Monday, 10 August 2020
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Lacemakers: from the Lace Wars to a $40m painting

Between 1669 and 1672, during the Golden Age of Dutch Master Painters, Johannes Vermeer produced a series of paintings that “tenderly showed women absorbed in simple domestic tasks.” (Kassia St Clair). 

Perhaps the best known of these is entitled Girl With a Pearl Earring. Not far behind is this one, The Lacemaker. Vermeer’s series were meant to be a tribute to feminine virtue, ladies confined at home, engaged in worthwhile pursuits, “occupied and out of trouble.” Of course, the definition of worthwhile pursuits may have changed, as one painting in the series, The Procuress, depicts a prostitute entertaining three eager male customers. 

In The Lacemaker a young girl bends over her delicate work, all concentration, all-absorbed, bobbins and pins in her left hand, both her hands resting on a flat, blue-covered lace-making pillow. Typically she would do this for years, just one of the countless, unnamed poor, producing coveted artwork for the wealthy, for little personal reward. Her eyes would eventually fail, and her back be permanently hunched. 

At certain periods of history as the Lace Wars flared between regions and countries, she would be caught up in brutality and threatened with execution for treason if she crossed borders to sell her lace for a more reasonable price in a market competing with her own. In some countries and at certain times, incoming lace was banned - the ultimate tariff - to protect the local industry. Smugglers thrived. Decrees prohibited “inappropriate people” from wearing it. 

Although it was perfectly appropriate for the poor to make the lace, it was not for them as members of the “lower classes” to wear it. 

Vermeer’s lace maker in the painting, the model for which could have been either of his two daughters of that age, Maria or Elizabeth, wears a lace collar around her neck. Is the girl fantasizing in the privacy of her own home about dressing as one of the upper classes? 

Is Vermeer himself making a statement about social norms at that time, especially as applied to his own daughters? If they are good enough to produce the lace which keeps kings in power, are they not also good enough to wear it?

Acts of governance and religion were passed to forbid people in the “lower classes in which God had placed them” to wear the clothing of their “betters.” Lace was banned among the American Pilgrim Fathers as idolatrous frippery leading wearers to sinful pride and materialism. “Not only were they immoral, they occupied time and thought that, many believed, would be better spent in prayer.” (Kassia St Clair) 

Laws were passed forbidding the wearing of lace by slaves, lest they “rise above their station” and run away from their masters. A disgruntled male was quoted as complaining, “It’s quicker to rig an entire ship than to get a gentlewoman made ready” [to go out].

On the other hand, the sheer numbers of young girls in Europe taking up lacemaking led to shortages of cheap labour in other fields, namely domestic servants to wait on the needs of the upper classes. 

Churches and municipalities saw lacemaking as a way of reducing the cost to the public parish purse of the unemployed. 

Unskilled young girls were rounded up and required to attend classes designed to teach them the art of making lace. When that drained the cheap labour market in other industries, laws had to restrict the numbers of lace workers in certain areas.

For several centuries in Europe lace was the obsession of the rich, both male and female. 

In earlier times, despite being one of the least practical fabrics ever invented - it didn’t keep the wearer warm, snagged easily, and cost a fortune - it was worn more by males, particularly nobles and soldiers, than by women. 

The image of our glorious Anzacs and Light Horsemen charging into battle with frilly lacy bits flapping in the breeze would be unthinkable to the average Aussie bloke, but military uniforms of centuries ago included lots of lace, just as ceremonial uniforms include brocaded decorations today.

Kings, Queens, knights, clergy – all were heavily attired in lace. 

The amount and quality of lace on a person’s person became a source of one-upmanship. White lace, black lace, gold and silver thread lace, silkworm thread lace - armies were funded and territories were expanded, on the multi-faceted trade in lace works. 

In 1577, King Henry III of France turned up at a meeting wearing “4,000 yards of gold lace.” Queen Elizabeth I had “eight yards” of gold and silver lace worked onto a single petticoat. In some contemporary paintings she wears so much lace she looks like she’s walked through a wall of cobwebs. 

In that regard, her great rival, Mary Queen of Scots gave her a run for her money when she ascended the execution scaffold wearing white linen bobbin lace. 

In France so much precious metal went into lacework that laws were passed to forbid it when they ran out of gold and silver to make coins. When entire convents of nimble-fingered nuns took up lacemaking as a way of funding themselves, the danger of flooding the market with cheap lace became real. 

Lace is defined in one dictionary as: “A transparent fabric worked with needles or with bobbins or crochet hooks, sewing, knotting, intertwining threads of all sorts: gold, silver, silk, cotton and aloe, but more often linen.” 

Expert opinions differ on how and when the making of lace began. Most agree that it evolved over a period of centuries, reaching its peak in places like Venice, Spain, Flanders, France and England in the late 15th and 16th centuries.

In 2004, a painting by Johannes Vermeer, after centuries of uncertainty, was declared to be genuine, and sold at auction for $US40 million. 

His little painting The Lacemaker, just 24.5 cm x 21 cm (9.6 x 8.3 inches) hangs in the Louvre in Paris. 

Next time you go there, make a bid for it. If you’re serious, start at $50 million. I’m thinking of buying two.