Lace and Lacemaking in the Time of Vermeer

(part one)

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.

Lacemaking as a separate craft is supposed to have its origin in the Middle Ages in Italy. 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. Unlike embroidery, lace could be unsewn from one material to be replaced on another.

Essentially, there exist two kinds of lace, needlepoint lace and bobbin lace. 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.

The Love of Lace lace Click here for a more information about the tools and technique of lacemaking in Vermeer's Lacemaker

of garment, caps, pillows, tablecloth etc.

The first known lacemaking pattern books came from sixteenth-century Italy. 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 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.

"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."2

The Flanders, and in particular, Brussels, became one of principal and renowned centers for lacemaking and its trade in Northern Europe. But lacemaking, together with linen weaving and whitework, was nevertheless commonly 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.3

"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 thread3 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.5

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.6

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 which may be a local fashion or have come from a local source, such as the Haarlem school 'De Hoek'.7

The Technique of Bobbin Lacemaking

Bobbin lace8 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. 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.

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."9 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.

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

.in collaboration with Adelheid Rech.

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 lace pillow or trommelkussen, with
the pattern (kantbrief) and the bobbins (kantklosjes).
bobbin lace
Bobbin lacemaking today.