Lace in the 18th Century
Sarah Woodyard, Journeywoman Milliner at the Margaret Hunter Shop, tells us about lace in the 18th century…
In her youth, Martha Dandridge Custis Washington wore audacious yellow silks, purple slippers, and accessorized with glittering gems. Style was no stranger, and Martha proved a leader amongst the fashionable elite of Virginia. And she had the lace to prove it.
Wearing very fine, imported European lace in eighteenth-century colonial America communicated bold statements that were easily and immediately decipherable: statements about one’s position in society, wealth, and purchasing power.
Lace was the ultimate glamour accessory– akin to sporting a Hermès Birkin bag today, or for a more timeless example, unabashedly draping one’s self with ropes of diamonds.
So what is it about lace that is just so enduring? Some say it’s analogous to a woman’s essence – her desirability and femininity – her inherent worth, beautifully wrought, delicate and sensuous – yet resilient. The New York Times declared lace a “trend watch” for 2016, a further pronouncement that lace is here to stay.
Let’s take a look at how lace in the eighteenth century was the ultimate power accessory and how Martha Washington communicated personal values through her wearing of this exquisite art form.
Sarah Woodyard, Journeywoman Milliner at the Margaret Hunter Shop, tells us about lace in the 18th century…
Bobbin Lace – Lace made with thread wound on bobbins, held in place with pins on a small pillow. Crossover and twist “stitches” are employed to create the pattern.
Needle Lace – Lace made with a needle, based on the buttonhole stitch.
In 18th century France and Flanders, men designed the lace patterns, while women performed as the lacemakers. Lace was made in manufactories, or “centers”. Probably prized for their diminutive, nimble fingers and developmental agility in forming muscle memory, children were trained to become lacemakers at very young ages, some even as young as five years old.
Lace as we know it today originated in medieval Europe when the edges of robes were cut in patterns of leaves and flowers and bound, sometimes with gold thread. The word “lace” originally meant a length of silk cord that was used to tie together sections of clothing, such as a woman’s sleeve to her bodice. Lace was also often frequently referred to as “point” – either for the needlepoint construction technique, or for the metal encasements usually found at the end of laces to keep them from fraying.
Two regions claim to be the birthplace of lace – Italy and Belgium. Though both assertions of fame are valid, Belgium contributed a great deal to the arena of thread lace, while Italian inventories were the first to have documented mention of lace.
In one of its earliest uses, lace served as a symbol of power for the Church. Statues of saints and the Virgin Mary were draped with the finest lace, as were the ecclesiastical vestments for the papal court, often boasting intricately designed Christian iconography. From towels used for service on the altar to the albs (gowns) of priests, this rich, costly, and visually stunning adornment communicated the might and authority of the Catholic, and later, Anglican faith.
Like fashions today, the style of lace changed over the course of the eighteenth century. Lace from the earlier part of the century had a more “baroque” feel, meaning that the patterns on lace were very bold, and heavy designs completely filled the background. As the century progressed, lace began to reflect the qualities of the rococo period, which meant that lace patterns were more ethereal and elegant, and the mesh ground was more visible. At the end of the eighteenth, lace reflected neoclassical influences through designs of increasingly simplistic elegance.
|Mechlin||Bobbin||Pronounced “meck-lin”, this lace was known as the “Queen of Laces” – the lace of royalty, made famous by the French court. It is also known by its French name, point de Malines. Martha Washington’s wedding lace is Mechlin lace.|
|Valenciennes||Bobbin||Although named for the French town of Valenciennes, this delicate lace traces its roots to Flanders. It is known for its durability due to the number of twists in the braided mesh.|
|Chantilly||Bobbin||Chantilly, a suburb of Paris, dates lace production to the days of Louis XIV. One of the celebrated laces of royalty, this perennially fashionable lace endured even past the 18th century to the days of Napoleon III.|
|Alençon||Needlepoint||Louis XIV established a strong lacemaking industry in France in the late seventeenth century and granted Alençon, sixty miles northwest of Paris, the honor of producing lace. An elaborate lace with exquisite detailing, it originated as a replication of Venetian techniques.|
European royalty and the noble elite conspicuously draped themselves in the richest and most lavish of lace in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. Wardrobe inventories for Henry VIII of England indicate that he had sleeve ruffles, neck cuffs, and other lace-bedecked adornments. In Queen Elizabeth I’s day, the prevailing fashion was for enormous, magnificent lace neck ruffs stiffened by starch. In 1713, Queen Anne’s bill for Brussels and Mechlin lace was £1418, 14s - to one lace merchant alone. A modern day monetary equivalent would be well in the tens of thousands of dollars for such an extravagant purchase.
The lace from the shoulder to the skirt hem of the woman’s gown, as well as several sets of lace cuffs, make a bold statement on family wealth, prestige, and power. John Jennings, Esq. with his Brother and Sister-in-Law 1769 by Alexander Roslin (Wikimedia Commons)
In the American colonies, Martha Washington’s taste in lace was also very courtly – but she employed her ideals of elevated style with both sense and discrimination. She had the means to purchase the finest goods available, and yet her purchases were judiciously tempered by an understanding of the need to communicate sophistication over ostentatiousness. Her choice of bridal lace is the finest Mechlin, of the same seen on the necklines and sleeves of many a European royal – but worn with elegant subtlety.
Europe was not the only lacemaking center during the eighteenth century. From 1750-1840, Ipswich, Massachusetts is the only location in America that had a successful commercial lacemaking enterprise. American embargoes against all English imported luxury goods began in 1760, and many women in the colonies began to show a strong and patriotic inclination to support domestic manufactories. So well-reputed, and successful, was this New England lacemaking center that on December 5, 1791, after given samples of lace, Alexander Hamilton addressed Congress on Ipswich’s accomplished and excellent lacemaking.
Object records at Mount Vernon indicate that Martha Washington owned a black lace shawl made from Ipswich lace. Handed down through the generations, the lace shawl was refashioned into a later style, and then placed on a cotton ground, or backing, to stabilize the lace’s significant damage.
The primary source below indicates Martha Washington’s desire for value and quality in her lace purchases, her dissatisfaction with a prior purchase, and yet – another order for more lace.
I cannt. help writing to you in behalf of my daughter, Miss Custis, who together with myself, Imported some very hard bargains from you last year. Messrs. Cary & Co. was wrote to for a handse Suit of Brussels Lace to cost £20, in cons of wch., she recd. from you a pr of tripple Ruffles, a Tucker & Ruff set on plain joing. Nett (such as can be bought in ye Milliners Shops here at 3/6 pr yd) When, if you had ever sent a Tippet & Cap w. ye othr. things I shd still have thot them Dr. – These things have been shewn to sevl. Ladies who are accustomed to such kind of Importns, & all agree, that they are most extravagantly high charged.
I now sd for a suit of ye price of £40; w. Lappels & ca but if you cant afford to sell a much better bargn. in these, that yo. did in ye last I shd hope yt Mr. Cary will try elsewhere, as I thy her last add. To my own is worth a little pains – and ye. othr. things sent last year for myself &ca were 5 gauze Caps. W Blond Lace bordrs. at a Ga. each, when ye same kd. might have been bot in ye Country at a much less price. – I have now sent for 2 Caps for M. Custis & 2 for myself of Mint. Lace & wd have ym gentl but not espens. her to suit a Person of 16 yrs old mine one of 40 & I cant. help addig. that I thnk it neccesy that ye last yrs Suit (wch ought to be retd. If she cd. do witht in the ye meanwhile) shd be compld w. a Tippet & Cap, as it is Scae more yn 1/3 a (?).
I am Madm yr Hble Servt
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