Tuesday 17 March 2020

Bobbin Lacemakers in the Early Modern: images and tools

Figure 1

Bobbin lace is thought to have originated in the first half of the sixteenth century, the first published book giving patterns is thought to have been Le Pompe, published in Venice in 1559 (Anon., 1983). Two years later, when the Nüw Modelbuch was published in Zurich the title page depicted two women working bobbin lace with unshaped bobbins on a plump rectangular pillow placed on a stand. (M., 1561) (Fig 1 right)

The next few depictions of bobbin lacemakers are drawings or prints. 

c.1580-1600, Johannes Stradanus (1523-1605) Cornelia, mother of the Gracchi, with female companions engaged in needlework.  This a drawing, a more defined reversed image is the engraving produced by Theodoor Galle (1571-1633), where the woman behind the lady with the slate frame has a large domed lace pillow. On the table by them is a stand with an oil lamp suspended from it, giving them light from above.

c. 1580-85, Maerten de Vos (c. 1534-1603), in a series of etchings called The Seven Planets and Ages of Man, Mercury is shown with a lacemaker sitting in the bottom right hand corner. She has a rectangular lace pillow on her lap, and six bulb ended lace bobbins are visible.

1597, Johann Sibmacher (1561-1611), Schön Neues Modelbuch. The title page of the book shows the lady on the right with the spectacles has a sewing bolster of the type used for sewing, needle lace and bobbin lace, but no bobbins.  

Figure 2
1600 – 1620, The lacemaker, a drawing in the Rijksmuseum collection. Object number RP-T-1886-A-597. A rectangular lace pillow sits on a stand, while the lace maker sits in a chair. The bobbins are more numerous, and whilst shaped are less bulbous at the end than those in the Maertin de Vos etching. (Figure 2 left)

Circa 1620,  Gervasius Fabricius (1603-1637), Ladies in a garden in his Album Amicorum.  f.50 - BL Add MS 17025. The lady at the bottom left, sitting on a chair, has bolster pillow on a stand. Her bobbins for some reason hang from the middle of the lace, which is a pointed edging style, and they are of the bulbous end style. The parchment upon which the lace is being worked is red. Although there is no pin cushion, several pins can be seen stuck in the bolster, though not in the lace. It maybe that the painter did not understand how the lace was being worked. 

1640 Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651), The charity of Saint Nicholas, at Ons' Lieve Heer op Solder, Amsterdam. Here one lady is sewing on a sewing bolster, while two others make bobbin lace. The lace pillows are supported on a lap stand with a slanted top. The bobbins are shaped like those in the 1600-1620 Lacemaker drawing.

In the 1650s and 1660s a whole raft of paintings of lacemakers were produced by Dutch and Flemish genre painters.

1650s Gabrielle Metsu (1629–1667), The Lacemaker - The State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg – This lacemaker is not working her lace, there is no pillow, but she is holding two bobbins, and the thread running between them can be seen.

1654-1655, Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693),  A young woman making lace – drawing of the figure that appears in the National Gallery of Canada painting. In this drawing, the painting that comes from it and the 1656 Maes lacemaker, the squared off, domed pillow appears to have a drawer in the in end, possibly for holding bobbins, pins, etc. 

1655, Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693), The lacemaker, National Gallery of Canada. The painting from the drawing.

Figure 3
1656, Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693), The Lacemaker, Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. Here we have again the square cut off, domed pillow with a drawer in the end. The bulbous bottomed bobbins and, as well as the pins appearing in the lace she has worked, her scissors can be seen hanging against her apron, a detail from the painting is shown in  Figure 3 left.

1662, Caspar Netscher (1639?-1684),  The Lace Maker, Wallace Collection, London. Again the lace pillow is supported on a lap stand with a slightly slanted top, and again The parchment upon which the lace is being worked is red. The can see the white of the worked lace and the red of the parchment carrying the pattern, she is in the act of placing a pin. The bobbins are again those with a bulbous bottom. 

1665, Bernhard Keil (1624-1687), The Lacemaker. Metropolitan Museum of Art New York. Keil was a Danish painter who studied at Rembrandt’s studio, he painted this when settled in Italy. Here we have a true round bolster pillow, abandoned on a chair. The worked lace is covered with a cloth, something most lace makers do today, the stop the worked lace getting dirty or being damaged. A small forest of pins appears in the area she is working, and the bobbins are of the bulbous bottomed variety. 

Figure 4
1665, Nicolaes Maes (1634 – 1693), The Old Lacemaker, Mauritshuis, The Hague. Apart from this being a much older lacemaker wearing spectacles, the pillow, bobbins and scissors hanging down are the same as in his 1656 painting in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, see detail in Figure 4 Right. 

1669–1670, Johannes Vermeer (1632–1675), The Lacemaker, The Louvre, Paris. A much flatter pillow apparently on an adjustable floor stand, you can see the holes for adjusting the height. Again the maker is in the act of placing a pin. 

Circa 1670, Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt (1641-1691) The Lace Maker,  The Royal Collection, London, RCIN 405302. Another truncated domed pillow on a slanted lap stand. 

1672-3  Pieter Cornelisz van Slingelandt (1641-1691),  A Young Lacemaker  Interruptedby a Bird Seller, Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden. Again a truncated domed pillow, but the lap stand seems to be integral.

early 18th century, Jan Josef I Horemans (1682–1759),  Workshop with shoemaker, butcher,   lacemaker. A really weird painting, sold at auction by Hamel Auctions, Munich.

1720s Giacomo Ceruti (1698-1767). Lacemakers. Private Collection. Five women work of round bolster pillows place directly in their laps. Ceruti was an Italian artist and the bobbins here are far less bulbous than those in the paintings from the Low Countries. 


Anon., 1983. Le pompe, 1559 : patterns for Venetian bobbin lace / facsimile with introduction by Santina M. Levey ; technical section by Patricia C. Payne. Bedford: R. Bean.

M., R., 1561. Nüw Modelbuch allerley gattungen Däntelschnür so diser zyt in hoch Tütschlanden geng und brüchig sind...erstmals in truck verfergket durch R. M.. Zurich: Christoph Froschauer.

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