Needlelace

Introduction

Needlelace, also known as needlepoint lace, is the art of making lace with a needle and thread. This is a general term referring to an entire body of different types of laces, such as reticella and punto in aria. It is one of the oldest types of lace known. "Although we do not know the exact date of the first lace, details that look like needle lace [sic] first appear in paintings done in the mid-fifteenth century. ... From a decree of the Metropolitan Siena, we know that reticella was in use by 1482." 1 While this lace-making technique is restricted in time to the last century or so of the SCA 'period', it does not appear to have been greatly restricted by geography. It is believed to have been developed in Italy, from whence it spread all over Europe. Examples of it may be found in 16th century paintings from nearly every European country.

The period or near-period needlelace pattern books that have survived were dedicated to Queens and noblewomen. 2 One of the best-known pattern books is Italian: Corona delle Nobili et Virtuose Donne, by Cesare Vecellio. Vecellio's book was first published in 1617 but the introductory letters for the various sections of the book are dated 1591, which clearly indicates that these patterns were in use before 1600. The surviving bobbin lace pattern books are clearly intended for working women. 3 The foreword of Nüw Modelbuch, a book of bobbin lace patterns published in Zurich in 1561, makes reference to women and girls earning their living by making bobbin lace. This leads me to believe that while bobbin lace was created by middle and lower class women, needlelace was the domain of high-born women.

Needlelace was used on many articles of clothing and household linens throughout the 16th century, and along with bobbin lace was the major method of manufacturing lace in late period (see TI # 133). Since bobbin lace was easier and faster to make than needlelace, and therefore less expensive, it gradually took the place of needlelace. Towards the end of the 17th century needlelace all but died out until its revival in the 19th century. As there were no surviving instruction books, ladies who began to create needlelace had to rely on what little written documentation was available, and on experimentation.

The types of thread used to create needlelace included linen and silk. The color was typically white. However, there are a few paintings in which the needlelace is black or matches the color of the garment to which it is attached. Gold or silver wrapped threads might have been used, but needlelace stitches would have been difficult to perform with metallic threads. It is likely that most, if not all, of the metallic laces seen in portraits were bobbin lace rather than needlelace.

Reticella

The earliest known form of needlelace is called
"reticella" which appears to have evolved from cutwork.
Reticella tends to be very geometric in nature,
and is based on a framework of fabric from which
threads have been withdrawn. 4 The empty spaces thus
created are filled with threads, often using the
same threads that were drawn out.
framework 5
Reticella Framework
reticella 6
Completed Reticella

Punto In Aria

There are two major differences between "reticella" and "punto in aria." Reticella is very geometric in nature and is attached to a fabric base from which threads have been drawn. Punto in aria is never attached to a fabric until it is complete, and is not bound by geometry. In punto in aria lace, "brides" (overcast bars of thread) are used to give substance and stability to the lace. 7 "[In the late 16th century] lacemakers devised a linen and parchment base for their work. ... The top layer was parchment, which could withstand much use. It was smooth so that a needle would not catch in its surface. The lace design was drawn on the parchment in ink." 8 Many of the exquisite ruffs and collars seen in 16th century paintings are punto in aria lace.


Punto In Aria handkerchief corner

Practical Application

Late period personas will have no problems finding uses for needlelace. Those persons who are fond of stumpwork have probably noted that small pieces of needlelace were often embedded in the scenes, sometimes as a dress or a drapery. It is very suitable for cuffs, ruffs, and trims, and can be easily used on linens too. The Elizabethans frequently used needlelace insertions in handkerchiefs. Cavalier personas will find many uses for fine needlelace in their garb. Needlelace is also appropriate (and impressive) when used to create simple contemporary items such as bookmarks.

A Needlelace Project

Anyone who can hand-sew - even something as simple as sewing on a button - can make needlelace. The techniques are time-consuming but not difficult. The two main stitches used in creating needlelace are the buttonhole stitch and the overcast stitch. These are performed over a series of threads, strung from one point to another, which form the framework for the lace. 9 This project is a bookmark, very simple and geometric in nature, but created as punto in aria rather than reticella, so that it can stand alone. It provides plenty of practice with both of the basic stitches. This may take as few as three hours to create, or as many as nine hours, depending on how quickly you make the stitches. It is a great take-along project since it requires very little in the way of materials.

Materials Required

To make the bookmark, you will need a small piece of heavy cardstock or thin cardboard (an empty cereal box works quite well), clear tape, scissors, three needles of varying sizes, crochet cotton, and sewing thread in the same color as the crochet cotton. A stout, sharp needle will be needed to create the pricking. An ordinary sewing needle will be needed for the sewing thread, and a needle large enough to easily thread with the crochet cotton will be needed for the crochet cotton. I recommend using a blunt needle for best results. For your first attempt at needlelace, I recommend using size 5 crochet cotton. If the ball does not indicate a size on it, it most likely is size 5.

Instructions

The pattern used is an adaptation of a pattern from Vecellio's book of lace patterns.

Copy the bookmark pattern onto a piece of cardstock, and attach it with tape to the rough side of a piece of thin cardboard. Try to avoid getting any tape on the actual design. Cut the cardboard down to leave about a 1/2" margin all the way around the pattern.


Bookmark pattern

Use a stout, sharp needle to put small holes through the pattern and cardboard, as indicated by the pricking pattern. The holes need only be large enough for the sewing needle and thread to pass through. They are shown as large holes in the pricking pattern for clarity. The diagram below shows the pricking holes placed about 1/2" apart. Placing your pricking holes closer (about 1/8" apart) will help keep the lines keep their shape as they are being worked. When using fine threads, the pricking holes should be even closer together, as close as 1/16".


Pricking Pattern

You will need both sewing thread and crochet cotton for the next step. Wind the crochet cotton around the cardboard lengthwise five times. This will give you enough thread to complete the couching on the outer frame of the bookmark and start working buttonhole stitches. Thread a sewing needle with about an 18" length of sewing thread. Anchor the sewing thread on the back of the cardboard at one corner of the pattern. This can be accomplished in a number of different ways: taping the thread to the cardboard, making a very large knot that won't pass through the pricking holes, or leaving a tail to tie the thread to itself after a few stitches have been made. Bring the thread up through the pricking hole at one corner of the pattern. Lay the couching thread along the pattern, leaving a short tail of approximately 2". Bring the sewing thread across the cotton and down through the same hole. Go on to the next hole and repeat the couching: bring the sewing thread up through the hole, across the cotton, and down through the same hole. Pull the sewing thread just tight enough to make the cotton lay straight along the pattern. Continue couching the crochet cotton down all the way around the outside edge of the pattern, using the holes of the pricking. When you reach the point where you began, continue around the pattern again, couching a second line of crochet cotton along the same lines as the first. If you run out of sewing thread before you finish the couching, just tie the thread off on the back of the pattern and start a new thread.


First couching stitch

Second couching stitch

Completed couching on the frame.
Now it is time to strengthen the threads by
covering them with buttonhole stitch. Thread
the large-eyed needle with the long end of
the crochet cotton you just used for couching.
Pull the short tail of the couching thread in
close to the other threads, and use buttonhole
stitch to cover the couching all the way around
the pattern. Make the stitches close together,
but don't pull your stitches too tight. You
will need to run a needle inside the stitches
later to hide your thread ends.

Buttonhole Stitch

Covering the "tail"
with buttonhole stitch
When you need to change threads, lay the tail
of the new thread along the couching and with
the old thread work four or five buttonhole
stitches over the new thread, along with the two
couching threads. Then lay the old thread along
the couching threads and with the new thread work
four or five buttonhole stitches over the tail
and the couching threads. In the diagrams below,
the new thread is shown in a different color fpr
clarity.

With the old thread, work
buttonhole stitches over
the tail of the new thread.

With the new thread, work
buttonhole stitches over
the tail of the old thread.

When the entire frame of the bookmark has been covered with buttonhole stitch, hide the end of the thread by running it inside four or five of the stitches. It is usually easiest to run the needle through one stitch at a time. An alternate method is to leave the tail hanging for the moment and after the work is complete, use sewing thread to stitch the tail to the reverse side of the lace.

The circles in the center of each motif are worked in much the same way as the outer frame. Lay two lines of couching thread around the circle. Work buttonhole stitch along the couching threads, hiding the tail at the beginning. Work each bride as you come to it by running a single line of crochet cotton along the bride line, through the frame, and overcasting along the single thread back to the circle. If you need to change threads, use the buttonhole stitches in the circle to hide the thread ends. Trying to hide the thread ends under the overcast bride will make it look lumpy.


Couch the circle

Overcast Stitch

Work the bride in overcast stitch

The flower is worked in the same manner as the circles. Lay two lines of couched thread along the outline of the flower, then work with buttonhole stitch. This is best done after the circle and the brides are completed. The brides between each motif need to be worked next. They are worked in overcast stitch, just as the other brides were, but this time use two couching threads instead of one. This will give the bookmark a little more durability.

Fill in the shaded areas with buttonhole stitch, building the first row on top of the buttonhole stitches around the circle. The rows will grow very narrow until at the point there is only one buttonhole stitch. Work the final buttonhole stitch through the frame to secure the point to the frame, then run the thread under four or five of the stitches in the filled area to hide the tail. To give the star points a finished look, work a final row of buttonhole stitch along each side of the star.

Buttonhole Filling

The final step is to remove the lace from the cardboard backing. On the reverse side of the cardboard, cut away all pieces of sewing thread. As the sewing threads are pulled away, the lace will fall free of the pattern. Bits of sewing thread may still cling to the lace; tweezers are useful for removing the final threads. This pattern may be expanded to make a length of lace suitable for a collar, cuff, or insertion.


Completed Bookmark

Copying Period Lace Patterns

You can make needlelace from a woodcut or picture of any period patterns. All you need is a little imagination and a good eye. Trace the pattern onto card stock, or scan the pattern into a computer graphics file, reverse the colors, and print it. Thin lines should be overcast; use the buttonhole stitch for thick lines and filled-in areas. There are many patterns that can be made with the buttonhole stitch and weavings. Several of these are shown in Needle-Made Laces and Net Embroideries by Doris Campbell Preston, The Reader's Digest Complete Guide to Needlework, and Stitchery and Needlelace from Threads® Magazine.

When pricking the pattern, a pinhole should be made at every place where there is a junction of two or more threads from different directions. Pinholes will be needed along straight lines if they are more than about 1" long. Curves need to have enough pinholes so that the shape of the curve can be maintained while the stitching is in progress.

Happy Lacemaking!

Bibliography

Bibliography

Footnotes

Footnotes

1 Virginia Churchill Bath, Lace ( Henry Regnery Co.:Chicago, 1974), 58.

2 Cesare Vecellio, Pattern Book of Renaissance Lace: A Reprint of the 1617 Edition of the Corona delle Nobili et Virtuose Donne, by Cesare Veccelio (Dover:New York, 1988), 1.

3 Santina M. Levey and Patricia C. Payne, Le Pompe, 1559: Patterns for Venetian bobbin lace (Ruth Bean:Bedford, England, 1983), 10.

4 Santina M. Levey, Lace: A History (Maney & Sons:Leeds, England, 1990), 7.

5 Doris Campbell Preston, Needle-Made Laces and Net Embroideries (Dover: New York, 1984), 101.

6 Ibid., 96.

7 Bath, 69.

8 Ibid., 65.

9 "Basic Reticella Lace" [Online], available: http://www.needlearts.com/articles/article_8/article_8.html (10 January 1999).


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Article written by Mistress Meadhbh ní Dhubhthaigh and published in Tournaments Illuminated Issue #138, April 2001
Created and maintained by Mistress Meadhbh ní Dhubhthaigh mka Charla Henney
Last Updated: 24 June 2002
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