Textile Society of America


Date of this Version



From Textiles in Daily Life: Proceedings of the Third Biennial Symposium of the Textile Society of America, September 24–26, 1992 (Earleville, MD: Textile Society of America, Inc., 1993).


Copyright © 1992 by the author(s).



In her publication "Peacocks and Penguins: The Political Economy of European Cloth and Colours", Jane Schneider (1978) describes the flow of gold and slaves from northern Europe to the Middle East in exchange for colourful textiles, during the Middle Ages. Schneider argues that European-made black cloth and clothing constituted both practical and symbolic means to resist luxury textiles from the Orient, and in this way reverse the balance of trade and power. I believe that, a few centuries later, lace played a similar role in this process; uti1izing 1ocally grown and processed white 1inen thread and the intensive labour of European women, lace (as a totally European luxury textile) had both symbolic and economic implications for the development of European civilisation from the 15th century onwards.

Between the 15th and the 18th century, the Roman Catholic Church played an important role in this process by utilizing the free labour of nuns to make elaborate ecclesiastical textiles decorated with lace (Gusic, 1969). In the secular domain, the aristocracy developed an insatiable appetite for the ever evolving quality, as well as sheer quantity, of lace. The lower classes were involved in the production of lace in specialized workshops, but sumptuary laws prevented them from wearing much of it.

In the early 19th century the production of handmade lace declined throughout Europe, being partially replaced by machine made lace. As the 19th century progressed, however, the reaction against machine made products resulted in a revival of the trade in old antique lace, and renewed production of handmade lace which continued well into the 20th century (Kraatz, 1989), Only it was now a different Europe. Aristocracy competed with museums to acquire rare, antique lace. Museums sought prestige, while dealers sought material profits, by negotiating the standards of authenticity of antique lace. At the same time, newly produced lace was displayed as 'women's art' on trade fairs and exhibitions in European capitals. The majority of the new production was no longer centered around monasteries and specialized workshops, but around central schools in European cities, which ran subsidiary lace schools and home industries in rural areas (Pfannschmidt, 1975). The consumption of lace was no longer restricted to the Church and aristocracy, but spread to the emerging bourgeoisie, and even to the lower classes and peasant populations (Bezic-Bozanic', 1984; Polemitou, 1980; Schneider, 1980) .