27 June 2017

HSM 2017 #6: 'Metal' bobbin lace

My 'silver' lace, 2 cm (3/4") wide
Traditional metal bobbin lace is made from metal thread, which consists of a thin metal strip wrapped around silk thread. Today's 'metal' thread is wrapped with metallized plastic instead. (Experimental bobbin lace today sometimes uses solid metal wires, which is a completely different thing).

Metal lace is relatively coarse compared to linen lace, and typically uses simpler, non-figurative, designs. Heather Toomer explains in "Antique Lace" (2001) that the stiffness of the metal threads makes them unsuitable for complicated designs (page 119). Still, styles changed over time, just as for other lace.


Lena Dahrén's thesis "Med kant av guld och silver" (2010) covers mid-16th to mid-17th century metal lace, and has lots of photos of church textiles embellished with metal lace, similar to the braided/plaited lace designs in the 16th century pattern book "Le Pompe".

Eventually more bobbin lace elements were incorporated into the designs, and in the second half of the 18th century, fans were often the main design element. Aside from royal coronation clothes, I've mostly spotted 18th century metal lace on smaller items, like silk wallets and christening caps. But metal lace may be under-represented among extant objects because it could be recycled for the silver content, and it's possible that it was mainly recycled from larger items, that had more lace on them. There are several extant late 18th century wallets edged with metal lace in Swedish collections, and five samples of mid-century metal lace in "18th Century Textiles". 19th century metal lace often retained the 18th century type fans, but reduced them to design elements in a wider lace (see samples in Toomer, as well as extant lace on several vernacular Swedish christening outfits).

Extant Swedish wallets with metal lace typically date from the 1770s and into the early 1800s. The lace is symmetrical with a row of fans along each edge, often very closely spaced but sometimes with a bit of open pattern between the fans. The fans are made up of gimp (accent threads) held in place by thin metal threads. The gimp can either be thicker metal thread, or flat strips of metal. Some laces use a combination of both gimp types. Thread and gimp came in silver and gold color, and most laces I've seen use the same color for both. 

Supplies and design

When I came across modern 'metal' thread for bobbin lacemaking, I decided to give 18th century metal lace a try, and started looking for suitable gimp. I found that the plate ribbon used in goldwork embroidery was rather expensive, the wrong width for the lace I had in mind, and only came in short strips. So, I decided to try fly fishing tinsel instead. It comes on spools and rolls, in various widths and colors, and is quite affordable.

Wallet (circa 1776) that I based my lace on
My chosen design comes from a Swedish book on silk wallets ("Börsar och plånböcker av siden", published by the Royal Coin Cabinet in 2006). It features four wallets with gold lace and two with silver lace, plus a number of embroidered wallets without lace. I based my lace on the red wallet with silver lace in this blurry photo (showing the wallet open). It measures 11x16 cm (4½"x6½") when closed; the other wallets are a similar size or slightly larger. My lace is 2 cm (3/4") wide, calculated from the wallet's dimensions, and it uses just 4 pairs of metal thread and 1 gimp worker bobbin.

My pincushion

I wanted to mount my lace sample on a silk pincushion, but I couldn't find any Swedish museum photos of 18th century pincushions to justify that, and the pincushions in Hilleström's paintings are quite different, with a large wooden base. So, I decided to wing it. As I have no idea how plausible my pincushion is, only the lace in itself is my entry for the Historical Sew Monthly.
My completed pincushion, about 11 cm (4½") square.

The inner pillow is sewn from two linen squares (12.5 cm or 5" including a narrow seam allowance) and densely stuffed with carded wool, then covered with a layer of cotton muslin to divert wool fibers from creeping through the silk. Finally I covered it with shantung silk from my stash, for lack of better material. The lace is attached with silk sewing thread (same color as for the silk cover).

I wouldn't want my metal lace experiment to end up re-pinned at Pinterest as a true antique, so I've labelled my photos clearly to prevent any misunderstandings.

Things I've learned from this project

'Metal' thread:
  • today's thread is made from cotton wrapped with metallized plastic strips, rather than silk wrapped with silver (gold thread used gilt silver) 
  • the thicknesses I've seen are 60/2, and 40/2 for gimp
  • period metal lace uses much coarser threads than linen lace from the same era (and even 40/2 is thinner than the threads used in 16th century braided/plaited lace)
  • compared to working with linen threads, one needs to take special care in letting out the threads, holding the slip loop with a pin to keep it from catching
  • if you find good tinsel, it seems to work well as a cheap substitute for plate ribbon
  • it's important to use the right width for the lace you're reproducing, as the width affects the look
  • supple is better than stiff/springy (easier to work with and makes a better-looking lace)
  • finding a good gold color is hard (those I've seen are a much brighter and warmer yellow than the thread)
  • a military gold braid supplier says mylar quickly fades to silver, so maybe using gold isn't a good idea at all? (but it's probably less of a problem with e.g. metal bobbin lace on women's formal/evening dress, which is rarely worn in daylight)
  • some tinsel even have differently colored sides, which only works if it will run straight along the length of the lace
  • it may be easiest to use it straight from the spool, just secured with a slip loop like a regular bobbin, if it's supple enough to do that
  • plastic doesn't always age well, and I can only guess how it will hold up over time - this probably applies to today's 'metal' thread too
Things I noticed about the period lace I copied:
  • at the outer edges, the passive is twisted once each time the gimp crosses
  • at the base of the fans (center of the lace), half of the twists are omitted so the gimp can be packed tightly (i.e., gimp returning to the center does not have a twist separating it from its previous passage)
  • to keep the lace from raveling when you cut it to length, first apply nail polish to all twisted pairs along the back and front of a 1 cm (3/8") section, let dry and cut across it (admittedly not a traditional method, but lace made from today's materials is highly prone to ravel)
  • today's threads don't hold their shape like metal does, so I think it's wise to apply the lace as soon as it's completed, rather than putting it away for future use
  • when stitching the lace to fabric, attach both edges by catching twisted pairs at points where they need to be held out, to preserve the shape of the lace (the thread will slip on the tinsel surface, which may change points into curves if left to itself)

The facts

The Challenge: #6 Metallics.

My submission: 'Metal' bobbin lace.

Material: 60/2 bobbin lacemaking thread (by Atelier Moravia) and a spool of fly fishing tinsel (about 0.8 mm or 1/32" wide), both in silver color. The tinsel was unlabelled when I bought it (eBay), so I don't know the brand name.

Pattern: My own, based on lace on an extant wallet (circa 1776) in "Börsar och plånböcker av siden" (page 45). 

Year: 1770 to 1800.

Notions: None.

How historically accurate is it? I think I've got the pattern right, and the silver color is acceptable, though less warm than real silver. But it doesn't have the stiffness and weight of real metal lace. So think it would fool people at a normal viewing distance, but not a person handling it. That equals 60 % on the Peacock scale.

Hours to complete: About 2 hours to analyze the pattern, draw a pricking in Photoshop, make a short lace sample and do some changes to the drawing. Making the actual lace took 5 minutes per repeat, which equals 1 hour per 15 cm (6").

First worn: Not applicable.

Total cost: 1 meter (40") would use about 1/5th of a $5 spool of thread and about 1 tiny spool of tinsel ($1), so a total of $2 per meter.

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