Metal Lace:From the Anvil to the Avant-garde
Many lace historians have recognized bobbin lace as an offshoot of passementerie. Passementerie is applied decorative trimming used for furnishings and clothing. It is a broad category which includes braids, cords and tassels, to name a few. According to Santina Levey, Bobbin lace had at first remained closely linked to braiding and other forms of passementerie and was frequently made with the silk and metal threads appropriate to those techniques. Some loop braiding can be easily misidentified for early bobbin lace, and vice versa. This was the case in the Swedish publication Knyppling, where a piece of loop braiding following the Catherine Wheel pattern was misidentified as a piece of early bobbin lace.
While a specific date has never been pinned down, most historians accept that bobbin lace began sometime in the budding sixteenth century or possibly as early as the late15th century. If you take the lacemaker known as R.M. at her word, bobbin lace was brought to Germany from Venice and Italy in 1536. She makes mention of gold laces, which she clearly finds inappropriately luxurious. Lace historian Mrs. Bury Palliser discussed gold and silver lace several times. She wrote, They made also silver and gold lace out of drawn wire… I have been exploring this comment, as there does not seem to be any surviving lace made of wire.
There is one lace material made purely of metal which has been used historically. It is a metal ribbon which is commonly .6mm to .9mm wide and .10 mm to .15mm thick, though it can vary in size. It begins as a round wire and is then flattened. Although metal thread appears in laces of many countries, the most extensive studies of their use have been done in German speaking regions. The German term for this flat metal ribbon is Plätt. There is not an English lace making term which means the same thing as Plätt, but it translates literally to flat. Most often you will see it used in old laces or modern reproductions treated either as a gimp or as a single worker. When used for a worker, Plätt fills up the space of a fan quite nicely and adds a great deal of sparkle. A very fine version of Plätt is used in making a thread called Gespinst. I will refer to the extremely fine Gespinst Plätt as tinsel to avoid confusion. Plätt used in lace is far more substantial than the extremely delicate tinsel-sized Plätt used in making Gespinst, which is not strong enough to be used without its fibrous core.
1-early sixteenth century Italian gold lace, private collection
Picture one is a typical example of early sixteenth century Italian gold lace. It is made of Gespinst: gilt silver tinsel wrapped around a silk core which is commonly called the soul or Seele in German. The soul can be made of various fibers such as silk in an array of colors. There are three types of wraps; Dicht, Kern and Fadenschein. Dicht, or very close, thread is wound so that the soul/core is covered completely. Kern, or core, is wound so that a hint of the soul can be seen. Fadenschein is wound so that the lengths of the exposed soul, spaced at regular intervals, are equal to the widths of tinsel. When first observing these laces under the microscope several years ago, I wondered if some of the tinsel had come unwound or the core had expanded through the years. It was quite illuminating to find these differences were by design. The fine tinsel wound around the inner core can be made of a wide variety of metals. Depending upon the financial resources of the customer, Plätt and fine Plätt for Gespinst was made in anything from copper to silver to gold, or alloys of these metals. The Gespinst I have used has tinsel which is .2mm wide and only .01mm thick. This is so fine it barely registers on my digital calipers. To make a comparison to wire on the American Wire Gauge chart, .2mm is 32 gauge and .01 is 56 gauge. The finished size of Gespinst typically ranges from .2mm to .4mm.
It is interesting because the piece comprises two types of Gespinst. The piece is mainly composed of a thinner Dicht Gespinst where the tinsel completely covers the core. You can also see thicker Fadenschein Gespinst where the core is showing through at regular intervals. To further complicate the issue, the Gespinst is easily distorted while working. It is a very fragile thread which must be tensioned delicately. Re-working thread often causes breaks in the tinsel which can be easily seen under magnification and sometimes by the naked eye. You can see several places in this photo where the metal has completely broken away from the Fadenschein Gespinst allowing the core to expand.
Through the centuries, terms which were used to describe laces of gold or silver have not been consistent. First, there is round wire which is made entirely of metal. Larger gauge round wire has been used historically in collar supportasses and the like. Both wire and Gespinst are used in lace making today in addition to metallic threads. Metallic threads do not contain any metal and are generally made from synthetic or semi-synthetic fibers such as polyester, nylon and rayon.
We know much of the Gespinst was melted down. Melting down precious metal to reuse has been in practice since ancient times. This fact has brought about the argument that wire lace had been made but was all melted down. Had round wire been commonly used in lace, we should be seeing it in laces as gimp or single workers as we do Plätt. Studying paintings from the sixteenth century is likely the best evidence to dispel this myth. Wearing lace made of precious metal was a display of wealth which has been well documented in the surprisingly detailed paintings of the 1500’s. Reminding us of its close ties to other trimmings, bobbin lace can also be seen on household items such as furniture and cushions in paintings. It is easy to distinguish old patterns made in metal thread vs. round wire because each fills up space very differently as well as behaving differently when laid upon fabric.
A thorough study of metal lace would not be complete without mentioning how metal threads were made prior to Gespinst. Most art historians state that gold threads made with the traditional manufacturing technique mentioned in the Bible were used at the beginning of the 2nd millennium. This involved cutting thin gold foil strips and winding them around a silk core. In addition to foil strips, materials such as animal gut, leather, and parchment were gilded and wrapped around fibrous cores. These threads are generally referred to as membrane threads. I am told membrane threads are less pliable and not appropriate for bobbin lace making. I do not think it is coincidental to find gold thread which was suitable for lacemaking became readily available just prior to the birth of bobbin lace. Sofus Larsen makes a similar comment in his work. Picture two is a copperplate engraving from Etwas fur Alle showing a machine which helped wind the Gespinst and possibly membrane threads. Jarro notes, Presumably some device was used to guide the strip and core even in these early times, as seen from an 18th century etching. To the best of my knowledge, no contemporary description or drawing is known of such a tool.
2-Woman making Gespinst from Etwas fur Alle
We know that wire drawing was practiced in London as well as the making of membrane threads well before the late 14oo’s, yet there is no evidence of bobbin lace being made there, or anywhere else for that matter. Gespinst type thread was imported by Venetian ships into ports of Western Europe from Greece. Harris notes “that Venice gold most likely received its name as a reflection of the journey the thread made, not its place of manufacture.” Not only merchandise, such as gold thread, was exported to Western Europe. By the fifteenth century, with the breakdown of the Byzantine Empire, many craftsmen had moved from the Venetian Colonies into Venice and London bringing their craft with them. One set of brothers from Constantinople, the Effamos brothers, appear to have been part of this trend.
In 1611, King James angered the Goldsmith’s Company by granting a patent to Richard Dike for the manufacture of gold and silver thread (Gespinst). The Goldsmith’s Company maintained this practice had been carried out by their members for many years. Harris wrote, “They thought to substantiate their case in two ways. In the first place, they demonstrated their acquaintance with the craft by giving a detailed description of the process, summarizing it as the ‘drawing, milling, flatting, whipping or spinnenge of gould and silver threed’ or simply as “gold wire drawing.’” The second way in which they made their case was with testimony from members of their company. The eldest to give testimony stated he had been using this process to make thread for more than fifty years. They established the beginning of this practice having been prior to 1463. They said the trade had originally been learned from immigrants. They were able to prove this by an act of common council dated October 12, 1463 which forbade alien wire drawers livening in London from establishing a shop in the city. Whether the infamous Effamos brothers were the first to bring this trade to London is not known, but it is clear they were part of the wave of technology pouring out from their native land.
While there is no evidence in either surviving laces or accounts from wire or thread manufacturers that bobbin lace as we know it was historically made of wire, there are mentions of gold and silver lace in histories such as Palliser’s or Levey’s. After a thorough study, I believe these refer to Gespinst and Platt. I suspect the distinction between Plätt and round wire has been lost over time. The earliest mention of wire as we know it being used in textiles is in the late 17th century on a Turkish embroidery. However, there is no evidence this thread was ever used for lace. The thread is 38 gauge silver gilt wire wrapped around a silk core. The term wire is deceiving as embroiderers have used it to describe metal thread, meaning a strip of flattened wire wrapped around a fibrous core. To this day, Benton and Johnson still call it “wire” on their website.
On the basis of my search for early laces made entirely of round wire, I have to conclude that such laces didn’t exist. However, I will welcome well-provenanced examples to the contrary.
Flash-forward to the second half of the twentieth century. Postmodern attitudes encouraged artists to begin working traditional methods in new mediums. While the idea of using precious metal was not new to lace, making lace entirely of wire appears to have been a new idea…..
Lieve Jerger was born to the legendary Berthilda Vandoren, who compiled the Spieghal Lace collection. While her brother was wiring her room for mood lighting, Lieve noticed and fell in love with copper wire. After spending only one afternoon learning to make lace in thread with her mother, Lieve set out to work in copper wire. In 1978 the artist acquired some 30 gauge clear urethane-coated copper wire, and worked a 16″ by 20″ experimental piece after Lieve lost one of her brothers and a dear friend at the same time. The piece reminded her of the reflection out of a car window, which is where her idea of the carriage originated. During our time together at the I.O.L.I convention in Los Angeles, Lieve said, “I chose to create a sculpture of a Carriage because it is a symbolic vehicle, and we are transported by motions and emotions towards our destiny.” It was not a commissioned work. No one is waiting for it to be finished,or so Lieve thought. She wanted to have a project that would see her through all the other tough times in life, so it had to be a big project because she wanted to live a long and happy life. She is never happier than when she is making lace for her carriage. Now her friends are hoping to be alive when it’s done, and Lieve has promised them to work towards completion in the next few years. Updates will be posted on her website copperlace.com, and laceprincess.com.
Three of the windows were designed in 1978. In 1998 a scene from the bookThe Winged Tiger and the Lace Princess was created as a pane for the carriage. During 1998 Lieve also constructed a miniature lace carriage showing the overall plan including the bottom of the chassis, wheels and a roof. Most recently Lieve has begun working the tread for the wheels, see picture 3.
3- 8-thread armure ground with
23 gauge wire, on a roller ptillow from Scandinavia.
The intricacies of the windows were mainly worked in 30 AWG clear-coated copper wire, although some of the most delicate parts are worked with wire as fine as 34 gauge. Larger gauges of clear-coated copper wire were used for the chassis and other structural work, such as the size 23 used to frame the windows in tight cloth stitch. The artist has made use of classic Arabic designs, bobbin lace grounds and plaits among other traditional techniques to create a new, modern type of lace. Many lessons in working with wire can be learned while viewing the artist’s innovative masterpiece. One of the first things to catch my eye were the cloth stitch window frames. Because of the way wire takes up space, the workers will form in a > shape, rather than the typical = one sees in thread. Seeing this on a large scale drives the point home, which is a fundamental lesson in wire work. The artist uses negative space surpassing what is possible in thread. You can visit the artist’s website, www.copperlace.com, for more information.
Lenka Suchanek came from a direction opposite to Lieve Jerger’s : she was a lace maker who was inspired to work with wire. Born in Western Bohemia, Lenka travelled to a multitude of European lace centers learning a wide variety of bobbin lace skills. After moving to Canada she began working extensively in wire. With a back ground in fashion, Lenka is able to create many incredible pieces of wearable art. Hallmarks of her work include Renaissance patterns, ground work and Punto de Espagna. In addition to her stunning jewelry and textiles, Lenka makes large and small sculptures. Many of us were lucky to take classes from Lenka before she retired from teaching in 2006. Lenka is still making beautiful jewelry and works of art which can be seen on her website, www.Lenkas.com.
Perhaps it was just the decade for wire, but both of these artists began working bobbin lace in wire independently of one another in the 1970’s. The properties of wire bring a new dimension to lace which was not possible with thread and starch. Since then, many other lace makers all around the world have begun working in wire. In 1994 Anne Dyer published Copper Wire Lace which details her comprehensive study of the subject. Dianna Stevens wroteGloriana Series One and Two in 2002, giving us numerous plaited jewelry designs. In recent years a number of metal textile artists and goldsmiths, such as Hanne Behrens, Alicia Jane Boswell and Silvia Federova have begun working bobbin lace into their jewelry. Gry Hvidberg has recently written a book, 3 Knots- 100 Ways: Marvelous bobbin lace for you & your home. Within our own world of bobbin lace, wire has become a new tradition, evidenced by the recent first place sweep of this year’s I.O.L.I awards by Lauran Sundin.
Very little has been published in English about metal lace. Thanks to the help of Jutta Klein, Mariann Stang and Vibeke Ervo I was able to obtain the pieces necessary to complete this article. I hope this is a jumping off point for others to begin researching and writing about metal lace.
An Early Lace Workbook, Rosemary Shephard 2009 Lace Daisy Press New S. Wales, Australia
Copper Wire Lace, Anne Dyer, 1995, Point Ground, Denver, CO
Danske Frihandskniplinger, Bodil Tornehave, 1987, A/S Modersmaalets, Haderslev, Denmark
Early Medieval Nordic Gold Spinning and Gold Embroidery, Larsen, Sofus, Munksgaard, 1939.
Etwas fur Alle, Santa Clara,Abraham a, Wurzburg, 1711
Fascinating Bobbin Lace, Claire Burkhard, 1986,Bern Haupt, Switzerland
History of Lace, Mrs. Bury Palliser 1911, 1984, Dover, Mineola, N.Y.
Goldspitzen, Hartmann & Deffner, 2001, Zusmarshausen, Germany
Gekloppelte Metallspitzen, Jutta Klein& Mariet Haarmann,1994, Deutscher Kloppelverband, Germany
The Gold & Sylver Wyre-Drawers, Elizabeth Glover, 1979, Phillimore & Co, London, England
Knyppling, Sally Johanson, 1970
Lace: A History, Santina Levey, 1983, Victoria & Albert Museum in ass. W.S. Maney & Son, Wakefield, UK
Laces from the Collections of the Jewish Museum in Prague, 2004, Jewish Museum in Prague
Leonische Drahtwaren und Gespinste, Barbara Rawitzer, 1988, Bayerishces Nationalmuseum Munchen,
Old English Pattern Books for Loop Braiding, Noemi Speisner, 2000, self published, Switzerland
Queen Elizabeth’s Wardrobe Unlocked, Janet Arnold, 1988, W.S. Maney & son, Leeds, GB
Textile Techniques in Metal, Fisch, Arlene 1996, Lark Books, New York, NY.
CIETA Bulletin, 74, 1997, pp. 96-107, Estham & N. Speiser, ‘A loop braided lace insertion on a late medieval sudary in Uppsala Cathedral.’
Gold Bulletin, 1990 vol 23, pg 40-57, Jaro, Marta, ‘Gold Embroidery and Fabrics in Europe.”
Journal of Medieval History, 21 (1995), pg 387-403, Harris, Jonathan, ‘Two Byzantine craftsmen in fifteenth-century London’
Lace Magazine, Vol.45, 1998, pg 19-31, Dudley, Debby, ‘Copper Lace Possibilities.’
La Encajera, Vol 18, 1996, pg 28-29 ‘Trabajos de Lenka Suchanek.’
Ornament magazine, Vol.30, NO3 2007, pg. 68-69 ‘Silvia Federova.’
Piecework, January/February 2001, pg 28-32, Merritt, Elaine, ‘Precious Metals Precious Lace.’