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What is Lace Fabric: Properties, How its Made and Where

by Boris Hodakel  • October 30, 2020 • 8 min read

Fabric name Lace
Fabric also known as Ties, openwork, lacework, netting, tatting, tulle, meshwork
Fabric composition Linen, silk, cotton, precious metals, synthetic fibers
Fabric breathability High
Moisture-wicking abilities Low
Heat retention abilities Low
Stretchability (give) Medium
Prone to pilling/bubbling Low
Country where fabric was first produced Disputed (somewhere in Europe)
Biggest exporting/producing country today China
Recommended washing temperatures Hand wash cold or dry clean
Commonly used in Bridal gowns, shawls, dresses, garment accentuations, accessory accentuations, upholstery accentuations, curtains, tablecloths, lampshades, lingerie, scarves

What is lace fabric?

Lace is a delicate, weblike fabric that textile producers can manufacture using a wide range of techniques. Varying significantly in complexity, different types of lace are commonly used to accentuate or decorate garments, upholstery, and homewares, and this fabric is only rarely used to make entire textile products.

Traditionally, lace usually consisted of silk or linen threads, and some textile artisans even made this fabric using gold or silver thread. In contemporary times, however, cotton has become the most popular fabric for lace production, and some manufacturers use synthetic fibers like polyester or rayon to make lace.

Prized for its delicacy and complexity, lace has been associated with sensuality and beauty for centuries. Therefore, this fabric remains a common component of women’s garments including lingerie. Lace is an equally popular textile for accents on upholstery and other forms of home decor.

History of lace fabric

Historians debate the origins of lace. Ancient Egyptian burial garb often featured ornamented openwork fabric, and fabrics similar to lace were common throughout the Middle East prior to the Renaissance. Starting in the 15th century, however, genuine lace started appearing in both Flemish and Italian paintings, so lace scholars suspect that this fabric originated in one of these two nations.

It’s possible that different types of lace originated in separate countries. Bobbin lace, for instance, appears to be a fabric of Flemish heritage, and needle lace most likely originated in Italy. By the mid-16th century, lace had become a popular fabric throughout Europe, and it appeared more commonly and prominently in Renaissance paintings.

From 1600-1800, Italy and Flanders remained the primary producers of lace fabric, and France also became a major lace producer. While lace production also occurred in Germany, England, and Spain during this period, none of these nations exported significant quantities of lace fabric.

In the early 19th century, the Industrial Revolution delivered many previously unthinkable advancements in textile manufacturing including machines that automated the lace-making process. As a result, lace fabric became considerably less expensive, and by 1840, women’s fashion started calling for lace extensively once again. By this point, lace was no longer used in men’s clothes, but this decorative fabric has remained an integral, if relatively minor, component of women’s fashion ever since.

Despite the unquestioned ease and efficiency of making lace with machines, handmade lace remained relatively common until the early 20th century. By the middle of the century, nations around the world had adopted the art of lace-making, and what was once an exclusively European textile tradition had become global in scope.

Lace fabric today

Lace does not hold the important role within Western society that it once did. Mainly viewed as old-fashioned, everyday contemporary garments only rarely feature decorative lace.

One formal apparel category in which lace has retained its significance, however, is bridal gowns. The more lace a bridal gown features, the more complex and beautiful it is considered to be, and it is uncommon to find bridal gowns that do not feature at least some lace.

Somewhat ironically, lingerie is the only other notable apparel category that still features abundant lace. Commonly featured on women’s bras and panties, lace is also a common component of more complex lingerie sets.

How is lace fabric made?

The methods textile manufacturers use to make lace fabric vary widely depending on the type of lace in question. However, every lace production method begins with the acquisition of thread or yarn.

Traditionally, lace featured linen thread, but high-end lace garments sometimes featured silk thread. Linen is derived from the fibers of the flax plant, and silk is derived from the cocoons of silkworms, which live on mulberry trees.

As the Indian cotton trade picked up steam in the 1600s, an increasing number of European lace garments featured this textile fiber since it was both exotic and less expensive than silk. Cotton is derived from the bolls that surround cotton seeds, which contain hundreds of tiny fibers each.

These days, textile manufacturers also sometimes use synthetic fibers to make lace fabric. Polyester, the most common synthetic textile, is a petroleum derivative that is made using a combination of artificial chemicals, and rayon and its derivatives are made using wood pulp.

Once a textile manufacturer has acquired the desired type of thread or yarn, lace is usually made in one of three common types: bobbin lace, needle lace, or chemical lace. Each of these lace-making techniques has multiple subtypes, and there are also quite a few other distinct types of lace. Let’s examine the details of each of these popular lace-making techniques:

Bobbin lace

To produce bobbin lace, textile manufacturers load thread or yarn onto approximately 20 different bobbins. They then feed these bobbins onto a pillow attached to a spindle, and they form the desired lace pattern on the pillow using pins. The first automated lace-making machines followed the bobbin lace method, and automated bobbin lace is produced using a similar (yet more efficient) process.

Needle lace

Needle lace appears to predate bobbin lace, and while exquisitely beautiful, this type of lace is incredibly time-consuming to make. In most cases, textile manufacturers make needle lace by affixing guiding threads to a stiff background and filling in the desired pattern with tiny stitches. While modern textile manufacturing machinery can approximate needle lace with reasonable fidelity, there is simply no substitute for this exquisite, handmade type of lace fabric.

Chemical lace

Textile manufacturers make chemical lace by embroidering a pattern on a type of fabric that is not resistant to caustic chemicals. Then, the lace is bathed in chemicals until the base fabric dissolves, leaving only the lace pattern intact. While it is easier to stitch chemical lace, this type of lace is not as high-quality as bobbin or needle lace.

How is lace fabric used?

Lace is mainly used as a decorative addition to other textile products. For instance, bridal dresses often feature multiple lace segments, and it’s also relatively common to add lace to other formal and informal women’s garments. In addition to being featured in lingerie, it’s sometimes possible to find lace in women’s gloves, socks, and sweaters.

Outside the world of apparel, lace is also a popular fabric for homewares. One of the most iconic uses of lace is in doilies, which were originally used as place settings for teacups. Lace is also a common addition to throw pillows, blankets, tablecloths and lampshades.

Since it is extremely delicate, lace does not have any industrial purposes. Instead, the primary purpose of this fabric is to make other textile products and home decor items appear more refined or aesthetically pleasing.

Where is lace fabric produced?

Since China produces more textile products than any other country, this nation holds the distinction of being the world’s most prolific producer of lace. This fabric is not of Chinese origin, however, and Europe remains a reasonably prodigious lace producer.

Certain factories in France and the Netherlands have produced lace for centuries, and Italy also retains its status as a notable producer of lace. American factories also produce small quantities of this beautiful and delicate textile.

How much does lace fabric cost?

Due to its intricacy, lace fabric is usually reasonably expensive, and handmade types of lace, such as needled race, can be incredibly pricey. The cost of lace varies depending on the way it was made and the materials it includes with silk lace being the most expensive, cotton and linen lace commanding mid-tier prices, and synthetic lace being the most affordable.

What different types of lace fabric are there?

Over the centuries, a wide variety of different types of lace have emerged. While some types of lace are more popular than others, it is important to be familiar with each form this textile takes as you select the best lace fabric for your purposes:

1. Crocheted lace

Technically a type of crochet, most experts do not consider crocheted lace to be a form of true lace. Reasonably easy to make compared to other lace fabrics, examples of crocheted lace types include filet crochet, pineapple crochet, and Irish crochet.

2. Bobbin lace

Simultaneously one of the most detailed and simplest forms of lace to make due to the invention of industrial lace-making machines, bobbin lace involves combining more than a dozen threads into intricate patterns as they pass along a moving surface.

3. Knitted lace

A highly elastic form of lace, knitted lace is a type of knit fabric that features a large number of small holes. Commonly used to make shawls and table covers, knitted lace is very difficult to make, and it cannot be made with machines.

4. Cutwork

Cutwork is a type of lace in which holes are cut in a base fabric that textile manufacturers then reinforce with needlework. This type of lace is reasonably easy to make, and cutwork production is often automated.

5. Needle lace

While textile manufacturers have gradually developed processes that make needle lace production less time-consuming, this type of lace is most commonly still manufactured with nothing more than scissors, thread, and a needle. Incredibly intricate and expensive, needle lace is considered to be the pinnacle of the lace fabric family.

6. Tape lace

A popular arts-and-crafts project, tape lace involves folding and sewing a straight tape into the desired shape. The tape used in tape lace is usually machine-printed with the lace portions added using needlework.

7. Chemical lace

Produced by embroidering a pattern on flimsy fabric that is later removed using chemical agents, chemical lace is one of the simplest and least environmentally friendly types of lace. Newer chemical lace production methods use heat or water instead of chemicals to remove the backer fabric.

8. Sheer lace

Sheer lace features far more holes than fabric, and it usually requires a backing fabric when used for apparel or other purposes.

9. Fully-patterned lace

This type of lace is less transparent since it features large quantities of fabric.

10. Corded lace

While most types of lace fabric feature thin, delicate threads, corded lace features thicker threads. This type of lace is less intricate in appearance, but it is more durable.

11. Beaded lace

Beaded lace features sequins or beads that are sewed or woven into the lace at regular intervals.

12. Limerick lace

Limerick is a newer type of machine-made lace that is generally considered to be a form of mixed lace instead of true lace since it is crocheted or embroidered.

How does lace fabric impact the environment?

The environmental impact of lace production varies depending on the type of fabric used. Silk production, for instance, is remarkably environmentally friendly, while at the other end of the spectrum, non-biodegradable synthetic lace contributes to plastic and toxic chemical pollution.

Cotton and linen production can either be sustainable or unsustainable depending on the processes that cultivators of these plant-based textiles use. It’s possible to produce both of these natural textiles without harming the environment, but most cotton and flax cultivators use toxic agrochemicals or treat cotton or linen yarn with dangerous substances during the production process. To avoid environmentally harmful lace, choose organic silk, cotton, or linen lace products, and avoid synthetic lace.

Lace fabric certifications available

Types of lace derived from natural fibers may be eligible for USDA or European Commission organic certification if they are grown in the USA or the EU respectively. The Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) and OEKO TEX certify natural textiles cultivated and produced using organic, sustainable methods, and these organizations also certify certain types of recycled synthetic textiles. Whether recycled or not, the International Organization for Standardization (ISO) certifies synthetic textiles, and recycled textiles may be eligible for Global Recycle Standard (GRS) certification.

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About the author:

Boris Hodakel is the founder and CEO of Sewport - an online marketplace connecting brands and manufacturers, former founder of various clothing manufacturing services. He is passionate about e-commerce, marketing and production digitisation. Connect with Boris on LinkedIn.