Journeys Through Lace (17th c. to present)

by Amy Elkins

A painting I can’t get out of my head: Bernhard Keilhau’s 17th c. The Lacemaker:

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 - 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

Bernhard Keilhau (1624 – 1687): The Lacemaker. oil on canvas; 91 x 71 cm.

This exquisite piece stopped me in my tracks last summer when I saw it at the Ashmolean in Oxford. I’d just been to the Isle of Wight to learn more about the processes and history of lacemaking from Barbara Philo, a traditional bobbin lacemaker and all-around wonderful person. As I wrote here,

In my dissertation, I ask questions about how visual art and material culture shaped literary aesthetics in the early 20th century. To answer these questions, I read literature through the lens of unseen art and craft processes in order to illuminate new circuits of visuality, social and political activism, and aesthetic patterns. I explore how various processes, designs, and media surface in and around [twentieth-century] literature. As a result, my project demands a hands-on research plan for direct contact and practice with the visual and material cultures I study. This type of research extends interpretive insights in new directions by rooting them firmly to creative materials and processes.

I not only tried my hand at (the most very primitive form of) lacemaking, but I learned about the ways different weave patterns signal different national traditions and styles.  The materials of manufacture–the bobbins, beads, pins, bolster pillow–also tell stories.  In particular, I was excited to learn that markings on the bobbins and the design of the beads that weigh them down have symbolized different things throughout history! 

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A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest go at lacemaking.

A lace bookmark by Barbara Philo next to my considerably more modest attempt at lacemaking.

A fabulous Polish street artist, NeSpoon, has taken over urban spaces with lace, a kind of cross-cultural web of visual storytelling (if you ask me).  I like to think of the Warsaw of WWII and the reparative, generative aesthetic of lace covering the city today.  I’ve been writing about the historicity of textiles lately and what they mean to the literary imaginary of WWII (the Latin laqueus meaning ‘noose,’ for instance), so NeSpoon’s work is a timely addition to my thinking! See more of her work here.

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