Most commonly found as a filigree trimming on clothing, lace these days is invariably made by a machine. However, until about 100 years ago, all lace was entirely handmade, in a process so laborious, its fruit was often the most expensive part of an outfit.
Lace first appeared in Europe in the late 1400s, and is claimed by both Italy and Flanders (modern Belgium). The first recorded depiction of lace trimming is in a 1490 painting by German artist Hans Memling. And the name itself has travelled from the Latin laqueus, meaning noose, via old French, into English.
There are many types of lace, each intricate and difficult to produce, including cutwork (made by removing threads from a piece of fabric to leave a geometric design), knotted lace (macramé and tatting) and bobbin lace (weaving multiple threads, as in Chantilly lace). Knitted lace is so fine it created the Shetland “wedding ring” shawls, which can be pulled through a ring, while the most prestigious is needle lace, made with exceptionally fine threads that are no longer made.
During the 16th and 17th centuries, Venetian Gros Point lace was in demand for collars for royalty and nobility, as a marker of both wealth and taste. This was thanks largely to the Dogaressa of Venice, Giovanna Dandolo, who in the late 1400s became a powerful supporter of lacemaking in Burano. British monarchs wore lace as huge collars and cuffs from the reigns of Elizabeth I (1558 to 1603) to William of Orange (who died in 1702), while Queen Victoria donned black lace for 40 years after the death of her husband, Albert. In Spain, lace was adopted by ladies of status during the late 1500s in the form of the mantilla shawl. In France, lavish sums were spent on lace trimmings by monarchs up to the 1792 French Revolution. In modern fashion, Prada used trails of lace to trim its Cruise 2018 negligees, while Givenchy carved gossamer gowns entirely from lace, complete with capes.