The Joys Of Antique Victorian Leavers Lace: Part 1

Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska
Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska

It’s safe to say that I’ve reached the stage that I can call myself a lace addict. A discriminating addict mind you; only a select few kinds of laces are enough to tickle my fancy. In this wide and wonderful world of lace, for me the creme de la creme is Victorian leavers lace.

I must admit at this point that I’ve been a goth at heart since about the age of 12, and I suspect this is why I developed this love for so much of the 19th century. There’s always been something about the Victorian era that I’ve found wonderfully fascinating; the obsessions and rituals of mourning, the beautiful clothing and craftsmanship. As far as I’m concerned, the late 1800s were the golden era of lace (and it just so happens that an awful lot of it is black!).

Lace first began to appear in clothing in Italy around the 15th century. These first laces were arduously created by expert craftsman, and for many centuries lace remained a decidedly luxury product. The two main types of lace (needle lace, created with a needle thread, and bobbin lace, where threads are wound onto bobbins and then twisted and plaited) remained largely unchallenged until the early 19th century. It was finally in 1813 that the leavers lace machine was created by John Levers, designed to create lace of a similar quality and appearance to handmade laces. Arguably, this is one of the most instrumental developments in the lace industry and has helped to shape lace into what we know it as today.

The 'Ela' set from my last collection uses a leavers lace from the last remaining English manufacturer. Design by Karolina Laskowska
The ‘Ela’ set from my last collection uses a leavers lace from the last remaining English manufacturer. Design by Karolina Laskowska

You can still find leavers lace in a lot of modern lingerie, though it tends to be at the luxury end of the market. Although it was originally created as an ‘affordable’ alternative, new techniques and cheaper labour in Asia caused leavers lace manufacturing a rather sad and slow demise. Nottingham in England used to be the world centre of leavers lace manufacturing: now only one manufacturer remains (whose lace I do my best to use wherever possible in my own designs – unfortunately a little tricky as they specialise in curtain laces!).

The intricacy and delicacy of this floral design far surpasses that of any modern laces. Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska
The intricacy and delicacy of this floral design far surpasses that of any modern laces.
Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska

Moving back to Victorian leavers lace after that brief segue into lace history… There’s simply no kind of lace that I adore more. The machine made laces of this era surpass any modern equivalent in terms of their intricacy, delicacy and quality.

Chantilly laces feature a design that is continuously interrupted by tulle. Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska
Chantilly laces feature a design that is continuously interrupted by tulle.
Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska

Leavers lace machines can be used to create a type of lace known as ‘chantilly’ (also called ‘clipped’ lace in some circles). This is a type of lace characterized by a design that is interrupted by tulle. When this lace comes out of the machine, it is covered in loose threads from this skipped design. Each of these threads have to be cut and tied off by hand.

Modern chantilly leavers laces - note the tiny bobbles left of loose threads.
Modern chantilly leavers laces – note the tiny bobbles left of loose threads at the end of each pattern.
The care taken with hand finishing in this 1950s leavers lace far outweighs contemporary equivalents. Lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska.
The care taken with hand finishing in this 1950s leavers lace far outweighs contemporary equivalents. Lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska.

A comparison of antique lace (and even leavers lace from as late as the 1950s) with modern equivalents shows a much greater attention to detail; the clipped threads are tied off so perfectly and intricately that you can barely see them. Modern laces, meanwhile, appear to make a feature of these loose and slightly fraying threads.  The floral designs of Victorian laces also far surpass modern designs. Their intricacy and delicacy far outweigh anything that the modern creators produce.

A hand repair on a piece of lace - the colour of the threads used has faded over time. Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska
A hand repair on a piece of lace – the colour of the threads used has faded over time.
Victorian chantilly lace from the collection of Karolina Laskowska

So in this way, antique laces are far more perfect than the modern equivalents… Yet at the same time, there’s an imperfection that I adore. Due to their age, many of these laces are incredibly fragile. Often they’d be created with silk which I’ve found to be one of the worst aging fibres: if it’s been stored poorly, it can simply shatter at the slightest touch.  Most of the laces though have already had a life of their own. They’ve been worn, use and loved; they’re damaged and frayed. They tell their own stories: I always get overexcited when I discover a piece of antique lace that has been painstakingly repaired. The different fibres used in the repair often age differently and discolour in their own unique way, and give the lace its own unique character.

Rudzia the sausage dog conducting careful quality control on this 1950s chantilly leavers lace.
Rudzia the sausage dog conducting careful quality control on this 1950s chantilly leavers lace.

So I suppose my love of these antique laces can be boiled down to two main principles… The seeming opposites of their perfections and imperfections. It’s undeniable that so many of these textiles are painfully beautiful and it does make me incredibly sad that this industry is now a shadow of its former glory. Stay tuned for part 2, where I’ll be talking about why I use these wonderful laces in my own design work. You can also read more about the role that lace in lingerie in this piece that I wrote for The Lingerie Addict.

What’s your favourite type of lace? How do you feel about reusing damaged textiles?

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