Making Lace with Vermeer
in collaboration with Adelheid Rech
in collaboration with Adelheid Rech
"The depiction of women and young girls employed in needlework such as lace-making was no rarity in Vermeer’s time. These activities stood for diligence, docility, and female domestic virtues in general. Lace-making was part of a young girl’s education, preparing her for her future role as housewife. In a painting from 1654, the Leiden artist Quiringh Gerritsz van Brekelenkam (1622/29–1669/79), depicted three girls making lace under the instruction of an older woman (fig. 1). It is evidently an educational establishment, as besides the four cushions in use there are another four stored on the shelf on the wall. A further related type of picture belongs to the next phase in the life of a young woman: while she is occupied with her needlework, a young man pays her court. However, most of the paintings feature older women busy with their needlework; Nicolaes Maes (1634–1693) in particular repeatedly places them in charming domestic scenes (fig. 2)."Gregor Weber , "Up CLose ," in VERMEER, ed. Pieter Roelofs & Gregor Weber, Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam, 2023, 198.
Although we cannot directly see the kind of lace the girl is making, we can draw some conclusions from her tools which Vermeer has rendered with sufficient precision (fig. 1). The girl rests her hands on a rather flat, light-blue lacemaking pillow, nowadays called a "cookie"-pillow,The "cookie"-pillow is typically round and relatively flat, resembling a large cookie, which is where its name likely comes from. This shape is quite distinct from the longer, cylindrical bolster pillow. This type of pillow is generally used for making shorter pieces or strips of lace, as opposed to the longer continuous strips that are created on a bolster pillow. It's well-suited for projects that require turning the work frequently, such as doilies or circular lace patterns. Like other lacemaking pillows, the "cookie"-pillow is filled with a material that is firm enough to hold pins securely yet soft enough to allow for easy pinning. The "cookie"-pillow can accommodate a variety of lace patterns and is especially useful for geometric designs that involve frequent direction changes. owing to its round form. This kind of pillow served to make shorter pieces or strips of lace. Another long, thick, tube-like "bolster"-pillowA "bolster" pillow, in the context of lacemaking, is a specific type of pillow used for creating bobbin lace. Its distinct cylindrical shape sets it apart from other types of lacemaking pillows, like the flatter "cookie" pillows. It is typically long and cylindrical, resembling a bolster cushion used for bedding. This tubular shape allows for the making of longer continuous strips of lace. The cylindrical shape is particularly suited for making yardage, which are longer strips of lace. The lace pattern develops along the length of the pillow, and the worked lace can be rolled around the pillow as the work progresses. Unlike some other lacemaking pillows, bolster pillows are generally less portable due to their size and shape. was frequently employed to produce yardage (long strips of lace) but does not seem to be the case in Vermeer's The Lacemaker (fig. 3) .
The light brownish pricking card (patroonPatroons act as a blueprint for the lace-making process, outling the arrangement of stitches, knots, and other elements required to produce a particular lace pattern. Since onsistency is essential in lace making to ensure that the lace piece has a uniform and cohesive appearance, patroons help lace makers maintain consistent patterns and sizes throughout their work. Thus, they are also indespensible tools for both learning and teaching lace making. Beginners can follow patroons to practice and improve their skills, while experienced lace makers can design and share their own patterns. Many lace-making traditions have unique and intricate patterns that are passed down through generations. Patroons play a crucial role in preserving these traditional designs. or kantbrief) in Vermeer's painting, is partly visible, fixed on the blue pillow (fig. 2). In former times, the patroon was made of parchment.In the seventeenth century, patroons were often made of parchment due to several reasons. Parchment, made from animal skin, was more durable than paper. This durability was essential for lace patterns, as they needed to withstand frequent handling, pinning, and unpinning during the lace-making process. Its smooth and firm surface was ideal for preserving the fine details of lace patterns. This allowed for precise creation and replication of complex lace designs. Parchment could also endure the repeated insertion and removal of pins without tearing or deteriorating as quickly as paper would, and it tends to be more stable than paper in different environmental conditions. It's less prone to warping or reacting to humidity, which is crucial for maintaining the accuracy of the lace pattern throughout the intricate and detailed process of lace making. The strength and durability of parchment made it reusable. Patterns could be used multiple times, making them more cost-effective over time, especially important for popular designs that were in frequent demand. Although they are obviously not visible in Vermeer's painting, little holes were pricked onto this card to establish the desired pattern. Pins were inserted carefully into every hole. This preparatory phase was, and still is, very time consuming work requiring complete concentration in order to avoid any mistake that would afterwards destroy the whole work.
The little silvery pins with their globular reflections (they closely recall an optical phenomenon produced by the camera obscura called halations or disks of confusion) (fig. 4) from the incoming light are visible quite well in Vermeer's painting even though they have been somewhat abstracted. Around these pins the threads, furnished by the bobbins, are interwoven and crossed according to the pattern. The principal movements are the "twist" and the "cross," but there are numerous other techniques.
The precise form of the stand in The Lacemaker is not seen in other seventeenth-century sources and no early examples survive. However, the general type is known from pattern books such as Nicolas Bassée's New Modelbuch (1568), where one of the illustrations (featuring architectural details and a dog adopted from Dürer's Saint Jerome in His Study) shows a stand comprising of a single post and a tilted platform with a shelf at the front (fig. 5) . A smaller version of this type of stand (fig. 6) supports the bobbin box used by Maes's elderly lacemaker; the post, which features a (barely visible) series of evenly spaced holes where a peg can be inserted to adjust the height of the platform, appears to be centered under the platform and has a blocky base. Similar stands can be seen in early photographs (fig. 7). The stand in Vermeer's painting is a fancier model: the light platform, with scalloped carving on the underside, tapers towards the finial of the post. Peg holes allow the height of the platform to be adjusted. The wood panel below the platform has square holes and a scalloped foot or shelf at the bottom. It is evidently part of the stand and probably adjustable, but its precise purpose is now unclear.Walter Liedtke, Vermeer: The Complete Works (London: Abrams, 2008), 153.
The bobbins appear to be the common ones used during the sixteenth and seventeenth century. In the sixteenth century they may have been made of bone. Bobbin lace was commonly referred to as bone lace in that time but normally bobbins were made of wood, with the typical drop-like butt at the end for the weight to hold the threads in tension.
Bobbins, pillow or cushion, pins, patroon, thread, sewing cushion, pattern book, and lacemaking stand.
Bobbins: Bobbins (Dutch: klosjes or klossen) are essential tools in the craft of bobbin lace making. They come in various materials, such as wood, metal, and plastic, with each material offering specific advantages. Traditional bobbins are often made of wood like beechwood or bone, such as the leg bones from rabbits and game birds boiled in a stockpot and finished off in the dishwasher. However, most bobbins were turned wood. Modern options include lightweight metals like aluminum and affordable plastic bobbins, which come in different colors for convenience.
The shapes of bobbins vary to suit different lace-making traditions. Traditional straight bobbins are cylindrical with pointed tips and are widely used. Some bobbins feature decorative elements like spangles or beads, adding both weight and visual appeal. In the context of Belgian Binche lace, bobbins have a distinct shape, characterized by a bulbous midsection tapering toward the tips.
Bobbins have essential functions in bobbin lace making. In a fine piece of lace, as many as 400 bobbins might be used, and the fabric, therefore, lent itself to great variation in texture and design. Bobbins hold and manage multiple threads simultaneously, with each pair of bobbins corresponding to a pair of threads in the lace pattern. This allows lace makers to manipulate threads to create intricate stitches and patterns. Tension control is crucial in lace making, and lace makers adjust the tension by winding or unwinding threads from the bobbins. Proper tension ensures that the lace remains consistent and neat. Bobbins are typically secured to a specialized pillow or cushion, serving as the workspace for crafting lace. Pins help secure the bobbins in place and maintain the order of the threads.
Traditional bobbins were often handcrafted with precision and sometimes featured intricate designs or inscriptions. Bobbin lace making was economically significant, providing livelihoods for many families in various regions. Different lace-making traditions emerged in countries like Belgium, France, Italy, England, and more.
Patroons: Patroons act as a blueprint for the lace-making process, outlining the arrangement of stitches, knots, and other elements required to produce a particular lace pattern. They can be printed or hand-drawn on various materials. In historical lace making, they were often created using ink or pencil on paper. The choice of materials for patroons can vary, but they need to be durable enough to withstand regular use and handling by lace makers. Since consistency is essential in lace making to ensure that the lace piece has a uniform and cohesive appearance, patroons help lace makers maintain consistent patterns and sizes throughout their work. Thus, they are also indispensable tools for both learning and teaching lace making. Beginners can follow patroons to practice and improve their skills, while experienced lace makers can design and share their own patterns. Many lace-making traditions have unique and intricate patterns that are passed down through generations. Patroons play a crucial role in preserving these traditional designs.
In the seventeenth century, patroons were often made of parchment due to several reasons. Parchment, made from animal skin, was more durable than paper. This durability was essential for lace patterns, as they needed to withstand frequent handling, pinning, and unpinning during the lace-making process. Its smooth and firm surface was ideal for preserving the fine details of lace patterns. This allowed for precise creation and replication of complex lace designs. Parchment could also endure the repeated insertion and removal of pins without tearing or deteriorating as quickly as paper would, and it tends to be more stable than paper in different environmental conditions. It is less prone to warping or reacting to humidity, which is crucial for maintaining the accuracy of the lace pattern throughout the intricate and detailed process of lace making. The strength and durability of parchment made it reusable. Patterns could be used multiple times, making them more cost-effective over time, especially important for popular designs that were in frequent demand. Moreover, during the seventeenth century, parchment was a commonly used material for various documents and artistic purposes. Its use for lace patterns would have been a natural extension of its prevalent role in other areas of society. Additionally, the tradition of using parchment for intricate work like manuscript illumination and detailed drawing could have influenced its use in lace making.
Pins: Pins used in bobbin lace making are an essential tool in the craft, and they have specific characteristics. Bobbin lace pins are typically long and slender, measuring around six to nine centimeters (two and a half to three and a half inches) in length. The width or thickness of lace pins can vary slightly but is usually quite thin to allow for precise placement in the lace pattern. The head of the lace pin could be flat, rounded, or ornately shaped, depending on the style and tradition of the lace-making region. Lace pins were often stored in a special pin cushion or "pillow" designed for lace making. These pillows had a firm surface on which the lace maker could create and arrange the lace pattern using the pins.
Historically, lace pins were made from various materials, including brass, steel, or silver. The choice of material could depend on the availability and affordability of the metal. Some lace makers preferred pins made of brass because they were less likely to rust than steel. Lace pins were produced by specialized manufacturers who catered to the needs of lace makers. These manufacturers often had workshops or factories dedicated to creating high-quality lace-making tools. Different regions had their own lace pin producers, and their pins might have unique designs or features characteristic of that area. In some regions, particularly during the heyday of lace making in Europe, lace pins might have been imported. For example, pins made in England were known to be of high quality and were sought after by lace makers in other countries.
Thread: The thread employed in bobbin lace making possesses a fascinating history and specific attributes that render it ideal for this intricate craft. Typically, bobbin lace thread is crafted from natural fibers such as linen, cotton, and silk, although sometimes gold thread was used to decorate particularly valuable clothing. Linen, renowned for its strength, durability, and fine texture, was a favored choice among lace makers. Cotton and silk threads were also employed, each offering unique smoothness and luster to the lace. For those who spun the incredibly fine thread for livelihood, life could be very hard. Because the fiber would break if it dried out, 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. It is not unheard of that these girls would be blind by the age of 30. Today, 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, used to make the lace.
The cost of bobbin lace thread varied based on several factors. The type of fiber used, its quality, and the region all played a role in determining the cost. Linen thread, often more affordable than silk, found common use. However, the high-quality silk thread, prized for its exquisite texture, could command a higher price. Production of bobbin lace thread was the domain of textile manufacturers and skilled artisans specialized in spinning fine threads. These threads were typically produced in regions renowned for their textile industries, such as Flanders in Belgium and select areas of France.
Bobbin lace thread needed to exhibit specific qualities to meet the demands of the craft. These qualities included a fine and consistent texture, providing the foundation for intricate lace patterns. Strength was paramount, given the thread's need to withstand tension and manipulation during the lace-making process. Smoothness and evenness were essential for achieving a neat and uniform appearance in the lace. Thread also came in a range of colors, allowing lace makers to express their creativity in design and pattern. While white or natural colors were commonly used, colored threads could be incorporated for decorative purposes.
Lace Pillows: Lace pillows, also known as lace-making pillows or bobbin lace pillows, (Dutch: kantkussen or kloskussen) were essential tools used in the craft of making intricate lace during the Seventeenth century and beyond. Seventeenth-century lace pillows were typically round or oval in shape. The shape allowed lace makers to comfortably work on their lace patterns, as it provided ample space for arranging pins and threads.
These pillows consisted of a firm and structures often made of a material like straw, horsehair, or a combination of materials. The firmness of the base provided stability for pinning and creating the lace pattern. The base was usually covered with a layer of padding, which could be made from materials such as wool or horsehair. This padding provided a soft surface on which the lace maker could pin the pattern without damaging the pins.
The pillow was covered with a removable pillowcase, typically made of plain or patterned fabric. The fabric used for the pillowcase was often durable and tightly woven to prevent pins from penetrating through to the base.
Sewing Cushions: The blue sewing cushion with decorative tassels in the foreground of Vermeer's Lacemaker is a naaikussen (sewing cushion), a common object in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. The naaikussen, made of rigid material and covered with velvet or cloth, housed compartments that stored various sewing accessories. In Vermeer's depiction, an abundance of red and white threads spills out from the cushion's opening. Such cushions were typically held on a young lady's lap, serving as a foundation for her sewing tasks.
Costume specialist Bianca M. Du Mortier notes that from the sixteenth century onward, the naaikussen became emblematic of the diligent, virtuous woman. Such women dedicated themselves to needlework and refrained from frivolous pursuits. Interestingly, extant naaikussens feature a lock at the front, suggesting that these sewing cushions might have also safeguarded jewelry. Some even boasted intricately designed interiors, classifying them as items of luxury. The more complex naaikussens were ingeniously crafted with two identical wooden halves. A fabric covering, which connected the halves, was padded and stitched firmly through uniform holes in the wooden edge. Given that the lining came from a single fabric piece, the two wooden sections appear sandwiched between the fabric layers. The simpler variants of these cushions were designed chiefly to rest on the sewer's lap, providing a stable base for work.
The naaikussen not only served a practical function but also became symbolic of the values and virtues of women in the seventeenth-century Netherlands. By featuring this object, artists like Vermeer were likely alluding to the societal expectations and roles of women during this time. Needlework was not just a leisurely pastime but was seen as an essential skill for women, reflecting their discipline, diligence, and devotion to household tasks.
Pattern book: Lace pattern books emerged during the Renaissance, with some of the earliest known examples dating back to the sixteenth century. This period marked a significant growth in textile arts across Europe. One of the earliest pattern books is the Italian Le Pompe, published in 1559, which showcased patterns primarily for needle lace. The advent of the printing press played a crucial role in the proliferation of lace pattern books. These books, which were previously hand-copied, could now be mass-produced and distributed more widely. This democratization of pattern books allowed lacemaking techniques to spread beyond regional boundaries, fostering a greater exchange of styles and methods.
Lace pattern books typically contained detailed designs and patterns for various types of lace, including both needle lace and bobbin lace. These books served as instructional guides for lace makers, providing patterns to follow and replicate. They were used by both professional artisans and amateur practitioners. Pattern books were instrumental in the exchange of artistic ideas across Europe, influencing the styles and trends in lace and embroidery. They often included designs reflecting a blend of local and foreign influences, showcasing the interconnectedness of European artistic traditions during the Renaissance. Different regions in Europe produced lace pattern books that reflected their unique styles. For example, Italian books often focused on needle lace, while Flemish books were known for bobbin lace patterns.
Over time, as lacemaking techniques became more sophisticated, the patterns in these books also grew more intricate and complex. The seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in particular, saw a flourishing of lace as a fashion accessory, leading to an increase in the variety and elaborateness of patterns in these books. Original lace pattern books are now rare and highly valued as historical documents.
Lacemaking stands: Traditional lacemaking stands typically comprise a wooden frame or structure designed for versatility. The adjustment mechanism often involves inserting wooden pegs into equally spaced holes bored into one or more of the stand's legs. This adaptability serves a crucial purpose, allowing the lace maker to position their work at a comfortable and ergonomic angle, which is indispensable for prolonged periods of work.
Furthermore, the stand provides the option to fine-tune the angle of the lace pillow. This particular feature enables the lace maker to position the pillow at the ideal angle for working on various lace patterns and stitches.
At the uppermost part of the stand, a mechanism is usually in place to securely attach the lace pillow or cushion. This attachment serves to maintain the pillow's stability, preventing any unwanted shifting while the lace maker works diligently.
The bobbins are always used in pairs, which Vermeer rendered quite correctly. New pairs are added gradually as the work proceeds, so that at the end there are often hundreds of bobbins in use, which an experienced lacemaker is able to distinguish. Nowadays little colored balls help distinguish one from another. It would appear that Vermeer's young girl at the beginning of her work since she is working on the upper part of the card, with only a few visible bobbins.
The taut threads are miraculously rendered in Vermeer's painting with two hair-thin lines of light-colored paint. In order to appreciate the precision of such a passage it should be remembered that the whole painting is little more than eight inches wide (23.9 x 20.5 cm.).
There are two principal groups of bobbin lace according to their working methods: the so-called non-continuous and the continuous lace. For the non-continuous lace each motif is made separately, later sewed together. In the non-continuous method both the ground (or "mesh") and the pattern are made all in one from the beginning to the end, using always the same number of bobbins resulting in a large number of bobbins from the start.
A very common kind of lace in Vermeer's day was (and still is) the stropkan, torchon-lace (from French for "towel" or "dishcloth"), sometimes also called "beggar's lace," probably due to the relative simplicity with which it is made together with its somewhat broader appearance caused by the coarser threads. It has a linear, geometrical design rather than with flowers or leaves. This makes it suitable for beginners since there are only a few curves to be done. It is based on a rectangular grid with angles of ninety and forty-five degrees. This makes it a strong fabric withstanding wear and washing better than other laces.
So what kind of lace may the girl in Vermeer's painting actually making? Of course, we must take to account that Vermeer most likely did not paint exactly what he saw with photographic precision. However, an educated guess would be that she is working on a rather short piece of lace, perhaps a geometric motif for non-continuous lace or a short stripe later to be attached to a piece of linen, for instance for a small tablecloth or runner or for a cushion. She is certainly not making a very complicated pattern or non-continuous lace, for which she would have far more bobbins at hand and would probably use a "bolster" pillow.
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