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Have you looked at a bra lately? If it’s not one of the shiny smooth bras, it probably has lace in it.

Or what about the trim at the top of a pair of underwear?

Or let’s think further back to that Laura Ashley or Jessica McClintock Easter Dress circa 1988 with the big collar and lace around the cuffs, collar, and hem.

Lace doesn’t feature much in our world of comfort clothing: linen trousers, leggings, jeans, and t-shirts. But there it is, still doing its work on our undergarments.

Even the simplest stretchy lace on your bra will go through thirty steps before it’s turned into underwear and shows up at Macy’s.

In Calais, France, across the English channel from Britain, lace was queen for hundreds of years. Even today, designers and Jacquard card punchers are working to make lace that will curve just so around bosoms and waists and feature in high fashion concoctions.

Because Calais was at one time the center of lace-making in all the world, it’s the perfect home for the Museum for Lace and Fashion or, as the French say, Cité Dentelle Mode.

Housed in a former lace factory, this exquisitely conceived museum takes visitors through the beginnings of handmade lace (and the kinds of people who wore it) through demonstrations of massive lace-making machines. It finishes in a fashion gallery rivaling any in Europe.

First, what is lace? The curators tell us: “Lace is a textile displaying openwork, obtained through the intersection of threads that form motifs linked by a ground. This intersection is produced either with a needle or with bobbins.”

Lace starts popping up in paintings of the late 1400s. This was needle lace—dentelle à l’aiguille—which originated in embroidery. With lace, the difference is in the use of the backing.

In embroidery, the needle passes through the backing (often a fabric) and the backing is part of the finished work. With needlepoint lace, although a backing is also used, it only has a temporary role, and will disappear from the finished product.

Now, whether this form of lace-making originated in Italy or in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) depends on whether you’re asking an Italian or a Flemish person. Historians can’t decide, but what they can agree on was that it was extremely slow to make and very expensive.

As handmade lace formed greater parts of garments, especially men’s shirts, cuffs, collars, and trouser embellishments, royal coffers and household budgets were emptied to their last franc and pound to obtain lace.

Bobbin-lace—la dentelle aux fuseaux—followed hard on the heels of needle lace and, at its simplest, is worked using two gestures, crossing and twisting (or turning) threads that are kept on small bobbins made of bone, wood, or, now, plastic. The lace and bobbins are secured to a flat pillow.

This is the ultimate in slow craft.

Both needle lace and bobbin lace required mainly linen thread. Though lace can be made of cotton, wool, and silk threads, linen was one of the main crops of Italy and Flanders and fed directly into lace-making.

Like a Dior “New Look” dress or a Chanel suit, there was a time when your lace said everything about your fashion savvy and your bank account.

At first, men mainly wore lace. Then as men’s dress became less flouncy, the lace gravitated to the skirts, shawls, cuffs, and décolletage of women.

Punched Jacquard cards which “tell” the loom which patterns to make.

The reign of hand-made lace only lasted about three hundred years. Like so many hand crafts, lace production became mechanized. Powered looms could make a tulle ground. Combining the tulle ground with sophisticated Jacquard pattern-making machines meant acres of lace could be made in days not years.

In the late 1700s, as aristocracies and empires began to tumble across Europe and the middle classes and organized working classes rose, the flaunting of one’s riches in the form of opulent clothing could actually mean the guillotine or exile.

It’s interesting to think how this connects to the controversies now surrounding the ostentatious displays at the Met Gala or film award shows and the environmental impact of fast fashion.

As with so many material things, as lace became cheaper and more ubiquitous, it lost its special status. As clothes became both more comfort-oriented and cheaper, lace was no longer something to be passed from one generation to another.

France in the 1910s. This was the last great display of lace in fashion until Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” video heralded a brief lace revival. After that, lace largely went into undergarment territory.

Today, outside of haute couture or wedding and christening dresses, for most of us lace has very quietly slipped under our clothes. If we’re not rushing to get dressed in the morning, perhaps a glimpse in the mirror will remind us of a time when the intricately crossed threads of lace told the story of expert hands and spelled luxury.

Ranging across three floors, the exhibits at the Museum for Lace and Fashion include the ground floor shop, cafe, and temporary displays, the extensive first floor history of lace and permanent as well as changing fashion displays, and a second floor full of lace machines, tools, and a demonstration of industrial lace machines.

There are also wonderful video interviews with contemporary lace designers and factory workers. All of the displays have English, French, and Dutch descriptions and the videos are subtitled in English, too. The museum is open year round.


About The Author

Jeni Hankins is an American performing artist, writer, and maker living in London and Lancashire. Since 2008, she’s toured extensively throughout the USA, Canada, and the UK. Find her recordings on Bandcamp and catch up with her musings on Substack.


  • Thanks for the visit to Calais and the opportunity to learn about lace. Wondering how lacy my underwear is now. Must check.

  • Fascinating! Of course there’s plenty of lace in the work of expert knitters (Franklin Habit and others) and it’s beautiful and incredibly intricate, and the round lace shawls of knitters in historic Scotland is just amazing. The so-called “lace” I might incorporate into a shawl or scarf seems pretty rustic by comparison- yet it has its own beauty, and it’s wonderful to read of its history. Thank you!

  • What a wonderful article! A new place for the bucket list! Thank you so much!

  • I live in a small town SW of Calais and due south of Alençon, France. (The home of Alençon lace) We are fortunate to have a small museum (Musée de Coiffe) where the traditional craft of bobbin lace is still intact. On weekends visitors can view traditional caps worn in the Sarthe, (
    And watch the art of making lace on bobbins – I don’t know how they keep track of the patterns!

    • For keeping track of the patterns, if you zoom in on the picture of the bobbin lace pillow above on the green card below the worked lace you can see dots and lines. These are the holes for the pins and show where the threads go. That gives you most of the information you need to work the pattern. Once you’ve decided, or have written instructions, for the specifics of each element you can refer to your worked lace to remember what to do.

      On the different bobbin decorations in my (really limited) experience it can be to keep track of specific threads but is mostly just decorative. The shape of bobbins varies between lace styles and painted bobbins and spangles can get quite elaborate.

    • I had the pleasure of seeing a bobbin lace demonstration at our county fair. I was impressed at how delicate the lace was compared to knitted lace, even on very fine yarn.

    • I am curious about that too. I looked at the bobbins and saw that they have different markings on them. There’s a different number of rings as well as different placement of the rings on the handles. I wonder, does this have anything to do with the pattern of the lace?

      • The markings are helpful when I was first learning, to keep track of a bobbin, but eventually most people seem not to need it. One of the reasons for the beading and the rings on the bobbins is to add weight to the bobbin, to make it easier to keep even tension. I don’t have any weighted bobbins like that, but they do seem to come in handy when you’re using springier or thicker thread.

  • Thank you for a fascinating article. I remember my grandmother removing lace from an old dress neckline to put on a new blouse she was making; this would have been in the 50s in rural Ontario, Canada.

    • I LOVE this. Thank you for sharing this memory.

  • My great aunt would adorn our batiste underwear with vintage lace edging and make simple slips with narrow lace edging. Fortunately I inherited some of her lace and learned enough French hand sewing to use it.

    • I love to think of you sewing this antique lace to something today!

  • Does anyone know how tatting fits into the history of lace making?

    • It is more recent, more of a past-time, 1800’s on. Maybe not easy to make by machine, thus not marketable?

  • Thank you! I will take another look at my grandmother’s doilies in my cedar chest.

  • I saw some of that extreme Calais lace in a museum last fall, two long rectangles of it, and each had its own display case and beeper. I got the beep several times for getting too close. But of course I would!

    • I love that you liked it so much that you got the beep!

      • It was worth it! This is a really informative article.

  • You have such a knack for finding fascinating sites to visit – thanks for sharing them!

    • Aww, big thanks Jennifer!

  • Fascinating. My sis who lives in Asheville, NC, learned to make bobbin lace about 20 years ago and still meets up with a group of like-minded and very patient women who adore this painstaking process. Slow craft, for sure. They produce some very beautiful work, however.

  • I went to Lacis in Berkeley quite a few years ago and it is a very worthwhile trip that, for most of us, is closer to home than France.
    If you are ever in the bay area, it is definitely worth a trip. My group was fortunate enough to enjoy a private tour. I would definitely call ahead to let them know that you are coming and see what is available.

    • I second this recommendation wholeheartedly. It has more than lace, too. Well worth the visit!

  • Another place to hopefully visit one day!

    Lace was worn by both men and women early – look at the edges of ruffs worn in the late 16th/early 17th c.
    Conspicuous consumption.

    Lace is still used in clothing, however more in high end fashion than fast fashion. And the quality of modern lace varies greatly.

    Many museums have some wonderful examples.

    There was an excellent lace exhibit in the US at the Bard Graduate Center (NYC) with an accompanying catalog. Sadly, the website once gave a much more complete view of the exhibit but the catalog is a treasure.

  • I loved this history. I am a big lace knitter. Never tried the bobbin lace but have an enormous appreciation for the talent , skill and patience it takes to produce.
    Thank you for this article.

  • Wonderful article about a fascinating craft.

    If a trip to Calais isn’t on your agenda, but you’re on the U.S. west coast, you might set your sights on the Lacis Museum of Lace and Textiles in Berkeley, California.

    When I was there several years ago, it had a small but exquisite collection and knowledgeable docent. If you’re going to be in the Bay Area, it’s definitely worth the trip!

  • “ At first, men mainly wore lace” should read instead “At first, mainly men wore lace.”
    The published version means that most of the clothing worn by men was lace, which prompts delightful visual speculations but is likely not what the writer intended.

    • Oh my goodness, thank you for catching this in my article! Yes, I am cracking up imagining the men in mostly lace!

  • Fascinating article – thank you!

  • Very interesting. I love knitting lace projects. Thank you.

  • Thank you for this article which is amazingly timely! It just so happens that the annual conference of the International Organization of Lace, Inc. (IOLI) will take place in Nashville beginning July 1: (It’s actually going to be in Franklin, and I am so very sad I can’t attend this year and make it a double-header with a visit to MDK World Headqarters.) I believe the public may be able to attend a public display event and get into the vending hall.
    **It looks like there are still places available in a modern lace knitting class, so check the site!!**
    There are a number of resources with information about lace, including the IOLI website,, which has a map of lace groups around the US. (In Europe, there is OIDFA, the International Bobbin and Needle Lace Organization,
    – In addition to the Lacis Museum, there is the Lace Museum in Berkeley, They offer a number of online classes.
    – In Los Alamos: “Northern New Mexico Museum of Lace (NNMML) is home to a private wide-ranging collection of handmade lace and associated items. Although currently a virtual resource, a permanent home is being investigated. In the meantime, research is happening, exhibitions are being held, and visitors are always welcome!” Laurie Walters has astonishing online resources:
    – In Raleigh, North Carolina, “the Kristin S. Conrad Lace Center is the first educational nonprofit lace center on the East Coast of the U.S. and is dedicated to the history and practice of lacemaking,
    – Collections at many museums are also accessible online, including the Metropolitan Museum in New York –, perhaps the Smithsonian.
    This is all the information I have time to provide right now—there is much more out there. And there are many of us around the world still making lace, which we maintain is not a dying art! I learned to make bobbin lace in 1982 as a graduate student just for fun—before I taught myself how to knit.

  • Amazing article. Thank you so much for historical information on something we now take for granted.

  • I have lace that my great grandmother made and put on her petticoat. Guessing made in late 1800s.

  • Lovely lace, but bobbing lace is not knotted.

  • As fascinating as all the lace was, I was immediately struck by the architecture of the museum itself. It took a bit of sleuthing but I found the architect’s website and discovered that the curves are meant to give you two reflections of the nearby river. The outer ‘skin’ of the museum mimics the jacquard punchcards used by the Leaves looms at the height of industrial lace-making. This is now a bucket-list spot for me as well!

    • Yes, I completely agree about the museum architecture! I especially loved the reference to the Jacquard cards in the “punched” exterior details. And because it was a lace factory, the inside has that wonderful industrial aura of much work, done well.

  • Just want to mention that bobbin lace is alive and well in the U.S. Additional information can be found on the I.O.L.I. website.

  • I developed a MASSIVE appreciation for lace after stumbling on an exhibit at the BMA (Baltimore Museum of Art) several years ago…there, within a clear cube, was a small pillow with HUNDREDS of bobbins encircling an emerging lace design. Later I saw a video of lacemakers tossing similar bobbins at an alarming rate…it was astounding!

  • I’m wondering: is knitted lace included in this museum and other lace history organizations?

    Do lace makers consider it as lace or as a shortcut / substitute?

    Thanks for a great article.

    • Hi Karen, I didn’t see any knitted lace at the museum, but it is a very large museum with many many displays, so I might have missed some samples of knitted lace. The focus was definitely on needle and bobbin lace followed by commercial lace production. There wasn’t any discussion in the museum displays about knitted lace versus bobbin or needle lace, so I’m not sure how it was viewed in the past or how it is now. There seem to be lots of lacemakers here in the comments, so perhaps they have more info. Lots of smiles to you and I hope you’re having a good week!

  • I want to go there! But traditional lace-making is alive and sort of well! I am a member of my local group, where bobbin lace is popular, but we love all sorts of lace-making. Tatting, knitting, crochet and needle lace are all over our meetings, for every meeting. Yes, it is a slow craft, especially if you’re doing bobbin lace or needle lace. But it is a lot of fun, and the work is quite beautiful. If you’re interested in finding a group, please check out the International Organization of Lace, Inc.

  • Hi All, thank you for your great comments on my article and for sharing so many lace resources. I would love to go to some of the museums mentioned here! I, too, have seen some wonderful displays of lace and also lace-makers in action here at county fairs here in Britain. My husband has to drag me away because I feel I could watch and talk to the makers all day. I love that people are keeping the craft of handmade lace alive in so many associations and gatherings in different countries. When I was assistant teaching at Penland in North Carolina, I noticed that there was a lace-making course coming up the following year. It looked to be about portraits created with bobbin lace. It was truly breathtaking. So, as many say, lace is happening. It may not be our main textile of choice for clothes as it was for those who could afford it in the past, but it is certainly an engrossing and living craft even now!

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