Reflections on lace

At his christening last year, by long British tradition, Prince William of Wales was clad in a gown of Honiton lace. It had originally been ordered in 1841 from the Devonshire lace center by Queen Victoria for the christening of her son , the future Edward VII. It has served royal christenings ever since.

Royal households, the ultimate patrons and protectors of the lace industry since its origins in the 16th century, have also been the repositories of great collections in which laces have been preserved in their original forms for traditional uses; that is, so long as the dynasties lasted. The christening gown Napoleon ordered for his son in 1814 was of Brussels lace, embellished with N's, crowns, and cherubs. It was sold at Christie's in 1903 for considerably less than the original value. This devaluation frequently happens with lace.

Lace is no longer the daily personal adornment of royalty. But lace and the evolution of its design have been inseparable from the history and politics of royalty, particularly on the Continent. Queen Victoria was one of the last queens to patronize the lace industry, and histories give accounts of her 1840 wedding dress: 200 women worked eight months (the value of lace is always calculated in woman-hours) to complete the 41/2-yard-long flounce and square veil in the ''sprig'' pattern of that region.

''A white satin gown, with a very deep flounce of Honiton lace, imitation of old,'' the Queen wrote in her journal, thus launching a regal style for brides that has never abated.

The thousands of anonymous lacemakers themselves were mostly poor women, who made this desired commodity for wealthy women and men. By day they worked in doorways to catch the light. By night they worked with the aid of a primitive fixture called a ''flash'' - a glass globe filled with water that acted like a lens to pinpoint the candlelight.

There are two kinds of lace, needle-made and bobbin-made. The needle-made was composed of looped stitches made with a needle and a single thread. For the bobbin-made - sometimes called pillow lace, after the pillow that supports the pattern - many threads, wound on bobbins, were braided. As different as the two techniques were, the results could be quite similar, as one in turn imitated the other.

In an exhibition called ''Lace'' at New York's Cooper-Hewitt Museum last year , Milton Sonday, the curator of textiles, not only stressed lace as apparel with engravings of men and women wearing lace collars starched or in soft folds as fashion; he also developed an interesting subtheme which related lace patterns to other decorative arts, including objects that were imitations of lace as it traveled down the social ladder. One might say that lace hit bottom in the humble paper doily that lines the candy dish. Mr. Sonday made the same point with a cotton handkerchief printed in imitation of a lace one, for lace influenced the designs of other textiles, as well as those of porcelain, glass, and ironworks.

Louis XIV, vexed with the drain of French money that paid for Venetian lace at court, had his Minister Colbert establish a French lace industry with the famous Lace Proclamation of 1665. As lace was used less in dress in the 19th century and machine-made lace made it more accessible, it was used extensively in home furnishings. The magic of a lace tablecloth seen by candlelight has never been supplanted by more contemporary tabletop designs, nor have modern window blinds improved the quality of light that filters into a room through gossamer curtains.

But old lace was never discarded - grandmothers clipped it off dresses and saved it. One contemporary collector, Barbara Milo Ohrbach, president of the Cherchez boutique in New York, likes to recall the 19th-century novels in which lace was the measure of the person - ''an old lace collar meant that a woman had ancestors.''

Historic laces are also sought after now by curators of costume institutes in an effort to make the headdresses, collars, and cuffs of their mannequins as accurate as their 18th-century gowns. Recently in a back room of the New York dealer Cora Ginsburg, laces were displayed on a round table for the benefit of two such curators. ''Sometimes the lace costs more than the costume itself,'' says Jun Kanai, the curator of the Kyoto Costume Institute in Japan. Jean C. Hildreth, curator of the Arizona Costume Institute of the Phoenix Art Museum, purchased for $1,000 a delicate 18th-century cap and streamers, called lappets, of Point d'Angleterre (actually Flemish lace that had been smuggled into England and given a new name).

Barbara Tiffany, a lace collector who lives in a restored house in Philadelphia's Society Hill, hangs her early flounces and lappets between plexiglass panels suspended from ceiling moldings in her dining room. Although dark backgrounds are traditionally favored for displaying lace, she had painted her walls a subtle pale ivory, against which the lace casts shadows that enliven the patterns. Regretting that the world of lace no longer seems of equal interest to men, she recalls what Samuel Johnson said in 1780: ''Greek is like lace: Every man gets as much of it as he can.''

Anna S. Kraatz, a Paris collector and a former lace consultant for the Musee des Arts Decoratifs, specializes in the social history of lace. Sumptuary laws prohibited certain kinds of finery to the lower classes of Europe. But her research into Venetian household inventories of the 16th and early 17th centuries has confirmed that ''even the poorest people owned lace - lace-trimmed aprons and men's shirts, handkerchiefs and towels, which the women made at home.'' The homes, perhaps, of the professional lacemakers.

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