A delicate web of fabric made of interwoven yarn or thread, lace is distinctive for its unique openwork patterns. In other words, for its intricate, ornamental designs with integrated gaps or openings.
At one time the purview of only the wealthiest in society, the advent of automation made it accessible to all. Today, it’s incorporated in everything from tops to tablecloths and curtains to crafts. And yet, even now, lace is associated with special occasions, important events, romance and rarity. Indeed, it’s most often incorporated in bridal gowns and veils.
So, how is lace made by machine and traditional methods? In this article, we’ll unspool how lace is produced by hand and how lace is manufactured on a larger scale.
Lace: A Short History
Before we look at how lace is produced, it’s important to see how it developed over the centuries, especially as previous lace making methods are still relevant today.
The early history of lace is uncertain. There’s evidence of lace created by ancient civilisations such as the Egyptians, but not in the form we know it today. That sort of lace is thought to originate in Europe, perhaps in the 15th century and certainly being present there by the 16th century. After this, it spread quickly.
Requiring a high level of skill and a great deal of time to make, lace was, from the outset, a luxury material. Created entirely by hand, it could be made of linen, silk or even gold or silver thread.
In the 19th century, the industrial revolution brought with it faster and easier ways to make lace, enabling mass production. One major step came in 1804, with the patent of the Jacquard machine. This revolutionised the process of weaving, especially that of creating complex designs. It was this as much as anything else that paved the way for a lot of the current methods of industrial lace making, allowing lace to shift from a luxury item into the mainstream. And, while handmade lace is still made, the majority is now produced by machines based on the Jacquard method. So, let’s find out how lace is made.
How is Lace Made?
Lace is manufactured by weaving together tens or even hundreds of spools of thread. There are different types of thread used in making a piece of lace. For our purposes, the two important ones are: (1) the warp threads: these run up and down the fabric; and (2) the weft threads: these run from one side of fabric to the other
The warp and the weft are woven at right angles to each other, with the warp held taut and the weft being passed over or under it. This is done in a particular order according to each individual pattern.
There are two main forms of handmade lace:
(1) Needle lace – a lace made using a needle and thread. The needle is used to stitch the thread into a fabric base, which can be made of linen, cotton, or even paper. The stitches are usually worked in a grid-like pattern, and the resulting fabric is then cut into the desired shape.
(2) Bobbin lace – a bobbin is a small spool that holds thread. Bobbin lace is made using these in tandem with a pillow. The bobbins are wound with thread and then the threads are used to make patterns on the pillow. Bobbin lace is often used to make wedding dresses and other formal wear.
How Lace is Manufactured
In terms of how lace is made today, the vast majority is made in factories, where machines do everything from weaving the lace to dyeing, drying and folding it.
Weaving the threads
Manufacturing lace in a modern factory usually involves hundreds of threads. As a first step, a portion of these threads are simultaneously fed into a separator. Just as its name suggested, this is like a comb that keeps the threads apart and in formation. These are then wound onto a large spool. Known as the ground spool, this corresponds with the warp thread.
The mesh threads, which correspond to the weft threads, are kept on small spools. The warp and weft threads are both fed into the loom to be interwoven according to a predetermined pattern. The loom is made up of two components:
(1) A set of hooks and needles: these carry out the weaving actions and each hook relates to a spool of mesh thread.
(2) A series of interchangeable cards each punched with small holes: each hole in the cards corresponds with a hook and acts as its instructions.
The cards are like gatekeepers. If a thread is needed at a particular moment, the card will have a hole in it, instructing the hook to lift it into action. If not, the hook will stay still. This system is based on the Jacquard machine of the 19th century. The cards are called jacquard cards. The cards rotate on a loop, allowing the repeated weaving of a pattern until the lace reaches the desired size.
Cutting loose ends
The front of the lace is passed along a set of blades which cut any loose threads. Workers check for any remnants, which they can remove by hand. They also check it for any faults. These will be mended prior to the dyeing stage.
Dye is applied using a dyeing machine. The lace is then rinsed and the moisture wrung out by stretching the lace across moving bars.
The lace, still slightly damp, enters the finishing machine. Here, rollers straighten out the lace, removing any kinks. The fabric is then chemically treated to strengthen its shape and soften its feel. Finally, it enters the dryer.
Another roller folds then rolls the lace. Then it’s packaged up, ready to go. And with that the story of how lace is made is all tied up. We’ve looked at the history of how lace is manufactured and how lace is produced on a large scale.