Steely Seamstress

Sewing for life


Bath Fashion Museum – Lace Exhibition Review

Each year Bath Fashion Museum, as well as it’s long-running History of Fashion in 100 objects, hosts a themed exhibition. I suddenly realized that I’d visited the museum last year and failed to post anything about the exhibition. Even worse, I noticed that the exhibition had actually finished, so I apologize if this post tempts you with an exhibition that is no longer running. According to the Bath Fashion Museum website, a new exhibition on Royal Women is starting in February, which I’m sure will be just as extraordinary.

The first garments that you see as you enter the exhibition really intrigued me. They are these two stunning dresses made by Grace Weller, a graduate from Bath Spa University. They won the Gold Award at Graduate Fashion Week 2014. The lace used is Chantilly-style and Raschel machine-made lace from northern France.

Grace Weller 2014 Machine-made lace

Navy blue Raschel, and Chantilly-style lace ensembles Grace Weller 2014 Machine-made lace

Close Up of Grave Weller’s lace dress

Next, we are taken through the history of lace, exploring the traditions of lace-making from the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries.

Making Bobbin Lace

Apparently, no one knows exactly when lace was invented.  Lace began to appear in the dress of the most affluent members of society from the late 1500s. There are two different lace traditions; bobbin lace where the pattern is formed by weaving pairs of threads, which are wound on cylindrical bobbins and needle lace, which uses tiny stitches with a needle and thread to build up a design.

I remember seeing someone making bobbin lace at a craft fair when I was a kid, but I haven’t seen anyone making lace since. It would have been good to see someone working on this lace at the museum, it all looks so complicated and intricate to me.

The high levels of skill required for making hand-made lace meant that lace was costly to produce and could only be affordable to the most affluent in society. Lace was used in fashionable outfits from the stiffened collars and cuffs in the Elizabethan era, the frilly cuffs on a gentleman’s shirt in Stuart times and dresses worn by elegant regency ladies.

By the 1800s lace-making was a major industry and several lace production centres were established across Europe. Bobbin lace was predominantly made in Flanders and Brussels and needle lace in Venice. Devon, Buckinghamshire and Bedfordshire in England also made high-quality hand-made lace.

In the early nineteenth century machines were developed which could create nets that could then be decorated by hand. This fine muslin dress is decorated with two types of hand-made bobbin lace.

Yellow Spotted Muslin Dress (1815)

One of the gems in the exhibition is this net dress made in 1805, decorated with white lace. It may be the only surviving dress worn by Queen Charlotte.

Silk Net Bobbin Lace Dress worn by Queen Charlotte

Silk Net Bobbin Lace Dress worn by Queen Charlotte

According to the Guardian article, Charlotte was never regarded as a fashion leader and stuck to the styles that were popular in her youth for much of her life. This exquisite dress would have been extremely fashionable in 1805, when Charlotte was in her 60s. I do wonder whether this dress survived so well, simply because Queen Charlotte didn’t favour wearing it!

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Jacquard loom had been adapted for net-producing machines. These could now create patterned laces. Mass production of lace was now possible. Where previously lace had been used sparingly to decorate, now whole dresses could be made with lace.

Lace-making centres like Nottingham produced vast quantities of machine-made lace. and many leading fashion houses, particularly in Paris pioneered using lace in their collections. Machine-made lace was used in the latest fashions, like these cocktail dresses by Paquin and the Callot Soeurs from the 1920s:

Black silk Raschel lace dress (Callot Soeurs) and Orange silk and gold lace negligee (Paquin)

In the 1930s, British designers were establishing their own couture houses. Lace featured prominently in their designs too. There were several dresses on show by Norman Hartnell, who dressed debutants, aristocrats and Royalty and Edward Molyneux, who worked in Paris but had a branch of his couture house in London.

Green Silk Dress (Molyneux) 1930

The exhibition then moves into the last half of the twentieth century and showcases some very glamourous eveningwear. There are dresses worn by Princess Margaret in the 1950s and evening dresses worn at red carpet events. Lace is used in all of these; a fabric we still identify with opulence and grandeur.

36 Cream Leavers lace and gold jersey Balmain 1953

This dress was worn at the Coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in June 1953 by Lady Ward.

Norman Hartnell Evening dress worn by Princess Margaret in the early 1950s

40 Red machine-made lace evening dress Jacques Azagury 2012

A red carpet choice by Jacques Azagury for Kimberley Walks of Girls Aloud for the music Industry Trust Awards in London in November 2012

The exhibition was a feast for the eyes; there were so many beautiful garments on display. However, I was left feeling that I wanted to know more about the story behind the garments, about their wearer or the designer. This particular dress (below) piqued my interest. It was made in the 1970s from an old Edwardian lace curtain.  But wouldn’t it be interesting to know who wore the dress, what was the occasion and whose lace curtains were they? Perhaps we will never know.

Dress made from old Edwardian lace curtains

Dress made from old Edwardian lace curtains




Burda #107A 03/2013 – Lace Cardigan

I seem to be going a bit mad for Burda patterns at the moment. This will be my fourth Burda make this year. This is quite a turnaround from being a pattern company whose patterns used to fill me with fear, to now having enough confidence to tackle them without a second thought. The pattern I chose this time is a simple cardigan with a V-neck opening. The front is gently gathered, which provides a little more shape to the garment.

Burda #107A 03/2013

I have a small length of lace fabric in my stash, which was a bolt-end. It has been lurking in my stash for a few years, but I was reluctant to use it as I knew it would be a tessellation nightmare trying to figure out how to cut out the required pieces from the fabric I have. But finally I plucked up courage and gave this a go. After I’d traced my pattern I spent quite a while positioning my pattern pieces on the fabric to get the best placement. Ultimately, I decided that I didn’t quite have enough. However, going ahead with 3/4  length sleeves, I would just about be able to make a cardigan. I’m quite happy with the reduced sleeve length given that the cardigan is made from a lace fabric and will purely be used as a light layer in summer or perhaps an evening event (should I be invited to one!)

Burda lace cardigan

The construction was relatively simple at the start. It didn’t take long for the body and sleeves to be stitched together. The trickier part was the front. First of all, the front sections have to be gathered. A good while ago I remember using the overlocker to gather, so I got the instruction manual out and tried this out. It essentially requires changing the differential feed and once stitched pulling on the two needle threads to gather the fabric. It worked a treat in getting an even gather.

Burda Cardigan Gathering

When I was trying to tame the front band, I got the iron out and starting on a low temperature ironed the fabric. Much to my surprise, the fabric seem quite happy with the heat, so much so that I took a small piece of left-over fabric (there were only small pieces remaining) and wacked the iron up high. The fabric didn’t melt. I had thought this fabric was just a bit of polyester, but I couldn’t believe anything completely synthetic could survive the full heat from the iron. I was now quite intrigued to find out the fibre content of my fabric. I decided to conduct a burn test. Coming from a scientific background, I just love doing experiments and got quite excited about the idea of lighting pieces of fabric! Anyway, I lit a small remnant in the sink and it continued to burn in the sink once the flame was removed. I used this web page as a guide.

I noticed that the smell wasn’t particularly plastic-like, and indeed it smelled quite natural. I put my burned fabric on a plate and got Mister and Master Steely to smell it too. They declared it a non-plastic smell too. Master Steely said it smelled like rice. I suspect the fabric is viscose. Here’s what the guide said about rayon / viscose:

“Rayon keeps burning after the flame is removed, and although it has an odor similar to cotton or paper, it does not have an afterglow.”

Burda Lace Cardigan

Burda lace cardigan

There are quite a few of these cardigans posted on the Burda website, take a look here and here for versions in lace. I notice that it also looks great made with jersey as well, like in this version and I expect I will try this out too at some point.