Home / Blog / In New York, an Exquisite Examination of the History—And Future—of Lace

In New York, an Exquisite Examination of the History—And Future—of Lace

Dec 23, 2023Dec 23, 2023

By Leslie Camhi

Lace is paradoxical: a textile characterized by its open spaces. It performs no strictly utilitarian function; it neither cloaks the body nor warms it. However, it remained for centuries a highly prized luxury good, with pieces passed down through generations and reworked to suit the latest trends. Across Europe and the Americas, lace—fashioned into ruffs, cuffs, jabots, caps, lappets, and flounces—adorned the bodies and edged the handkerchiefs of the wealthy and powerful, including nobility and church hierarchy. Yet these high-status frills were the result of thousands of hours of labor by anonymous (and largely ill-paid) women, their nimble fingers working piecemeal at home or else for free in orphanages and convents.

"Threads of Power: Lace From the Textile Museum in St. Gallen," a fascinating exhibition curated by Emma Cormack, Ilona Kos, and Michele Majer—on view until January 1 at the Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan—offers New Yorkers the first in-depth exploration of this complex and elusive subject in 40 years. More than 150 historic examples of lace—including an 18th-century point de Venise capelet; a 19th-century black Chantilly lace shawl; and an ultrarare frelange, the It headdress for late-17th-century ladies—are on loan from the collection of the Textile Museum of St. Gallen. (Earlier this fall, I visited that beautiful city near the shores of Lake Constance in northeastern Switzerland. A center for textile production since the mid-13th century, it's home also to a jewel-like Baroque library; the storied 100-year-old Swiss design house Akris; and a trio of manufacturers that are ushering techniques of making lace and embroidery into the 21st century—but more on that later.)

These Swiss loans are complemented by additional garments, paintings, and pattern books from North American lenders, ranging from portraits of 17th-century Spanish grandees to the ensemble that Isabel Toledo created for Michelle Obama to wear during her husband's first presidential inauguration. (The dress and coat's chartreuse guipure lace was designed by St. Gallen–based manufacturer Forster Rohner.) Together they offer the curious visitor a deep dive into a subject that, like lace itself, seems never-ending in its intricacy and complexity.

Right at the entrance, a newly commissioned piece by lacemaker and textile historian Elena Kanagy-Loux sets the exhibition's tone of engagement with lace as a living art and its history as reflective of contemporary concerns. An artist with more than 410,000 followers on TikTok and a cofounder of the Brooklyn Lace Guild, Kanagy-Loux is also a walking glossary of nomenclature related to her craft. "For me, lace is an umbrella term that includes myriad techniques from around the world," she tells me by phone from her home and studio in Brooklyn—meaning not just the predominant European forms of needle lace (a technique derived from embroidery) and bobbin lace (which evolved from braiding), but also netting, tatting, sprang (the ancient Egyptian art of twining), ñandutí (a Paraguayan needle lace worked in the round, whose name means "spiderweb" in the indigenous Guarani language), and many other varieties. (The spider, as it turns out, is one of nature's lacemakers, along with the fernlike plant Queen Anne's lace and the tracings of frost on a windowpane.)

A lace collar depicting the biblical story of Judith, New York City, ca. 2022. By Elena Kagany-Loux.

By Christian Allaire

By Elise Taylor

By Christian Allaire

For "Threads of Power," Kanagy-Loux created a bobbin lace collar in red silk, inspired by iconography that appears in another work on display: a 17th-century Italian lace border depicting the Hebrew Bible story of Judith beheading the Assyrian general Holofernes, who was besieging her city. Judith has long been celebrated as a feminist icon, and the beheading of Holofernes—portrayed with gory tabloid splendor by Italian Baroque painter Artemisia Gentileschi—an assertion of female power worthy of our #MeToo moment. Kanagy-Loux's blood-red collar hints at the violence that lies behind many of the delicate examples of unearthly feminine dexterity on view here.

Did eyes go blind, for example, working by a window's filtered daylight or by candlelight, to create the stunning 18th-century needle-lace chalice cover whose silk and gold threads trace a swirling symphony of flowers and leaves? Upstairs, in a section on ecclesiastical lace, a chasuble consisting of sculptural white linen point de Venise lace layered over pink silk was destined to be worn exclusively by a priest officiating at Mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent. Did the nuns who spent perhaps hundreds of hours fashioning its florid volutes ever dream of other worlds? What toll was exacted by the patience and fortitude required of skilled and highly trained women, working without the protection of a guild, to sit by the hearth, their foot perhaps rocking a cradle, and labor for years at the creation of adornments that would never be theirs to own?

Eyes blurring and head spinning, it was something of a relief to arrive (on the exhibition's third floor) at the late 19th century and the invention of industrially produced "chemical lace." The city of St. Gallen played a leading role in the development of this technique, in which machine embroidery on a silk ground was dipped in chemicals that dissolved the ground, leaving the embroidered threads behind to form a convincing imitation of handmade lace. (Today more environmentally friendly methods of production predominate.)

It was exciting to catch a glimpse, in the exhibition's final room and amid the lacy creations of postwar couturiers—Dior, Givenchy, Yves Saint Laurent, et al.—of the future of lace. St. Gallen manufacturer Jakob Schlaepfer's computer-generated Hypertube lace, for example (globs of silicone arranged in archival lace patterns) has been used by Yang Li, Comme des Garçons, Iris van Herpen, and others.

By Christian Allaire

By Elise Taylor

By Christian Allaire

Yves Saint Laurent (designer) and Forster Rohner (textile manufacturer), evening dress, France, Spring/Summer 1963.

And it was thrilling, on my visit to St. Gallen, to be invited into the textile design and production studios of Jakob Schlaepfer AG and Forster Rohner AG, company headquarters that are usually off-limits to outsiders. This is where, from the golden age of couture until today, designers for Chanel, Dior, Balenciaga, Jean Paul Gaultier, Marc Jacobs, and others have turned for materials and inspiration. Amid the vast archive of lace designs that is continually revived and expanded, and the panoply of innovative textiles (and with fiber research also reaching into fields like biotech and surveillance), I felt as if I were witnessing the secret soul and one of the creative wellsprings of fashion. And my Swiss hosts, despite their legendary discretion, might have agreed with me.