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Making Lace with Vermeer

in collaboration with Adelheid Rech

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, owing to its round form. This kind of pillow served to make shorter pieces or stripes of lace. Another long, thick, tube-like "bolster"-pillow was frequently employed to produce yardage (long strips of lace) but does not seem to be the case in Vermeer's work.

The Lacemaker, Johannes Vermeer
The Lacemaker (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1669–1671
Oil on canvas on panel, 24.5 x 21 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The light brownish pricking card (patroon or kantbrief) in Vermeer's painting, is partly visible, fixed on the blue pillow (fig. 2). In former times it was made of parchment. Although they are obviously not visible, 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 afterward 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. 2) 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.

Vermeer's Lacemakerfig. 2 The Lacemaker (detail)
Johannes Vermeer
c. 1669–1671
Oil on canvas on panel, 24.5 x 21 cm.
Musée du Louvre, Paris

The Lacemaking stand: Walter Liedtke Vermeer: The Complete Paintings

Old Lacemaker, Nicolaes Maes (detail)fig. 3 Old Lacemaker (detail)
Nicolaes Maes
c. 1655
Oil on panel, 38.8 x 35.9 cm.
Mauritshuis, The Hague

The precise form of stand in The Lacemaker is not seen in other seventeenth-century sources and no early examples survive. However, the general type is known from patternbooks 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 comprised of a single post and a tilted platform with a shelf at the front (fig. 2) . A smaller version of this type of stand (fig. 3) 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 hight of the platform, appears to be centred under the platform and has a blocky base. Similar stands can be seen in early photographs (fig. 4). 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.

New Modelbuchfig. 2 Illustration of a lacemaking stands in: New Modelbuch, von Allerhandt Art Nehens und Stickens (A Lace Guide for Makers and Collectors)
Nicolas Bassée
Frankfurt am Main, 1568
Lacemaking stands in Belgiumfig. 4 Women making lace using stands similar to that seen in Old Lacemaker by Nicolas Maes

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.

pricking paper A detail of a pricking card with the holes forming the pattern.
bobons Bobbins from the sixteenth and seventeenth century.
lace Click here for a more information about the history, tools and technique of lacemaking.

The bobbins are always used in pairs, which Vermeer had 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 taught 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.).

Bobbin lace

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. The number of bobbins to be used is different. It is usually made on the round pillow.

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 which means a large number of bobbins from the start.

A very common kind of lace in Vermeer's day was (and still is) the so-called 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 90 and 45 degrees. This makes it a strong fabric withstanding wear and washing better than other laces.

What kind of Lace is Vermeer's girl making?

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 complicate pattern or non-continuous lace, for which she would have far more bobbins at hand and would probably use a "Bolster" pillow.

* Please see Adelheid Rech's informative study, Music in the Times of Vermeer.

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