Saturday, January 18, 2014

Historical Australian Lace[1]
Art Essay

Marie-Therese Wisniowski

Brief History of Lace
Lace can be defined as “…holes surrounded by thread”. Such a definition is fairly terse in terms of its rich history and its extensive use in functional as well as the decorative arts and crafts. A more precise definition of lace may be found in terms of its process as “…an ornamental material constructed by means of needles, bobbins, crochet hook or machinery, when no separate fabric is used for the groundwork”[1]. Even today lace makers are considered amongst the elite of needle art, not only because of the intricacy of the craft but also due to the skill required, the extensive time consumed and the awesome attention to fine detail required by the lace maker.

Lace maker’s pillow with uncompleted strip of lace in place on the pricked pattern.
Courtesy of the Collection of the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery.
Photograph courtesy of L. Zeeng.

The history of lace stretches back hundreds of years in time. It developed in Italy and became a passion in Europe in the 17th and 18th Century, commanding very high prices.
17th Century lace fragment from Italy.
Courtesy of Honolulu Academy of Arts.

The intricate detail patterning, occasionally so fine that it could not be distinguished with the naked eye. Flanders followed suit, although there were many points of interchange between the two regions where bobbin lace flourished. Flemish lace used a very fine flax thread, with patterns and net ground, produced with either needle or bobbins. The thread was extremely fragile and lace makers were forced to work in damp conditions to protect it from drying out. Indeed many of the lace makers died or became blind as a result of working long hours in unfavorable conditions. Possession of lace indicated status, and wealth and showed a degree of taste. Gradually distinctive styles emerged in France, replacing the Italian modes, including Valenciennes lace, Paris-Chantilly, point d’Alencon and point d’Argentan.

Small study fragment of handmade Valenciennes, probably twentieth century, in a design that imitates early 18th Century Valenciennes. Background mesh is a distinctive mesh known variously as cinc trous, five-hole mesh and rose ground. Filling is a snow ground, sometimes also known as armure. Color is a yellow-white, fiber probably is cotton, both indications that it is twentieth century.

Lace making was introduced to England probably in the late 17th Century. Distinctive English laces like Honiton, Buckinghamshire Point and Bedfordshire developed from different Flemish techniques following the migration of Flemish refugees who fled from religious persecution.

“The Lace-Maker” by Caspar Netscher (1662).
Oil on canvas - 33 x 27 cm.
Courtesy of the Wallace Collection, London.

Lace did not develop in Ireland until the early 19th Century, where it was termed Limerick lace. In 1845, during the Irish famine, the Ursuline Blackrock sisters of Blackrock Convent County Cork taught peasant women to make lace with a fine crochet hook – hence the term “Irish crochet”.

19th Century Irish Crochet Lace.

After the introduction of machine made lace, it became more easily available and in doing so, it lost its status as a proiceless object that could only be produced with thousands of hours of dedicated labour.

An early lace making machine. Machine-made lace first appeared ca.1760 and by 1813 a bobbinet machine was perfected. After 1832 cotton thread somewhat replaced linen. In the 20th Century many lace patterns have been revived and modified and called Cluny lace. The chief modern centers of lace making are France, Belgium, England, Ireland and Italy.

Men stop wearing lace by the 19th Century and so it became deeply associated with feminine seductiveness and moreover, with the decorative crafts. Genteel women of means and leisure would be seen in lace every day, whereas those of poorer status would wear their lace to church on a Sunday.

“Laughing Cavalier” Frans Hals (1624).
Subject wears a slashed doublet, wide reticella lace collar and cuffs and a broad-brimmed hat.

Historical Australian Lace[1]
In Australia the majority of heirloom lace objects were crocheted lace since it required just one metal hook and so was easier to do. Nevertheless, it should be noted that needlepoint and bobbin lace was considered in Australia as “higher forms” of lace making when compared to crochet, tatting, knitting and netting.

There would have been lace makers that come with the early European colonization of Australia, but there is no significant evidence of professional lace making on their arrival. For example, some of the earliest ships to arrive in Australia with immigrant settlers carried passenger cargoes, which included hundreds (813) of re-settled Nottingham lace makers. They had been previously working in Calais (France) and were all trans-shipped in England and sent to Australia. In Australia these immigrants became housekeepers, laborers, bakers etc. but there is no evidence as yet that they made lace.

From about 1880 to 1914 there appears to have been an upsurge in interest in lace making, judging from the number from the number and variety of patterns and designs for kinds of lace in women’s magazines and books at the time.

From about 1880, Tasmania became the center for an enthusiastic group of women involved in the arts and crafts. A small number of women interested in lace making met in Hobart in 1908 determined to form an Australian School of Lace Making, creating their own design from local flora and fauna. In response to worldwide interest and enthusiasm for lace and the international exhibitions, this group organized the Tasmanian Lace Exhibition in 1910. In total 109 out of the 500 exhibits had indigenous Australian motifs embedded in their lace.

Lace Designs drawn by the Tasmanian group (1908-1914) featuring local flora and fauna.

Examples of Tasmanian point lace from the Australian lace-making group formed in Hobart (Australia) in 1908.

The first prize-winner of the lace exhibition was Miss Ada Grey Wilson. The piece being her Tasmanian needlerun lace fan “kangaroo apple kangaroo” which was designed by Miss P. Mault.

“Kangeroo Apple, Kangeroo”. Needlerun lace (embroidered net lace).
Photograph courtesy of L. Zeeng.

Tasmania was not the only region where lace making was pursued. It was taught and made throughout Australia.

Mrs. J. Parker of Brisbane (Queensland) at the age of 74 (ca. 1910). She is pictured with her huge length of torchon lace.

Black lace collar made by Miss Catherine Gamble, a grazier’s daughter from Inverell, NSW (ca. 1900).

Corner of a delicate tape-point Richelieu lace handkerchief made by Doris M. Thurston for her sister’s wedding in Western Australia. (pre-1914).

Length of tape-point lace, which was thought to have been made by Mrs. McCellan of Victoria (Australia). White braid and cream cotton.
Courtesy of Midlands Historical Society, Maryborough, Victoria.

The war years intervened and the Tasmanian Lace School was never established. Lace and all manner of “fancy work” fell out of favor, being replaced by work more pertinent for times of war.

Detachable handmade lace collars were worn over plain dresses by young and old until the 1914-1918 war.

Australia has a richly varied lace heritage – laces not only of English or French origin but also from Spanish, Maltese and from other immigrant cultures. Josefa Arenas and several members of her Spanish family conducted lace-making schools during the 19th Century.

Family photograph of Josefa Arenas making lace on her pillow.
Melbourne (Australia), late 19th Century.

Dolores Barbeta conducted a school for Spanish, Maltese and Torchon laces, offering “lace mschine patterns and materials to students. She held classes in “town and country” and was based in Caulfield a suburb of Melbourne (Australia).

A postcard that advertises Dolores Barbeta’s class in Caulfield, Melbourne. Pre-1914.

Details of lace made in the lace-making school of Dolores Barbeta, Melbourne.
Photograph courtesy of M. Courtney.

By the 1920s lace making was popular again and ever since that time there have always existed small dedicated artisans in this area.

Detail of tape lace tablecloth worked by May Palmer, Sydney ca. 1920.
Photograph courtesy of K. Atkinson.

[1] J. Isaacs, The Gentle Arts, Ure Smith Press, Willoughby, 1991.

1 comment:

marijke said...

love the instructive entrees