A Brief History of Lace in the 1500's

''Court standards of display demanded extravagance, especially in France and England. To be accepted, a courtier had to dress without counting the cost. Despite continuing sumptuary laws, rich commoners bought the latest finery, putting further pressure on aristocrats to assert their status." Some of the most consequential parts of any Renaissance costume can be the finishing touches. The correct or incorrect use of lace can make or break "the look". Below is a brief discussion of Lace. This material was taken from various sources. Some of them are listed below and I will add to them as I have time.

One of the greatest extravagances was lace. Until the time of Elizabeth lace was used very little. During her time the manufacture and use of lace accelerated. All lace was handmade and very very expensive. As an example, to manage to buy enough lace for a large ruff a man might have to sell a few acres of Vineyard to raise the cash. Pieces were no more than 3" wide and most were just 1". It took a good lacer up to two hours to make just one inch. At their largest ruffs were 9" wide. It can take about 5 yards to make a full ruff. If you were using 3" wide lace, every yard of 9" wide ruff would be made up of 9 yards of 3" wide lace sewn together. That means that it takes 45 yardsX36"X2hr., or 3240 man hours. That would be a year of 10 hr. days. Upper class women often made their own lace. Needlework in all forms was a highly praised past time for higher class women. A talent for such was consider a great virtue.

Lace was make from many fibers such as cotton, silk, and flax. Also metallic threads like gold, silver, copper, and even hair. Gray haired women especially on the Continent would weave their silver tresses into a lace called hair lace. Darnley's mother gave a piece of hair lace to Mary Queen of Scots. Historians infer that Lady Lennox would not have given Mary such a personal gift, if she thought Mary had taken any part in his death.

Queen Elizabeth was always passing sumptuary laws on who was allowed to wear expensive needlework and from where it could be imported. At the same time she had a passion for needlework. It would seem that Elizabeth pilfered some of Mary Queen of Scots' finest French lace fashions from her personal items, which were being sent from Scotland to her place of imprisonment in England.

Bobbin and needle lace were the types of lace most used in the late 1500's. Crochet was not used at this time for delicate things like lace, and tatted lace was not yet known. Below are short descriptions of the three types that were worn in the 1500's. For full size views click on the images or the text below.

Cutwork (period)

Network Lace or Filet
The oldest form of lace making is Network, some early examples date to 2000 BC. Network evolved from adding decorative filled in areas to nets. These decorative nets were made with the same techniques as nets used to catch small animals. This type of lace was used in the 1500's mostly for large pieces like bed coverlets, palls, altar frontals, and curtains. It was not used in clothing.

Needle Lace
Some of the most intricate laces were made by the needle lace technique. They range from simple and geometric to heavily scrolled. Needle lace has its' origin in embroidery. By the later half to the 1400's undergarments were decorated with white embroidery. To add interest, embroiders soon started cutting out areas of the background fabric and edging them with the button hole stitch cutwork. This evolved to where more and more of the background threads were being removed and replaced with stitches (Reticella). Finally, lacers developed a technique which required no background fabric at all. This is called punto in aria (point in air).

Bobbin Lace
As needle lace is to embroidery, bobbin lace is to weaving. In bobbin lace the threads are plaited, twisted and interwoven. The solid parts resemble woven cloth. However, even from the earliest examples the solid parts are minimal. Bobbin lace became more popular than needle lace because it was lighter in texture and it worked well in Elizabethan costume. It also lent itself to the manufacturing system of the day. Businessmen would purchase the raw materials and pass them out to home workers. They would get paid for each piece they completed. The businessman would sell the product and keep the profit. Bobbin lace unlike needle lace was made by men as well as women. Fisherman in the "off season" would make bobbin lace.

"Complete Guide to Needlework" by Reader's Digest (ed.)
"Elizabethan Costuming" by Jan Winter & Carolyn Savoy.
"History of Lace" by Bury Palliser.
"Queen Elizabeth's Wardrobe Unlock'd" by Janet Arnold. Photos of hairlace pgs.226&227.
"Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint" by Federico Vinciolo in 1587. Dover Books reprint

Lace Web Sites:
The Lace Museum (Sunnyvale, CA)

Last Revision: 2 July 1998

Copyright Lynn McMasters, © 2007
Individuals have my permission to print single copies of the pictures or texts on this site for non-commercial uses, for any other use please contact me.