Northern Society of Costume and Textiles
AGM, Grace and Lace
St Peter's and St Paul's Churcfh Hall, Wakefield

'AGM, Grace and Lace'

Saturday, 18 April, 2015

St Peter' and St Paul's Church Hall, Wakefield, WF2 7NR

This meeting devoted to lacewas dedicated to the Memory of Grace Pacey, Honorary Member of the Society and expert, amongst many other things, on lace.

Following the brief formality of the Society's AGM, our special meeting in memory of long-term member and lace aficionado Grace Pacey celebrated her life and achievements with reminiscences from friends and fellow members, recounting her many talents and interests.

NSCT Committee member, Anthea Bickley then gave a talk on 'Two Lace Dresses' that she first delivered to a symposium in Brussels. The two matching dresses in question are prized pieces from the collection of Bradford Museums as, not only is there photographic provenance of the wearers and the occasion to which they were worn, in addition, one contains a dressmakers label naming their maker as a 'Mrs Harland' of Keighley.

They were created for the daughters of Keighley wool merchant, Sir Isaac Butterfield whose marriage in the 1840's to American heiress Marie Louise Roosevelt, ensured they moved in high society circles, owning homes in Paris and Nice.

Upon inheriting Cliffe Castle in 1878, he turned it into a fine summer residence and, in 1884, held 'Le Bal Blanc' or 'White Ball', with the ladies wearing only white and the men sporting full evening dress or hunting pink.

When cataloging the dresses, Grace Pacey identified the lace to Anthea as imitation 'Mechlin' made on Levers lace looms, as used in Levers Brothers, Nottingham production.

Both wearers were in their thirties, but the very slim silk Damask bodices are padded on the bust and decorated with mother of pearl buttons. Each frill of lace is slightly gathered onto a stiff Tartalan underskirt, with tapes drawing three whalebone stiffened slots to form a bustle, shaped and supported by a pad.

Our afternoon speaker, Tessa Holmes explained how she became a specialist in lace following being gripped by the subject in the 1970's. She has spent years cataloging and conserving museum holdings, teaching this art and has served as vice-chair of the English Lace Guild.

Her talk 'How Lace Came To Liverpool', charted the rise in fortune of the city after King John, Henry VIII and Elizabeth I gave it status, by the end of the 18th Century becoming the greatest slave trade city in the world and immensely wealthy due to the associated sugar trade.

The finest lace from Venice, Flanders and Malta was imported to display the wealth and power of Royalty, with James I adorning himself with 22 meters of lace ruff and Charles II spending £1500 on 57 yards of lace to trim his ruffles - even though he had already banned the importation of this luxury item, which by then was more highly prized than gold and silver.

Tessa explained that lace 'Cut Work' was designed to imitate intricate ivory carvings, with the finest Venetian examples containing 6,000 stitches to the inch. By 1661 lace production had become so lucrative that the French Minister of Commerce set up specialist workshops to attract highly skilled workers, producing 'Points De France'. Conditions were poor, with the fine 1200-count silk thread 'Bobbin' lace known as Valenciennes being produced in cellars by young girls who invariably went blind or died of consumption.

During times of war, the British continued to use trade embargoes to limit the income and influence of foreign powers, smuggling becoming rife, with 40,000 'lace dogs' being caught in the space of just 14 years and Customs burning 750,000 yards of Brussels lace during the 18th Century.

Lace remained highly valued during the 19th Century, with 20 women taking nine months to create Queen Victoria's Honiton lace veil and Napoleon III commissioning a gown for his Empress that took 40 women seven years to make.

The invention of the Schiffli machine increased production, enabling the middle classes to routinely afford lace. Tessa cites this and the fashion for heavier Victorian gowns for the decline in the popularity of lace, with most lace now being produced in the Far East and used as edgings on undergarments.

Tessa concluded her talk by describing a design commission from Anita Samuels, the first female Sheriff of Liverpool. This consisted of a lace jabot and cuffs incorporating the wearers initials and Stephanotis flowers, as carried in her wedding bouquet, leading to the conclusion that hand made lace is still highly prized for special occasions, containing meaning and significance for the wearer.

Fiona Lawrence