First and foremost, not all lace is created equal. Secondly, and obviously, not all lace is created the same way.
Lace has not been in style for sometime. In the 1980s, it was regarded as fussy, silly, and anti-feminist. At best, it was bohemian chic. In the 1990s it fared even worse. With the rise of Seattle, lace was considered not only bourgeois, but also in very poor taste. Women who liked lace were weak, silly, fussy, and unadventurous.
It’s starting to make a comeback now, and that’s a good thing for all historical costumers. But the problem is, most milling techniques, and good lace manufacturies are out of business, having suffered from persecution in the previous generation.
Most of the lace one finds at generic fabric chain stores is synthetic (rayon or polyester) and cheap. Historical costumers who use this lace should do so with the same caution one uses when one considers whether to dry your hair while taking a bath: why, with all that risk, would you bother? It doesn’t look the same, feel the same, work the same, or move the same, and, it looks cheap, like something that would adorn those horrible tippy-toe small town dance school recital costumes where everyone gasps when four year old Brittany manages to turn in a circle sort of on time. We tolerate the lace on those costumes because it makes little Brittany feel special that she has lace. She doesn’t know the difference. We historical costumers should know better.
We have two choices, then. The first is to hunt down antique lace in large enough useable quantities. Often enough one is then required to base much of the design of the dress around the lace, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing. Our second choice is to fork over the cash and hunt out a high end factory that produces linen or silk lace, or high quality net embroidery. Prices are high, particularly if you chose white or ivory (due to all of those silly brides out there who will pay anything).
In any case, purchasing lace for a historical costume is best done after some research. Here are some types of lace that were used in pre-WWII clothing:
1. Crochet lace: not appropriate for evening wear. Usually made of cotton. In the past, crochet was not considered real lace because it was so easy to make in comparison to the higher end stuff.
2. Bobbin lace: made of weaving threads together and holding them in place with pins until the structure is formed. This is an old method of manufacturing, and was considered easier than the cut work it began to replace. It was time consuming though. Bobbin lace made in 2009 is made by machine and usually with cheap, synthetic fabrics, unless you can find the old or good stuff.
4. Embroidery on Net: is considered lace as well. The good stuff was made of cotton, linen, or silk.
3. Needle Lace: The most elaborate of the laces. It is entirely hand done with needles, threads, and scissors. Expensive, time consuming.
4. Chemical Lace (my current favorite)
Chemical lace is my latest love. It’s so exciting!
In 1884, a clever German man developed a process by which intricate lace patterns could be manufacturing without the pain: a base or ‘sacrficial’ is treated with chemicals (now banned), then embroidered. The chemicals disintingrate the sacrifical fabric after the embroidery, and tah dah. You have chemical lace. Unlike embroidery on net, the net disappears, so the lace pattern is air-like, other-worldly. As a result, good quality chemical lace can be as intricate and lovely as needle lace, all thanks to that disintrigrating base. And, it’s still handmade, and affordable.
The manufacturing of chemical lace is now prohibited, primarily because the chemical treatment of the base fabric is not so friendly on the environment. But that doesn’t mean we can’t buy it now. To not do so would be a waste.
Also, we have all of our manufacturing of lace by machine now, and our standards are way lower. Women no longer purchase lace for its ethereal quality, softness, or intricacy. Ironically enough, they buy it to be feminine and old fashioned, on bras, lingerie, and quasi-romantic blouses, though the women of previous generations probably wouldn’t touch most of the stuff we buy. It misses the whole point of lace: to be soft, pretty, unique, fairy-like, manufactured by nuns (the best), poor mothers, or repentant fallen women (acceptable as a social statement). Not scratchy, cheap, lacking-precision, and mass-produced a million miles away by an oiled up machine. Of course, much of the Victorian lace was indeed machine made, but it was made well. People were better educated on fabric and fabric quality. It was apart of their education. I find it ironic that we have no problem banning beautiful chemical lace, but will turn a blind eye when we buy Brittany’s sequined neon green, tippy-toe tutu.
Now, you can’t make an Edwardian, Lucy Honeychurch gown without lace (unless you’re making a simple tailor made, but even those needed a collar). Lace was the favored weapon in the Edwardian tailor’s arsenal. Entire blouses and skirts would be made of different lace just sewn and pieces together. Manufacturing made it available, and made it pretty. Resources for good materials were still there, so the more lace, the better.
Naturally, the problem with buying old lace is that it is old. It won’t take wear as well, it will look old. When women wore their old gowns, they were new, and we want the dress to look like it did in 1907, not when it was dug up in 2009. You can’t just sew any old antique lace onto a new gown, with new silk, and expect it to look good and take wear. So buying antique lace for the purpose of using on a gown has it’s pitfalls to be sure. But, I would rather have old, grave-dug-up lace on my gown than that from Brittany’s recital costume, however much it may make her parents oh and ah.