Decorating with lace
Nov 20, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I come from a long line of talented artisans. I remember spending many summer evenings, watching my great-grandma tat on her porch swing as the sun slowly set behind the lazy hills. She was so talented at this intricate art of lace making and watching her shuttle flow to and fro was mesmerizing. Even as her eyesight failed, muscle memory kicked in and her front room remained bursting with delicate creations. I treasure all the doilies that she gave me. Decorating with lace is a beloved vintage tradition, so let’s focus on a couple different artistic expressions: tatting and macramé.
Tatting’s origin story is a bit unexpected. What is now considered an elegant needle art started on crude fishing boats. Sailors made knots and tied cords while assembling fishing nets – this large scale effort required little training and few tools. Over time this technique came ashore as weavers began to mimic this approach with finer and finer thread. Soon the shuttle was created as a mechanism for making incredibly intricate pieces. The art form soared in popularity as lace became a status symbol. Wearing lace on your clothing or having it displayed in your home was a sign of sophistication. If you wanted to add even more panache, your lace would be sewn directly onto another valuable material such as velvet or satin. While this all sounds very upper crust, many credit a group of Irish nuns for bringing lacework to the masses. During the mid-1800s these devoted ladies sold their handiwork to raise money for the poor in their community. As a testament to their far-reaching influence, when some of these folks made the arduous journey to America, they arrived with lace in tow. For these immigrants, tatting became the keystone of their early economy as they sold these creations to raise funds for their new life. The fashion magazines of the day, such as Godey’s Lady Book, capitalized on the trend and began featuring patterns for their eager readers. Every “it girl” wanted lace accents in their homes and on their gowns.
While tatting was a huge hit in 19th century America, its popularity continued to strengthen overseas. I love the different translations for tatting. In Germany the word is schiffchenarbeit (try to say that three times fast!), which loosely references those sailors of yore. In Italian it’s called chiacchierino which can also be a reference to being chatty. (I think my great-grandma would have identified most with the Italian interpretation as she would joyfully weave tales while she made lace!)
For decades tatting ruled supreme, yet the simplicity of a Jazz Age silhouette coupled with the geometric boldness of Art Deco signaled a new direction. Where would the lace decorative arts turn next? As any vintage fashionista worth her salt would quip, sometimes you have to look behind you before you forge ahead. With that in mind, you can imagine what happened next: it was time to return to the open sea! Sailors are quite the craftsmen. In addition to making fishing nets, the 16th century mariner-about-town would construct all sorts of containers out of knotted cord. Those creations might be used to sheath a knife, hold up a pair of pants, or keep a valuable bottle of rum safe. Their techniques took inspiration from geometry and could be fashioned out of any sort of thread or cord-like material. This democracy in materials liberated the palette and allowed the artist to incorporate texture as an element. When I think of macramé I am immediately transported to the late 60s, early 70s (or to any number of hipster stores today!), but I was surprised to learn macramé was also popular during the 1800s as well. Much like tatting, macramé work was showcased as the focal point of a room’s interior design – whether that room was a formal Victorian parlor or a hip space age den.
What I enjoy most about decorating with lace is its deceptive strength. For a tatted piece in particular, it lends an ethereal ambiance to a room. These little ivory-colored beauties seem so fragile in their transparency, but the very network of knots that provides its airy qualities also makes it impenetrable. It’s nearly impossible to pull apart a doily! That juxtaposition of strong and dainty could also be an apt description of its creator. Perhaps that’s the real reason I enjoy decorating with lace: it’s a tangible reminder of my amazing great-grandma. Tell me, dear reader, what vintage decorative elements transport you back in time or remind you of someone special?