From collars and handkerchiefs to curtains and pillow slips, lace—that most delicate of adornments—reweaves the threads of history to decorate our everyday lives, one artistic stitch at a time.
Throughout the centuries, lace has signified sheer luxury. The fancy and frilly designs of its ornamental openwork offer intricate patterns, but its romance lies in what cannot be seen.
“Whenever I touch lace, I connect with it,” says Beverly Ruff, whose eponymous shop in Birmingham, Alabama, specializes in linens and lace from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. “I wonder who made it, where it was made, when it was made, and for whom it was made. It’s the mystery that intrigues.”
Such motherly sentimentality lies at the heart of these keepsakes, whose creation initially was women’s work. Lace making, which has been traced to the sixteenth century, was a cottage industry, and the first pieces were designed to dress up the costly costumes of the European nobility. Each country produced its own handmade designs until the nineteenth century, when machine-made lace was manufactured for the middle-class market. Today, lace from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, although perhaps not the most collectible, is the most available. Choices include Battenburg, a highly textured variety with fanciful flowers; Normandy, a patchwork of different types of French lace; needle lace, whose diaphanous design is formed from hundreds, even thousands of small stitches; crochet lace; Alençon, the so-called “Queen of Lace,” from France, that resembles snowflakes; and net, the whisper-fine lace that serves as a background for all manner of embroidered decoration.
“The real beauty of lace is that it’s pretty and can be used in a variety of ways,” Beverly says. “It doesn’t have to be perfect, and it shows its age well. All you have to do is use your imagination.” Through her creativity, lace-topped vanity trays have become beverage-serving salvers and wall hangings; lace panels have been converted into pillows; collars have been draped artistically over cabinet shelves; mantel scarves have been fashioned into shawls; and hand-embroidered rounds have doubled as “bouquets” in bridal baskets.
Of course, you can’t have lace without linens. “They go together like a horse and carriage, like love and marriage,” Beverly asserts. “I always tell people to buy lace because they love it. It’s already beautiful, so all you have to do is give it new life.”
For the full article, see “Vintage Lace: A Lovely Legacy” on pages 62-69 in the January/February 2010 issue.