Lace lappets were the order of the day

for fashionistas centuries ago. 

When sisters Mary Ann Donaldson and Nancy Maria Donaldson Johnson posed for an albumen carte de visite in 1875, they were pretty much that era’s version of Vogue models. Lappets affixed to caps had been worn since medieval times, and even as late as Abe Lincoln’s time were de rigeur for certain older ladies.

Now, if you don’t love lace, read no further – or at least don’t try to converse with me today, I’m so wrapped up in textiles.

I spent some time at our local knit shop, Flying Fingers, in Tarrytown, to get a take on the family needlework my mother bequeathed to me.

My grandmother’s sister, known to me as Auntie, crafted a harlequin jacket for my mother in soft, bright colors.

Auntie was an inspiration to me – she lived in a converted potato barn in Greenfield, Tennessee on a highway beside a bean field, and had a whole room devoted to yarn and fabric. She was a beloved home economics teacher, and she schooled me in how to crochet. Impressively skilled, she found it possible to knit and purl in a darkened movie theater, I am told.

Auntie did wonderful tatting as well as knitting and crochet.

The word “tatting” derives from the French word frivolite – it’s known in Germany as schiffchenarbeit, which means “work of the little boat”, referring to the boat-shaped shuttle used, or in Italian chiacchierino. It requires a steady hand to make this kind of lace, by looping and knotting a single cotton thread around the shuttle, though some use a needle, and there is even something called cro-tatting that fuses both arts. I treasure the 29 pieces of her work and that of other female family members, stowed away from the depredations of moths or human hands.

Another heirloom I shared with Louisa at Flying Fingers came from the hands of my paternal great-aunt Gus, here shown as a wee one.

Its delicacy has always amazed me.

I never advanced much in crochet or knitwork, unlike the celebrities that have sometimes posed with their needles, such as 1930s cinema siren Sylvia Sidney.

I did love the kitten-soft pink silk-angora and soothing click of the needles.

Have you ever spent time with someone plying a needle? It is so relaxing, somehow, so reassuring. As it is to attempt it yourself. I tried my hand at knitting a sock. Even an amateur like me enters a zone of peace, dropped stitches and all.

I didn’t get much in-depth feedback at Flying Fingers on the two items I brought in – I’d thought I would somehow unlock the key to how these marvels came to be. All I was told was that Auntie’s harlequin, a “mitred square,” was “not so hard, you could learn to knit that,” and that Gus’s crochet was “super hard.”

The bark of the Chinese elm, Ulmus parvifolia, has always reminds me of these women’s creations. It is actually also known as lacebark elm.

I stopped in to an exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in Manhattan to find out what exactly the organizers meant by its title: Threads of Power. I have always thought that women’s work is powerful as a way of finessing and succouring, beautifying, shoring up. Handiwork of love. I found out a lot about the intricacies of lace. First of all, there were plenty of examples of art featuring collars and cuffs from bygone eras.

This lovely lady, Queen Elisabeth of France, was married at the age of 13 to 10-year-old Spaniard Felipe, Prince of Asturias, and became Princess of Asturias. When his father died, in 1621, he became King Felipe IV, and she became Queen Consort of Spain.

Of her eight births, only one survived childhood. Historians believe that she had these childbearing woes as a result of a venereal disease passed on by her husband from his many mistresses. Don’t worry, what is sauce for the goose – she also purportedly had an affair with the diplomat who was her gentleman in waiting. The last of her miscarriages killed her in 1644, at the age of 41.

But what concerns us here is that fantastic ruff that frames her face. The exhibit spelled out the differences between bobbin lace and needle lace, beginning its history in the 1600s, when crafters employed cushions to work their magic with thread. Here is a genius bobbin-lace pillow with thirty bobbins and in-progress torchon lace from 1897 Switzerland.

The bobbin lacemaker would attaching a parchment pattern to a curved pillow, then twist and braid individual threads to produce a variety of stitches. In this 1656 painting by Nicolaes Maes, a woman focused on her work is kept company by a child wearing the protective headgear known as a pudding cap. We are clearly in the zone of peace.

The specifics of technique shown in the exhibit impress me less than the finished product from those early days and that these textiles have by some miracle been preserved. The way things were produced changed over time. But the beauty of lace prevailed.

Today, feminists have reclaimed the art of textiles, though not lace-making so much as embroidery, which lends itself to expressions of strength and purpose. This sampler comes from the workshop of what is called the Tiny Pricks Project.

Shannon Doherty, who calls herself Badass Cross Stitch, is a queer art activist who lives in her RV traveling the United States and giving women the tools to create their own samplers, the bobbin lace makers of our day.

“Stab it until you feel better” is her motto.

On display at the Bard Center is the work of artist Elena Kanegy-Loux, who took inspiration from old textiles to spend 200 hours creating an intricate fire-engine red collar.

Able to out-tat the best tatters of her day, Auntie was surely one of the strongest women in Weakley County.

I sure would like to know what this formidable person would have made of those adepts of an earlier time – or the textile whizzes making statements with cloth and floss today.

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