Needlepoint lace first appeared in Italy early in the 16th century; bobbin lace was first produced about fifty years later in the Low Countries. (Needlepoint lace derived from embroidery and is made with a sewing needle and consists mainly of buttonhole stitches. Bobbin lace developed from weaving and is made by twisting and platting threads from bobbins around pins stuck in a pillow.)
Lace immediately became a luxury item in great demand. Lace became fashionable for both men and women’s clothing; it was also widely used in churchmen’s clothing and for trimming linen. It was, however, extremely expensive. In England, a lace collar cost about £100.
By 1700, there were important lace making centres in Venice, Milan and several Flemish cities. Early symmetrical patterns gave way to rich baroque designs.
During the 18th century, lighter, airier Flemish laces overtook the Italian laces in popularity. In England, lace making schools were established were young children, from the age o five or six, worked for twelve hours a day making lace for minimal pay (from 2d a yard for narrow lace). The lace schools were closed by 1880.
The popularity of lace diminished early in the 19th century following the French Revolution which put an end to showy fashions.
The first lace making machine was invented by John Leaver in England in 1813. When lace returned to fashion in the middle of the 19th century, machine-made lace was used for curtains and tablecloths but hand-made lace was preferred for clothing. The Flemish cities in Belgium continued to be the main lace centres but other countries also produced different kinds of lace. The French produced Chantilly silk lace and blonde lace (originally unbleached silk lace but later also black and white lace). Peasant laces became popular throughout Europe with red and blue Russian peasant laces being the most famous.
During the late 19th century, lacelike fabrics also flourished, particularly in Ireland. Irish “lace” is in fact a delicate crocheted fabric, Limerick “lace” is finely embroidered net and Carrickmacross “lace” consists of delicate embroideries sewn together.
By the time of the First World War traditional handmade lace had been almost completely replaced by machine-made lace.