The desire to decorate clothing with reflective fibers and embellishment is a longstanding Western fashion tradition. Gold, silver, and other plated and alloy metal threads were employed for trimmings and textile decoration even before lace was first produced. Metallic bobbin lace, in which small spools of metal-wrapped thread are knotted together, was developed in the late 16th century as a couched edging on cutwork, a precursor of lace. Because of its high gold and silver content, metallic lace was sold by weight. It was worn in such quantities in England and France that sumptuary (regulatory) laws were put in place to restrict its importation, creation, and use.
In most instances, metal fibers are used for evening attire––to brighten the night. Fittingly, this exhibition is on view during the darkest period of the year, from the winter solstice (December 21) until the return of the sun with the summer solstice (June 21). These fashions and accessories, ranging from the 16th to the 21st centuries, collectively attest to an impulse to create a luminous glow, capturing the fire of the sun and bringing that spotlight, prestige, or implied spiritual power to the wearer.
The History and Components of Metallic Lacemaking
Given the immense cost of metallic fibers, their use before the 1500s was limited to the visible surfaces of textiles. By the second half of that century, expanding trade and developments in technology had led to an increase in the availability of gold, silver, and silk. Metal strips and wires of different thicknesses, widths, and shapes were used to create a broad range of rich and changeable tonal effects. Wearing a metallic lace was a sign of extreme wealth, as the metal was considered “real” currency.
By the 1700s, numerous metallic-thread types were incorporated into textile designs. The color and twist of the silk core, the size of the strip, and the angle and direction in which the metal strip was applied determined the appearance of the thread. In general, yellow silk was used with gold, and white silk was paired with silver to emphasize the color of the metal. The color of the core was sometimes reversed to create a contrast, or more than one color was used, resulting in complex tonal effects.
“The Lace-Man employs, besides the Craft above mentioned in the Metal Way, the
Spangle, Bugle, and Button Ring Maker. The Spangles and Plate Figures in
Embroidery are made of Gold or Silver Wire, first twined round a Stick of the
Bigness they want the Spangles, to be made of; then they are cut off in Rings and
flatted upon an Anvil, with a Punch and the Stroke of a heavy Hammer. The Anvil
is made of Iron, fixed in a large Block of Wood bound round with Iron Hoops; the
Face of it is of case-hardened Steel, nicely polished and perfectly flat, the Punch is
nine Inches long, and about an Inch over in the Face, which is likewise of casehardened
Steel, flat and curiously polished, a Frame of Iron.”
—R. Campbell, The London Tradesman(1747)
Lacemaking is one of the most time-consuming embellishment enterprises, and when paired with expensive precious metals, the work compounds in value. The haberdashery trade employed a multitude of specialized artisans to support the taste for metallic lace. Craftsmen known as wire drawers produced the thin metal coverings or flat metallic strips that were spun round fine threads of fabric. Thread twisters then wound the metal around silk, linen, or wool threads that were worked by hand into bobbin or needle lace. This sumptuous edging trimmed skirts, gloves, and jackets. On view here are examples of metallic lace trim from the 16th to the 19th centuries, complementing the painting Portrait of a Young Girl (ca. 1660).