It may be mind-boggling to contemplate today, but the lace doilies and table runners made by your granny were once the stuff of espionage and contraband, a focal point of trade and tariffs, and perhaps the most regulated item of fashion, with laws most broadly ignored, due to demand.
“Women were arrested with pies containing valuable foreign laces; a Turk’s turban containing stuffing worth £90 in lace was seized,” M.F. Jackson wrote in “A History of Hand-Made Lace,” published in 1900, of the lace industry in the mid-1700s.
“A body to be conveyed from the Low Countries for interment in England was found to have disappeared with the exception of the head, hands, and feet; the body had been replaced by Flanders lace of immense value,” the history relates.
A costly luxury item because of its painstaking, time-consuming production, lace served to set apart those who could afford it. Both men and women wore lace. Often the most expensive part of a garment, it was used in elaborate collars or cuffs, or draped on women’s shoulders, hands and heads.
Changes in fashion and manufacturing in the past century led to a decline in handmade lace. Some forms nearly disappeared altogether.
But local lace makers are aiming to revive the art, following an international trend in recent years toward haute couture fashion items, clothing constructed by artisans from the finest materials by hand from start to finish.
Members of the Piedmont Lace Guild of Virginia know the techniques demanded by the 17th-century kings and queens of Europe—from the frothiest lace collars and shawls, down to the most delicate undergarment embellishments.
“It’s a passion for us,” said Amissville resident Anita Barry, an internationally known lace tatter and guild member. “Our goal is to bring lacemaking back from extinction.”
The guild partnered with the Museum of Culpeper History to open two exhibits last weekend—“Lace: The Finest Threads,” including items from the museum’s permanent collection, and “Lace Making Today,” a display of work created by guild members.
The exhibits, which will remain on display through early 2020, were accompanied Saturday and Sunday with demonstrations by lace makers in various lace techniques. Visitors were given an opportunity to watch and try shuttle and needle tatting, bobbin lace making, and other methods of the delicate craft.
Clarissa Brandywine demonstrated bobbin lace making on Saturday, using a simplified system for patrons to try.
“I had this set up at the Prince William County Fair recently and it was a big hit—lots of people tried it,” Brandywine said.
Visiting the museum Saturday from Loudoun County, Kris Winner, an interior design instructor at Northern Virginia Community College, came specifically to see the lace exhibits and learn more through the demonstrations.
“I have a great interest in textiles of all kinds, so I had to come down,” Winner said.
Brandywine used her 12-bobbin display to walk Winner through braiding and twisting the threads, which are wound on bobbins and woven around pins placed on a pattern in a pillow designed for the purpose.
“You’re looking for it to make sort of a diamond shape,” Brandywine said as Winner worked. “There, see, you did it!”
Winner caught on quickly and was soon proceeding like a pro.
“I do a lot of bead weaving and embroidery, and other similar crafts,” Winner said. “I think I could really get into this.”
In the Lace Guild’s exhibit is a bobbin lace-making project in progress, showing the beginning of a finished product and the placement with pins of the pattern and 72 bobbins, each with its own critical part to play.
“It looks complicated, I know,” said Brandywine. “But once you start doing it, you get the hang of it and it becomes very satisfying.”
Working for Amazon in its Northern Virginia information security department, Brandywine said she’s been a member of the Lace Guild for 10 years, but only started bobbin lace-making recently.
“I went on the Culpeper Farm Tour two years ago and saw it demonstrated at the Bothy Lavender Farm in Amissville,” she said. “And after that, I was hooked.”
In addition to helping with demonstrations at the Lace Guild’s booth during the Prince William County Fair, Brandywine entered one of her bobbin lace creations in the craft competition and won second place.
“I’ve tried shuttle tatting and other kinds of lace making, but I love bobbin lace too much to ever go back,” she said.
Also at the museum were Eddie Ann Orndoff, showing patrons how to do needle tatting, and Anita Barry, who in addition to being a shuttle tatter, owns Bothy Lavender Farm with her husband, Paul Barry. They frequently host Lace Guild events at their farm and participate in the Culpeper Farm Show, although not this year.
“Our son will be getting married at our farm that day, so we had to skip the show,” Barry said. “But it’s for a good reason!”
Barry has been making tatted lace creations for nearly 25 years, and was the first tatter in the world to complete the International Organization of Lace Inc.’s Tatting Technical Proficiency Program, an accomplishment that took her three years to achieve.
“They give you a design and you have to figure out how to replicate it,” Barry said of the program. “You have to network and talk to other lace makers who know how to do it and study books and conduct research to figure it out.”
Judges examined each project and either confirmed her proficiency or explained problems with it that needed further work.
“When I was done with everything, I asked them how many others had finished the program,” Barry said. “I was very surprised to find out that I was the first one!”
She said others are working on it now, one in Canada, one in England, and one in Washington state.
Barry teaches classes in the art form at her farm, and visits organizations worldwide to give demonstrations. She has demonstrated at the Smithsonian Museum of American History and her work has been featured on magazine covers, as well as recognized internationally for its quality.
“But really I simply love doing it,” Barry said. “I just love to spread the joy of it to others.”
As the museum exhibits continue, Lace Guild members will appear most Saturdays and Sundays through September, and potentially through the fall, depending on interest.
“If anyone is interested, we are hoping at least one of the days we’re here they’ll be able to come,” Barry said.