly in order to avoid charges of ostentatious living.

"Demand for lace was so high and widespread that many women became lacemakers. Lace schools for village girls were founded by noblewomen, their patronage being paid for in lace, no doubt. Children of both genders were enrolled at about age five or so, with boys usually leaving as they grew strong enough for harder labor. Not that the life of a lacemaking student was easy. Even children worked from dawn till dusk, often in crowded, unventilated rooms without even the most primitive of sanitary facilities.

Even worse was the lot of those who spun the incredibly fine thread5 used to make the lace. These poor souls plied their trade in damp and darkness. The fiber would break if it dried out, so the spinners frequently worked in basements lit by a pinhole in a shutter that allowed only a single beam of light to fall upon their thread. Once trained, lacemakers were no longer a burden on the family's resources. A girl could save towards her own dowry. She could continue to make lace after she married to contribute to her household's income and if she was widowed, she could support herself and her children. This new economic power, coupled with the Queen as a role model, may have sown the seeds of social change towards today's female independence.6

Characteristics of Dutch Lace

* Lace with continuous thread technique.

* The motifs are mostly cauliflower or chrysanthemum design.

* The motifs are worked very densely in cloth stitch with jours or small holes.

* The motifs are surrounded by a ring of whole stitch.

* The motifs are not surrounded by a contouring thread.

* The borders are mostly straight, at one side with picots.

* The ground is mostly Point de Paris in cloth stitch or whole stitch.

* As the linen thread is very fine the ground looks like being plaited.
Although it bears the name Dutch lace, the lace was made in Flanders.

from: Diane Claeys, UK: Claeys Antique


Dutch Lace

In the Netherlands, needlework was normally done by the women of the household whether rich or poor. It was a matter of course that young girls were taught sewing, embroidery and lacemaking, frequently in order to provide economic support for their parents. However, along side household women, there was a sizable number of professionals, called naaisters, who did sewing and needlework for a livelihood. A sharp distinction was made between those who worked with wool and those who worked with other materials. The first where organized in Guilds while the later, perhaps because they were simply too many and would have been impossible to control, were not. The reason for naming it Dutch lace is simple: the lace was made in the Flanders province for export to Holland. Dutch lace is also called Cauliflower or Chrysanthemum lace because of the pattern. In the many portraits of that period, we can see that Dutch lace was a thick, closely worked, strong lace. It formed a nice effect and contrast on their costumes. Dutch laces became famous because of the quality of its flax thread. The Flemish thread was bleached in Harlem (Holland) and was considered the best flax thread in the world.

Stories written down by English travelers from the seventeenth century tell us that Dutch houses were full of lace. Dutch laces were not only used to decorate garments but also for decoration of their household objects. Even their brasses and warming pans were muffled in laces. The people of Holland had unusual customs with lace. For example, they tied lace around the door knocker of their home to announce a new born baby. This was intended not only as a decoration but it also had a practical purpose. The baby would not wake up from knocking because the lace deadened the sound of the door knocker. Dutch lace was exported to other parts of Europe and America through Holland.

Dutch cities maintained orphanages, like Amsterdam (the Maagdenhuis), Haarlem, or Dordrecht (the Holy Ghost orphanage) where the young girls, beside the regular school lessons received lessons in needlework by special sewing-mistresses. At the same time they worked long hours each day to earn some money.

Furthermore, there existed religious communities, like "De Hoek" in Haarlem, normally Catholic, which ran schools for children of needy parents in which the girls were contemporarily instructed in the Catholic religion and taught sewing and bobbin lacemaking as trades. Similar schools attached to communities were found in Gouda and Delft and it is likely that Vermeer would have been aware of their presence due to his tie to the Catholic faith. The women who taught needlework in these schools were called klopjes, Catholic women who were neither nuns nor laywomen, but lead a life dedicated to their religion. In the villages these schools, which were always private, were for the most part little more than child-minding establishments, where young children were taught to knit and sew along with the Alphabet as well. In the towns they provided a form of apprenticeship opportunity, whereby girls could learn a trade. The girls where placed at these schools at the age of around ten to twelve and later began to earn something.7

The lacemaking industry in Holland had never reached the dimensions that it did in the Southern Netherlands, and the great part of the lace used there came from Flanders. Nevertheless, a considerable amount of bobbin lace, known in those times as speldewerk ("pin work"), was made in Holland even though it was of inferior quality. In some cases special bobbin lace workrooms (e.i., Groningen in 1674) were so profitable that the authorities decided to set up such workrooms in a house next to the orphanage, where the girls could be supervised by the mistresses.

The trade of the speldewerkster or bobbin lacemaker was normally a separate one from that from linen seamstress, although some of the seamstress were also able to make lace and teach lacemaking.

With the refinement in fashion the lace patterns especially for collars and cuffs developed from relatively simple ones to very fine, elaborately made pieces, whereby special patterns soon became closely related with a single town, where it had come from. So we can find, for example, on portraits by Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck from Haarlem certain types of lace (fig. 7) which may be a local fashion or have come from a local source, such as the Haarlem school "De Hoek."8

lacefig. 7 Portrait of a Woman
Johannes Cornelisz. Verspronck
Oil on canvas, Oil on canvas, 81.3 x 66 cm.
Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede

The woman's collar displays borders of bobbin lace using additional colored threads.

The Technique of Bobbin Lacemaking

Bobbin lace9 can be divided conveniently into two groups on the basis of the working methods involved: first, non-continuous laces (à pièce rapportées), and second, so-called "straight" or continuous laces (fig. 8 & 9) . Bobbins had several functions. They store the thread for the lace, they act as handles to move the thread, and they weight the threads to keep tension against the pins. "Bobbin lace is worked on a firm pillow over a pricked pattern. Thread is wound on bobbin pairs and twisted around pins set in the pattern or "pricking" until the tension of the work holds the design in place. Bobbin lace was sometimes called "pillow lace" for the pillow used to hold the pins, or "bone lace" because fish bones were used by lacemakers who couldn't afford pins (and/or because small bones were sometimes used as bobbins). Bobbins are wound and used in pairs. It is best to wind half of the thread onto one bobbin and then the other half onto the other. It is important to always wind the thread onto the bobbin in the same direction.

fig. 8 The lace pillow or trommelkussen, with
the pattern (kantbrief) and the bobbins (kantklosjes)
bobbin lacefig. 9 Bobbin lacemaking today

All bobbin lace is the result of two simple movements—the "cross" and the "twist" just as the most intricate knitted designs are formed of the basic "knit" and "purl" stitches. Regional differences in lace patterns and in shapes of lace bobbins arose but "Torchon" was a basic style of bobbin lace made through out Europe. Usually made from linen thread, it was a surprisingly sturdy lace (the name means "dishcloth," probably a comment on its washablity). (also called "ground") or woven to form solid shapes, depending on the type of lace to be made."10 An experienced lacemaker (speldewerker or kantkloster today) is able to work with one hundred or even more bobbins very quickly.

The patterns (patroons or kantbrieven) were originally made of parchment for increased stability. The threads were normally made of linen, cotton or silk although human hair was used exceptionally. For costly designs gold and silver threads are inserted, others employ additional colored threads or ornamental elements attached after the lace was completed.

In Vermeer's Lacemaker we can clearly distinguish the bobbins, the brownish kantbrieven, the light blue lacemaking cushion and even a curious three-legged adjustable lacemaking table.

Marni Harang. “The Flowers of Flanders: Seventeenth-Century Flemish Bobbin Tape Lace.” in PieceWork, May/June 1994.

During the first half of the seventeenth century, bobbin-lace techniques multiplied and spread throughout Europe. The result, in the United Provinces of Flanders, was the production of fine tape laces known as Flemish bobbin-tape laces. The dark, rich colors of fine wool and velvet clothing showed off the dense, wide textured white laces to perfection.

The prosperous burghers and members of the upper classes of society whose portraits were painted by Rembrandt and other artists of the period wore clothing heavily decorated with Flemish tape laces. Rembrandt's Portrait of a Woman (fig. 10) offers a fine example of the Flemish bobbin-tape lace of the period. The subject is dressed in characteristically modest but fashionable attire. Her clothing includes three different Flemish tape laces. A wide, flat insertion forming the central portion of the broad collar is connected to a wide edging of deep symmetrical scallops. A third lace, comprising small rounded scallops of separate petals joined by tiny braids and sewings, edges her cap. In the collar, a relatively small plain linen section extends from the middle of the neck to the collarbone and acts as a base for both the square lace insertion and the scalloped lace edging. The shape and depth of the former copy the squared necklines of fashionable gowns of the period. In this lace, flowing, circular floral forms alternate with smaller, four-petaled flowers. At the inner corners of the insertion, a vase motif with a narrow base and broad top lets the lace change direction in a symmetrical and continuous line without having to be folded or overlapped. A more complex version of this simple vase shape recurs in the wide lace edging.

Rembrandt van Rijn, Portrait of a Womanfig. 10 Portrait of a Woman (detail)
Rembrandt van Rijn
Oil on panel, 77.5 x 64.8 cm.
Cleveland Museum of Art

The entire insertion band has been worked in a continuous line of dense bobbin-lace cloth-stitch tape that has been curled back upon itself and joined with simple sewings. The spaces between the large, circular flowers and the smaller, four-petaled flowers, as well those between the floral motifs and the vase motif, have been filled with small two- or four-strand braids and narrow lace tapes.

Two layers of deeply scalloped tape lace in a vase and floral design extend the collar to form a small cape over the woman's torso and shoulders. The upper layer rests upon the lower one in soft folds: the lower layer is made in the same overall design as the upper, but its motifs are larger. The entire collar is full enough to meet and slightly overlap in the front without a closure.

The delicate Flemish bobbin-tape laces shown in the Rembrandt portrait represent a step in the development of bobbin-lace techniques in Europe. They reflect a prosperous time, and the people, especially the members of a well-to-do merchant class, who helped create the prosperity, benefited from it, and were pleased to wear its finely made products.

The following resources were used for the compilation of this study.


  1. Bobbin Lace, Lara Cathcart < http://home.aol.com/lclacemker/bobbinlacepage1.html>
  2. Waters, Laurie. "A New Interpretation of Certain Bobbin Lace Patterns in Le Pompe, 1559." in Textile Society of America Symposium Proceedings. Paper 754.
  3. History of Lace, <http://people.delphiforums.com/standart/lacehistory.html>
  4. See Patricia Wardle, "Needle and Bobbin in Seventeenth-century Holland". Bulletin of the Needle & Bobbin Club CXVI (1983). 3. <http://www2.cs.arizona.edu/patterns/weaving/periodicals/nb_83.pdf>
  5. These days, these strains of flax have been lost because the use of modern day fertilizers has meant that the plant fibers are no longer as fine as they once were.
  6. ibid.
  7. Wardle 1983. 6–7.
  8. Wardle 1983. 10–11.
  9. Unfortunately, there were only two pattern books which where published in the 16th century that where devoted to bobbin lace. These two books where both published around 1560. The first, Le Pompe, was published in two volumes in 1557 in Venice. The second was published in 1560. Nüw Modelbuch was printed in Zurich (Switzerland) in 1561.
  10. Lara Cathcart , Bobbin Lace. <http://home.aol.com/lclacemker/frameset2.html>

    The Structures of Antique Lace, Marla Mallett <http://www.marlamallett.com/lace.htm>

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