Lace in Fashion: an exhibition at the NGV

Last week I went and saw the Lace in Fashion exhibition at the National Gallery.

Lace is an unusual fabric in that it’s almost a celebration of an absence of fabric, in the form of created holes. Costume history talks of it’s cultural importance at various times as a luxury product, especially during the Elizabethan and Stuart eras – it’s the most labour intensive of textile techniques, and it amazes me that not only did our lace-making fore-mothers spend much of their lives doing meticulous hand-work, most of them were doing in poor natural or candle-light conditions in Europe. It must have been so hard on their eyes and their hands.

When I studied Costume Design I learnt how some of these techniques were lost during WW2 because the traditional practitioners didn’t write their patterns down – they passed them orally from mother to daughter. When entire lace-making towns were destroyed, the skills and designs were destroyed too.

At the NGV’s exhibition you will learn about the difference between needle and bobbin laces: needle laces adapt existing fabric, and were first made by cutting holes in fabric and then hand-embroidering the shapes (cut work), or stitching directly onto netting. The stitches can be quite built up: on display is one piece of lace which has about 6,000 stitches per square inch (!). As a sewer, I wonder than you can even count that many – it’s an amazing achievement.

Bobbin laces evolved from braiding, and used a pillow and large numbers of bobbins to braid threads in fine and complex patterns. It was quicker and simpler than needle lace, but still required enormous concentration and time.

Due to the work required (eg, during the 17th century, it would take a lace maker working 15 hours a day, 10 months to make a pair of lace cuffs for a jacket) lace has always been a valuable commodity and this has probably aided in it’s conservation, as it was more likely to be saved from a garment and reattached to another, as styles changed.

These days most laces are machine made, and quite simple compared to historical examples. We can all afford to wear this fabric, not just the elite. The NGV exhibition has a good selection of various techniques including pulled thread work, guipure, chantilly, valenciennes, venetian and even macrame. I encourage people interested in fashion or textiles to view it before it closes in January.

What: Lace in Fashion
Where: National Gallery of Victoria International, Fashion and Textile Gallery level 2, 180 St Kilda Road.
When: until 23rd January, 2011
Cost: free

BEER, Paris (couture house)
1905–29
Gustav BEER, (designer)
Germany, active in France 1905–29
Dress c.1912
cotton (muslin, machine lace, tulle, embroidery thread), silk chiffon
155.0 cm (centre back), 44.0 cm (waist, flat)
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
The Schofield Collection.
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the Government of Victoria, 1974

More information can be found at the NGV.
Thank you to the NGV for the use of the image.

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One comment

  1. This is a meticulous presentation of the history of lace-making techniques, displaying examples, together with succinct descriptions of methods used. The display has many individual pieces showing authentic samples of the technique, such as a gentleman’s lace neck adornment and entire ladies dresses where lace was used. The associated descriptions (references, dates, towns and methods were excellent).

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