One of my first big undertakings in the sacristy was to restore some old alb laces found in a suitcase in the top of a closet. The strips were tiny brown balls and looked nothing like lace. After gently unraveling the dirty bundles, the bobbin lace revealed itself in all its splendor. Old laces may never again be truly white-white, but you can come pretty close with some tender loving care and patience.
Most of the best 19th century bobbin lace came from Brussels, Venice, or England. Some convents began lace schools to teach young women a trade. Bobbin lace is worked on a cushion with fine linen or cotton thread, pins and spindle-like bobbins. Hand-made lace is highly collectible and valuable. Eventually machine-made laces proved cheaper and faster to make, but did not have the gossamer delicacy and airy-ness of handmade.
I first called Katy Kliot at LACIS in Berkely, California (see our links) who suggested using BIZ to clean and brighten the laces. I found that soaking the laces, and changing the water as it became soiled, loosened up most of the dirt and dust. Laces must be handled gently while washing so as not to break the “brides”- or the thin connecting threads which hold together the motifs. Sometimes I slipped a spatula under the laces to turn them. Never wring or twist lace, or lift it up while it is saturated- the weight of the water will snap the threads. This takes patience. When the Biz has been added to warm water, agitate the detergent to a froth with your hands , then lay in the lace for the soakings. I like to use a plastic dish pan for this process. When the rinsing phase is through, lay the lace on a clean white terry towel and gently pat the lace in an up and down motion which will absorb a great deal of the water. Gently press the lace out with your hand on the towel, smoothing the motifs into place. I then place the towel on my picnic table out in the sun where the brightening rays will do wonders for whitening the lace. When completely dry, store in acid -free tissue, as flat as space permits.
Insertion laces are easy to spot, the edges will be perfectly straight on both sides. Alb and surplice hem or sleeve laces usually have one straight edge and one scalloped or irregular patterned edge. Insertion lace was applied to hems of surplices or albs, then the back cloth was cut away to reveal the lace in front. Generally priests, bishops, Masters of Ceremony, and older altar servers wear the insertion style laces, very young servers have hanging lace on their cottas at the hem.
In the photo above I am getting the procession ready. Young Lucas has a stubborn cowlick that won’t lay down! Do you have an Acolyte Matron to assist before services? If there is a large acolyte guild, one or two people dedicated to keeping the vestments tidy and assisting with young members can be a godsend- and a lot of fun. Youngsters often need prompting to wash hands, comb hair, stand up straight, be quiet, and be ready on time. The position of Acolyte Matron is seen often in England for servers and young choirs.
Clergy always appreciates clean, laid-out vestments, ready to put on with no worries. Lace is making a comeback in the new vestment catalogues. Mostly it is detachable and synthetic on albs and easy to launder. In the good old days, nuns loosely stitched lace on so it could be removed for laundering. Now we have snaps and Velcro! All photos above are from Saint John the Evangelist in Newport, December 2000.
Yes- that is Father Douglas Burger from Woonsocket in the photo above, serving at Midnight Mass as Deacon in his dalmatic.