“Of many Arts, one surpasses all. For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, … and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day. The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of Kings.”
Jacob Van Eyck, 1651.
Lacemaking was serious business. Starting from the 1500’s, the livelihood of many people depended on the delicate, finely-woven white cloth. It originated in the 15th century when Charles V instituted it in Belgian schools, and then spread mainly to Italy and the Netherlands. At the time, lace was a fashion statement. Everyone but the lowest classes used for cuffs, ruffs, tablecloths, pillowcases, and other household items in order to showcase their wealth and status. The demand for lace was tremendous, and it developed into an international industry, providing jobs and incomes for many people, especially women.
Every household in the Netherlands during the 17th century taught the girls how to make lace, so that they could support their family financially. There were professional lacemakers called naaisters, as well as opportunities in orphanages and religious communities for girls to learn the trade, and later earn money on their own.
Flemish cities such as Haarlem and Amsterdam provided lace that was renowned for the quality of the flax threads, and close-knit cauliflower or chrysanthemum design. It provided a striking contrast with the typical dark clothing, as seen in Portrait of a Woman in Black by Johannes Cornelisz Verspronck below. The presence and prominence of lace in his painting, as well as numerous other Dutch portraits, reflects the secular mindset of the time, when many middle-class people wanted to state their position in society. The lace, highlighted by the dark background, clothing, demure position, and neutral expression, reflects the desire to be recognized for the wealth and sophistication of their possessions, as well as the commercial and practical nature of painting itself.
The soft light that suffuses Vermeer’s The Lacemaker, and the quiet, unassuming placement of each brushstroke transcends any boundaries of time, style, or subject matter, as he indicates the abstract quality intrinsic to painting. As Lawrence Gowing notes in the book Vermeer, “it is a complete and single definition,” because the mental focus of lacemaking is rendered by technique equally as precise. An example of the intricacy of this technique is described by Arthur K. Wheelock Jr. in his book Johannes Vermeer:
“Vermeer softly and fluidly applies red and white strokes of paint to create the illusion of diffused, colored threads flowing from the partially opened sewing cushion. Their liquid forms spill out onto the equally suggestive floral patterns of the table covering.”
However, when it becomes too much, we can always exclaim, “No lace, Mrs. Bennet, no lace, I beg you!”
For a well-written history of lacemaking, visit:
Lace inspired fashion by Collette Dinnigan, Alexander McQueen and Prada