Gems of European Lace, ca. 1600–1920

Selected Highlights

  • Chalice veil

    Date: 16th century
    Accession Number: 08.180.691a, b

  • Collar

    Date: late 17th and late 19th century elements
    Accession Number: 08.180.701

  • Handkerchief

    Possibly designed by Emma Radford (British, 1837–1901)

    Date: second half 19th century
    Accession Number: 09.68.424

  • Handkerchief

    Date: 1853
    Accession Number: 21.97

  • Handkerchief

    Convent of Notre Dame de Visitation

    Date: ca. 1865
    Accession Number: 24.238

  • Cravat end or rabat

    Date: mid-18th century
    Accession Number: 26.283

Gems of European Lace, ca. 1600–1920

July 24, 2012–January 13, 2013

The lace collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art is one of the finest in the country. On view in this exhibition are a variety of styles and techniques spanning a period of more than three hundred years. Handmade lace falls into two basic technical categories: needle and bobbin. Needle lace is built up from a single thread that is worked in a variety of looping, or buttonhole, stitches. Bobbin lace originated in braiding; it is woven from multiple threads, which are organized on individual bobbins. Beyond these two basic categories, lace terminology can be quite confusing. Many of the terms used today were developed by nineteenthcentury dealers who wished to distinguish historical lace styles for the purpose of describing them to customers. The majority of these terms derive from the name of the town or region where each style was first made.

Depictions of lacemaking in genre paintings of the seventeenth century, as well as the numerous portraits of fashionably dressed men and women wearing lace accessories, demonstrate the importance of this fabric. The best-quality lace was extremely expensive due to the time-consuming and painstaking process of transforming fine linen thread into such intricate openwork structures. Rather surprisingly, the seventeenth-century English clergyman Thomas Fuller defended the wearing of lace and the nascent English lacemaking industry, writing that it cost "nothing save a little thread descanted on by art and industry," and "saveth some thousands of pounds yearly, formerly sent over to fetch lace from Flanders."

In the late nineteenth century American women began to recycle antique lace for use in fashion. As a result, many women began to collect and study lace, taking an interest not only in its artistry and complexity of construction but also in the historical and cultural contexts in which it was made and used. Particularly prized among collectors were pieces associated with a royal provenance, to the extent that many such histories were invented for the profit of dealers. In large part, this collection reflects the interest of these women who became serious collectors and who graciously donated their collections to the Museum.