According to the Lace Guild, what we think of as “lace,” a delicate fabric with a web-like pattern, probably developed in 16th-century Europe. That’s when techniques for stitching the openwork fabric became more advanced, as European hand-sewers came up with “needle lace”—made with a needle and a single thread—and “bobbin lace”—made with a needle and multiple threads.
Both Italy and Flanders claim its artisans actually created lace in the late 15th century. The first known lace-pattern books were published in Venice, Italy, in the 1550s, a city that was central to the development and spread of the craft. Within 50 years, England, France, Spain, and Flanders had their own hotbeds of master lace craftswomen, who made the fabric from linen, silk, gold, or silver threads.
Tudor-era royal fashion required ruffs and standing collars made of needle lace in geometric patterns. In the 17th century, collars became softer, created from linen bobbin lace while gold and silver laces were employed to trim jackets, sashes, gloves, and shoe roses. Wearing flat, intricate lace became popular in the middle of the century, when lacemakers developed stunning Venetian Gros Point needle lace and Milanese bobbin lace. During the 18th century, lace makers continued to improve their techniques, making dainty lace from slender linen thread and mesh. To flaunt their status and elegance, the elite wore cravats and lappets adorned with French needle laces like Argentan and Alençon, as well as Flemish bobbin laces like Mechlin, Binche, and Valenciennes.
The British Industrial Revolution brought about the first lace-making machines in the late 18th century. However, the lace these early machines produced would unravel when cut. In 1809, John Heathcoat invented a machine that could produce a wide net fabric that didn’t come apart, and new patterns like Tambour and Carrickmacross—which are now considered “decorated nets” rather than actual lace—were embroidered onto the fabric, which was used on lightweight dresses. While some fashionable laces like Cluny, Bedfordshire, and Yak remained difficult for machines to reproduce, by the 1870s machines had become so facile at making lace that they put the esteemed hand-stitching lace artisans in Devon and the East Midlands out of business.
Other forms of lace seen today include cutwork, tape lace, knotted lace, crocheted lace, knitted lace, and chemical lace.