Lace in Boys' Clothing

Figure 1.--.

The art of inventing intricate knots is an inherent part of our human brain. Creating lace and beauty by a simple process of crossing and looping fibers gives the lacemaker a feeling of reward and satisfaction. Many lacemakers admit experiencing a state of spiritual well-being during lace work. Part of the human experience of the maker becomes embedded in the lace. Lace made centuries ago still retains this magic, which captivates the lace collector and energizes those who touch it.


Lace is an ornamental fabric consisting of decorative openwork of threads that have been twisted, looped and intertwined to form patterns. As such it differs from other lacelike fabrics that are often called "lace" in a more general definition, like: gauze (an open-textured woven fabric), net and macrame (knotted openwork), chrochet and knitted openwerk (formed by looping a single thread into a fabric by means of a chrochet hook or long knitting needles), tatting (knotted fabric made with a tatting shuttle). Closer to this definition of lace are: filet, buratto and tambour work (embroidery on a net ground), and drawnwork and cutwork (some threads or sections are removed from the fabric and the open areas embroidered or filled with lace-making stitches).

Lace Making

Lace can be made by needles (needle lace) or on a pillow using bobbins (bobbin lace) or by a combination of these two basic techniques (for example Brussels Lace). New methods for lacemaking are constantly developed by combining several techniques. During the last part of the 19th century machine-made lace was developed and became very popular begin 1900.

Needlepoint lace developed from techniques used in Italian cutwork and drawnwork. Bobbin lace is derived from the twisting techniques used in decoration of the fringe ends of woven fabric in Flandres (hence the name "kant" meaning "the border or the edge" in Flemish or Dutch).


Making lace by hand is as old as human fingers. Graceful interlacing lines are found in most cultures. The Celts used such designs on their funereal stones. Chinese priest cord knots date back several thousand years. Arabic geometric patterns are very intricate, elaborate and artful interlacings. Fishermen of all time have relied on their knowledge of rope-making and knotting to catch fish and to master the winds, mountain climbers use knots for the preservation of life and limb. The knowledge and understanding of knots form a very basic human science. The beauty of knots has been recognized by fiber artists of every culture and generation. Lacemaking aims to honor this tradition in its purest form.

Fine Art

Museums are filled with the finest examples of handmade lace in Europe. Modern artists also use lace techniques to create unique works of art. LMi highlights lace artists and museum exhibitions on a regular basis.

Figure 5.--This little American boy wears a large lace collar and fancy satin dress. The photograph was probably taken in the 1890s.


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.

The above statement was made about 350 years ago by the Flemish Master of oil painting, yet it still reflects perfectly what lacemaking is all about. It is a work of art, fun to make, and something to be proud of. It is also a unique way for a "maiden" to make an honest living, and as such, lacemaking as an industry on a larger scale is unprecedented and unique in women's history.

I have always been intrigued by the interaction between economical circumstances and social life. Lacemaking is a premier example of an industry that was influenced by the social and political life between 1500's and 1920's in Flanders (since 1830 covering the northern half of Belgium) Italy, Holland, France, Spain, and England.


The constant drive to make clothing more attractive is responsible for the creation of the finest and most costly trimming item which we now called classic lace. It was the most costly because of the time and skill needed to produce it. And the pace of the European economy quickened it the late-middle ages, wealth was generated, creating a growing market for fashionsble clothing abd lce grew to become an important part of fashionble dress.

Ancient times: Those first steps were taken in ancient Egypt, who used flax cloth decorated with colored threads and worked them in geometric designs. The ancient Greeks and Romans would ornament their togas with colors or gold. A new garment needed no ornament about the immediate edge, but as it became worn and frayed, the threads had to be twisted and stitched together. Lace is derived from the twisting techniques used in decoration of the fringe ends of woven fabric. In Flanders, lace is called "kant" meaning border or edge. The birthplaces of lacemaking are generally recognized as Flanders and Italy.

Medieval Europe: The development of lace in Europe occurred in Flanders andd northern Italy. Lace expers are unable to pinpoint one specific lovation where the developoment of lace occurred. Despite the Alps and orimitive tranhsport, there were importnt economic ties between the two areas by the mid-medievak era. There were even some politica connections. One expert attributes the creation of lace to the the merging of the two economies. These were the two most vibrant economic areas of Europe. Flanders from the 12th century onward, consisted of a group of city-states in which most aspects of daily life were safely structured. The cities were organized by groups of artisans who shared the same occupation. These powerful organizations were called "Guilds" and their representatives made the rules. Cities like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and to a lesser extent also Brussels, accumulated a lot of wealth by growing flax, turning it into linen thread and weaving the most precious and finest material for clothing at that time. The more wealthy they became the more the surrounding states wanted to conquer and annex those cities. So it happened that Joan of Navarre visited Bruges in 1300 and jealously questioned her husband the King of France, Philip IV, nicknamed The Fair (1268-1314), how it was possible that all the women on the streets in Flanders were better dressed than she was. Being a man of action, Philip promptly sent his tax collectors to the cities, but the Flemish burgers chased them away. In anger for his wounded pride, he sent over an army consisting mainly of the nobles of France under the command of Robert of Artois, Joan’s uncle, to teach those Flemish peasants a lesson. The French army was defeated on in the infamous 'Battle of the Golden Spurs' (July 11, 1302). This date now marks the national holiday of the Federal State of Flanders. The huge expenditure of this defeat prompted Philip IV to look for other ways to refill his money chests. He started by confiscating the assets of the moneylenders. Since he personally owed a lot of money to the Order of the Knights-Templars, his banker, he declared them heretics, imprisoned and burned them while confiscating their property. The third action he took had a direct impact on our subject matter: he also confiscated the assets of the Lombards, Italian bankers. This action was responsible for bringing the leading families in Flanders and Italy close together. At that time, the trade routes over land were not very safe, certainly not in France. An intense sea-trade relationship with the great Italian city-states of Genoa, Venice and Florence via the Flemish sea ports of Bruges and later Antwerp developed. The Italian cities also grew wealthy from trading in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and beyond. They exchanged jewels, silver and gold for silks and spices like pepper and ginger. At that time, the trade routes over land were not very safe, certainly not in France. An intense sea-trade relationship with the great Italian city-states of Genoa, Florence and Venice developed via the Flemish seaports of Bruges and later Antwerp. The Italian cities were also very wealthy from trading in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and beyond. They exchanged jewels, silver and gold for silks and spices like pepper and ginger. Marco Polo's father Nicolo, and his uncle, Matteo, traveled to China and lived at the court of the Great Kublai Khan. Later, Marco Polo became a diplomat in the service of the Khan. The Italians could afford to wear the expensive Flemish linen cloth. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that a strong demand developed for laces as clothing embellishments and later on also for the fabric of lace itself. The demand was promptly filled in these two important geographic locations. Heavy rtes of precipittion werecreported (around 1305). Reports indicate tht it rained heavily and constantly. Some chronicles talk about rain lasting for more than a year - with tragic implications. Rats could no longer live and eat outside and moved into the human dwellings. Fleas carrying Black Death disease started living on the rats and from these rats it crossed over onto the human population. This epidemic plague killed almost 50% of the inhabitants of Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, a lot of people, who could afford to do so, went away to the south —mainly Italy— to escape the moist weather and The Plague. Many of the successful patrons established thriving business relationships and brought about a profound cultural exchange between Italy and Flanders. Dutch artists reflected in their paintings the idyllic Italian landscapes. The Church became wealthier by collecting large sums to compensate for sins and to avoid the plague. The Church became the foremost and principal customer and user of lace during the centuries to follow. Returning to the origins of lace: Italian lacemakers used a single thread technique with help of the needle, whereas in Flanders, the threads were wound on wooden shuttles or bobbins which were used altogether on a pillow to twist & cross multiple threads and create the desired effect on a loom of pins. This is bobbin lace and was initially known as pinwork. The close economical relationship between these two areas was also reflected by the fact that the lace, created by these two completely different techniques, is amazingly similar.

Modern Era: We begin to see what we would describe as modern lace, basicall needle and bobin lace (16th century). And we see it being used extensively in fashionable dressby aristocrats and weakthy merchants. Lace experts describe the Geometric or Gothic period, without brides (about 1480-1590). Next lace became heavier (1590-1630). We see more floral motifs and the various filling stitches were called modes. Then we see motifs developed constantly (1630-70). They incorporated not only floral designs but also heads, figures, scenes and birds on a net or meshed background. The next trend was little bouquets, sprigs, sprays, flowers, leaves, buds and dots were freely scattered over grounds, creating an exquisite beauty of ornament that reached such perfection that it was never improved on (1720-80).

Economics of lace

Definitions of lace vary. The widest definitiomn of lace is any nonwoven, light, openwork fabric. A more historical definition of the lace appearing in the 16th cenyry that we are modst familiar with is the beautiful decorative material created using two tools: the needle and the bobbin. The use of gthese tools was both time-consuming and necesitated the development of considerable skill. By this definition, lace was a very expensive fashion item. Usage and fashionbility reached its peak (17th and 18th centurues). Lace had become an essential element for any fashionable persin. The members of European royal courts spent great sums to acquire the finest lce and compete with their rivals. Because of the demand and consequent value, lace makers worked on new techniques were continually developed to make improve methods and increase lace production.

The machine era

The craft of making lace was guarded jeaously by lace makers for centuries. After the mid-19th century, machinery was perfected that could produce high quality lace. The machine-made product by the 1880s had been perfected that it could even fool experts. Fashion magazines published guidelineson how to tell the dfference between "real" lace and machine-made immitation. The important French fashion magazine, La Mode Illustree, ran a series of such articles. [La Mode Illustree, 1900] As a result, dress which once could only have modest lace trim could be draped in lace. Yards of factory-manufactured lace and other materials such as braid and broderie anglaise were being used to trim dresses. This excess of decoration was attached by enthusiastic seamstresses equipped with inexpensive paper patterns and the labor saving sewing machines. They did not stop at women's dresses, but exended their creations to clothing for boys and girls as well. Unfortunately, when machine lace finally came into production in the 19th century, lace lost its allure and it developed into just another fashion fabric, often used in lingerie, bridal wear, and evening wear.

Lace Items

We note lace being used in boys' and girls clothing primarily for three items. This inclues lace collars, lace cuffs, and lace trim. Lace collars are by far the most notable item and particlrly popular dring the Fauntleroy era of the late-19th century. This is when lace cuffs were also commonly worn. Lace trim was commonly used in dresses, primarily to edge neck lines. We note cut-out lace being used with the large ruffled collars that were worn with ruffle collars. Cut-out lace was also used to trim pantalettes. Cut-pit lace of corse was not real lace, but is often associated with lace.

Lace collars

Lace collars are by far the most notable item and particlrly popular dring the Fauntleroy era of the late-19th century. Lace collars and cuff and hem trim were widely used in men's clothing during the 17th century. Van Dyke's paintings of French and English aristocrats show the elaborate lace work. The French king Louis XIV and the English king Charles I dressed with elalobarate lace collars and trims. We note both boys a girls wearing lace collars. And we see lace being used in the 18th century, even the early-19th century for both men and boys--at least the well-to-do. At mid-century, male dress became more more plain. We continue to see women and girls wearing lace collars. For a time in the late-19th century, lace collars were especially popular for boys as part of the Fauntleroy craze. We notice lace collars in many different shapes and sizes. Perhaps because of the cost, ruffled collars were more common., but we still see a number of lace collars. his was especially true of americ where the fauntleroy Craze was so pronounced. In other countries lce collars were more of decidelky feminine garment element.

Lace cuffs

The Fauntleroy era is when lace cuffs were also commonly worn.

Lace trim

Lace trim was commonly used in dresses, primarily to edge neck lines. A good example is the trim on the plaid dress worn by Edwin Crawshay in 1864.

Lace Types

There are several different types of lace, based primarily on how the lace was made. Occasionally laces are made by knitting, crocheting, or tatting. However, the finestlaces are made without use of a background fabric; these are bobbin lace and needle pointor needle lace. HBC has little technical information about lace. We would appreciate here any technical information HBC readers can ptovide on lace types to help develop this page.


Lauriks, Wim J. "The Birthplace of Lace," LACE Magazine international Spring 1999, No. 49.

Pfannschmidt, Ernst-Erik. Twentieh-Century Lace (Charles Scribner's Sons, New York, 19750, 216p. Contents include Lace-making new & old; rebirth of hand-made lace in Italy; development in Belgium, Lace in England, in Germany, in Eastern Europe; threads used in lace-making, emergence of bobbin-lace, technique of bobbin lace, needlemade lace, tullelace, classification of contemporary lace, etc.


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Created: April 5, 1999
Last updated: 11:03 AM 12/14/2018