There’s always a place for lace

lace Collage

The columnist waxes lyrical on her favourite material to work with: lace.

I LOVE lace because it’s so versatile … add a touch of lace and you can transform an ordinary design into something vintage or cutting-edge, or sexy …

My fascination for lace began years ago, and as a result, I have now amassed quite an extensive collection of this exquisite material, ranging from tiny 18th century pieces to larger, machine-made modern materials.

Woven fabrics and fine nets that had a similar effect to lace have existed for centuries, but it is believed that lace itself wasn’t created until the late 15th century.

There are pictures dating from this era of simple plaited laces used on costumes, consistent with a bobbin lace pattern book which states that lace was brought to Zurich from Italy in 1536. The defining characteristic of real lace is that it is created by looping, twisting or braiding different threads together, without any backing fabric.

Lace used to be made primarily from linen, silk, gold or silver threads; but today it’s more often made with cotton, although linen and silk threads are still available. Natural fibres like these are preferable to manufactured lace (such as nylon) because they are softer and can be easily dyed.

Many would be surprised to know that there are several types of lace … from the traditional needle lace and bobbin lace to crocheted lace, which is the most common type.

Bobbin lace is made with bobbins holding threads woven together and held in place by pins stuck in the pattern on the pillow. It evolved from braids and trimmings in colourful silks that were used as surface decoration for dresses and furnishing and is quicker to sew than needle lace.

Crocheted lace is an example of time-consuming, hand-made laces and includes the Irish crochet, pineapple crochet and filet crochet. Today, however, most laces are sewn by machines. Even the ever-popular French lace is machine-made, as is corded lace.

Since lace has evolved from a number of different techniques, one can’t pinpoint a single place of origin. However, Venice was the first city to have its name associated with the delicate fabric. It was at this important Italian trading centre that the first known lace pattern books were printed (Le Pompe in the 1550s).

By the 1600s, high quality lace was being made in many countries throughout Europe including Belgium, Spain, France and England. The spread of lace was made easier by the intermarriage of royal families as well as travelling noblemen. Missionaries traversing Africa in the 19th century also promoted the concept in lands far and wide.

Throughout the years, fashion has served as the driving force behind lace production. Towards the end of the 16th century, ruffs and standing collars demanded bold geometric needle-lace.

Through the early years of the 1600s these were slowly replaced by softer collars of relatively narrow linen bobbin lace. At the same time, there was increasing demand for gold and silver lace to line gloves, shoe roses, jackets and sashes, as well as for garment decorations.

The middle of the 17th century saw the return of flat linen lace. Both needle and bobbin lace makers refined their skills to produce some extremely intricate work, with the raised needle-lace known as Gros Point and the flowing forms of Milanese bobbin lace being among the greatest achievements of the period.

The Industrial Revolution caused a huge shift in dynamics in lace production, heralding widespread manufacture of machine-made lace. The first machine lace was produced towards the end of the 18th century, but it was not until 1809 that John Heathcoat was able to produce a wide net fabric that did not unravel when cut.

This became the basis for new laces such as Carrickmacross and Tambour, which were ideal for the light-weight dresses of the day. Lace-making machines were developed rapidly, allowing for increasingly complex designs; and by 1870 almost every type of hand-made lace could be replicated by machines.

As a lace enthusiast, I use a variety of lace in almost all my brands. And I’m certainly not alone. Browse through Valentino’s collections and you will find lots of lace in his creations too. Today, there is a great deal of choice for lace, from very affordable materials made in Japan, Thailand and China to pricy European weaves. I personally like cotton lace because it’s extremely soft and comfortable, and tend to go for European laces in my couture collection, as I find their designs intricate and detailed.

What’s more, I’ve found it very easy to incorporate lace into my designs. No matter what the occasion or dress code, there is always a place for this versatile, exquisite, delicate fabric!


Award-winning fashion designer Melinda Looi tries to marry consumerism and materialism with environmental consciousness. She believes her greatest creations are her children. Send your feedback to

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