If you’re someone who goes to antique stores and thrift shops often then you’re probably used to finding a lot of old lace at these places. It was once the custom to put accents of lace on many things around the home and in the closet, from cuffs and collars to aprons and tablecloths. There is often an abundance of lacy items at these stores because the style that most people decorate in these days has nothing to do with lace or delicate edging. But, even if you love lace, it’s not always easy to tell the handmade lace from machine made. So let’s find out some of the key differences between the two.
A helpful guide released by the Victoria & Albert Museum gives us a lot of background on the subject of handmade lace. Written by the late costuming expert Jeremy Farrell, he explains that the first machines for imitating costly handmade lace were created in the 1700s. Since these machines have been around for so long, you cannot rely on color or condition to tell what is machine versus handmade lace.
These machines made needle lace and bobbin lace styles and the centers of production in Europe were mainly in France and England. Machine lace factories made near-exact copies of the bobbin or pillow lace patterns that were en vogue at the time.
When lace was first invented in the 16th century it was an exclusive trimming worn by royalty to showcase that they could afford such luxuries in excess. But, more open and airy designs came into fashion in the centuries that followed, allowing for machines to better copy the less-ornate designs.
When looking at some of the handmade and machine laces from the 1800s side by side the patterns are nearly the same. But, the handmade examples will always show signs of being made by hand. Even the most perfect handmade lace will have irregularities in the structure of the lace. This is in part due to the tension of the threads that make up the lace as they cannot be controlled as well by hand when compared to the circular lace machine that keeps the same level of tension throughout the production process.
There are many types of machines created to emulate handmade lace. The Raschel, the Barmen, the bobbinet, the Pusher, and the Leavers machines are just a few of the types that were invented to re-create the complicated handmade designs in a fraction of the time. You can see some examples from the Barmen machine above that date to the 1910s-1930s.
These designs, unlike today’s machine lace, were meant to copy handmade lace -almost thread for thread- and so can be hard to distinguish from what some call “real” lace. Again, look for signs of the tension being uneven, resulting in some wavy areas around the central designs of the pattern as a marker of handmade lace. Even after 100 years the examples above still have near-perfect tension, showing that they were made on a machine.
The lace curtain machine was a wonder of Victorian engineering and it’s the reason why homes from the 1850s up into the 1930s were often kitted out with full panels of lace (often 2 per window) as sheer curtains. If these had been made by hand a full panel of lace enough to cover a window would have taken years to produce- not an expense most people could afford.
The increased production of glass meant that as the 19th century drew to a close more and more homes were being built with lots of windows and each needed covering. This led to the popularity of the lace curtain and only an army of machines could keep up with demand. While lace curtains are not as fashionable today, they are still being made in large numbers around the world.
When out shopping you may see other types of edging labeled as lace, but it’s important to note that some of these examples are not lace at all, but are instead forms of openwork mixed with embroidery (which is how lace first evolved). In broderie anglaise, or what is sometimes called eyelet, the fabric (usually cotton or linen) is embroidered in a pattern that emphasizes the edges of sleeves or skirts, although the pattern can extend up the garment.
In between the stitches will be open space, the weave of the fabric having been secured from fraying by the stitches. This type of “lace” is made today by machine of course, but in the Victorian era was done by hand using the satin stitch method of embroidery.
Other types of handmade lace can be crocheted, knitted, or tatted. Each of these styles will have those small irregularities we discussed earlier, but you may need to look very closely to find them. It’s a good idea to look at the stitches under a lupe or magnifier of some kind. Another method for discerning how lace was made is to hold a section of it up to the light. The latter method can make the extremely regular patterns in lace made by machine visible. It can also highlight areas of poor tension, slipped stitches, or subtle variation in patterns of handmade examples.
In handmade laces it is not uncommon to find asymmetrical patterns, such the woman and sheep standing together in the 16th century example below. Most machine-made lace will be entirely symmetrical because there are no settings or equipment to change on the machines to make miles of the same, symmetrical pattern day in and day out.
Some might think of lace as an old fashioned relic of the past. But, machine lace allowed everyday people to feel like royalty by wearing the very same types of patterns that the upper echelon wore and decorated their palaces with. While they may be sold today as the same thing, handmade lace takes a lot more time and effort to make and is therefore worth a great deal more than machine-made examples.