Dresden Lace: A Commercial Success Story

By Kathy Epstein

This article first appeared in the NAN newsletter, in winter 1990.

Many histories of embroidery focus on the production of needlework in domestic settings. For example, researchers have detailed the kinds of embroideries girls executed in eighteenth-century dame schools or have shed light on the variety of embroidery materials offered for sale to the domestic embroiderer. However, few embroidery forms had their beginnings as women’s leisure activity; rather, they owed their development to commercial endeavors. An interesting example of such an embroidery form is Dresden lace, a whitework technique which enjoyed widespread popularity in both Europe and the American colonies during most of the eighteenth century. Although it was a true embroidery form, it was classified as lace and was sold by lace merchants. And, unlike forms such as Berlin work and samplers, its manufacture developed first as an industry and later became a domestic pursuit.

The commercial development of Dresden lace was tied to changing European fashion and the effect of that change on the lace industry. In the seventeenth century, highly successful bobbin and needle lace industries developed on the Continent and in England in response to the demand for lace at all social and economic levels of society. In about 1670, the demand began to change with the introduction of muslins imported by the East India Company. These cotton fabrics from India-as many as twenty-five varieties were available-were so fine that it was reported, “you can scarce discernible.’” At first, the gossamer fabric was used to adorn the necks and wrists of its wearers only for everyday wear; lace was the preferred accessory for social occasions. However, by the end of the first decade of the eighteenth century, muslin has replaced needle and bobbin lace as a fashion statement as evidenced by portraiture of the period, household inventories, and accounts.

By the second decade of the eighteenth century, the Flemish lace industry answered muslin’s challenge. Because of advancements in the production of very fine linen thread, lacemakers were able to produce a bobbin lace with the sheerness of muslin but which, as Santina Levey has noted, “on close inspection, proved to be exquisitely patterned and impressively expensive.” These diaphanous and opulent laces, which sported Rococo style flowers and leaves, were very fashionable but prohibitive for all but the wealthy.

In order to win back the market shared by both the plain muslin and the expensive Flemish bobbin laces, efforts were made to develop less expensive techniques that made the muslin look like lace. Sometime during the third decade of the eighteenth century, a new embroidered lace appeared on the market. This lace was first made in Saxony and reached the rest of Europe through merchants in Dresden, its capital. The manufacture of Dresden lace, as it was called in England and her colonies, quickly spread to lace-making centers all over Europe. It became so popular that English merchants exported it to her North American colonies. Borders of the embroidered repeat patterns adorned the edges of ruffles, aprons, caps, and lappets, and allover designs of Dresden lace ornamented men’s waistcoats.

Dresden lace is characterized by a few surface stitches and a variety of pulled thread patterns. No drawn or cut work was used. The elegant, imported India muslins-and after about 1780, English muslin-were used as the foundation materials, and thread counts could be as high as 110 per inch. No design marks were made on the fabric. lnstead, the sheer muslin was tacked to a stiff paper upon which a pattern had already been drawn in ink. The embroiderer could discern the design lines through the muslin; stitches were worked through the fabric only.

Specimens of extant Dresden lace can be given rough dates by examining the designs and surface stitches used. Earlier pieces are characterized by dense arrangements of motifs which feature a variety of pulled thread patterns and outlines of single thin rows of double back stitches. These outline rows imitated the tape outlines in the Flemish bobbin laces. Often the background around the motifs was worked in a pulled pattern as well.

Sometime in the mid-eighteenth century, the tambour hook was introduced to Europe from the East (tambour work had been known in the seventeenth century in Europe from imported goods). Tambour work influenced Dresden lace designs so that soon after the introduction of the hook, chain stitch outline replaced the double back stitch. Gradually, design motifs became smaller, patterns less dense, backgrounds were eliminated, and there was less variety in the pulled thread patterns.

By the mid-eighteenth century, Dresden lace had entered the repertoire of the domestic embroiderer. In 1758, a London merchant advertised patterns for ladies’ work, including Dresden. Other advertisements of the period indicate that the embroidery was included in the curriculum at many dame schools. We are fortunate that several colonial Dresden samplers have survived; two of these are housed in Winterthur Museum in Delaware.

Dresden lace remained popular as both a commercial product and a domestic occupation for the better part of the eighteenth century. In turn, it was the basis for a late eighteenth/early nineteenth century whitework technique which was also initially a commercial product: Ayreshire embroidery.

Suggested reading:

1. Levey, Santina, LACE: A HISTORY, Victoria and Albert Museum and W. S. Maney & Son, Ltd., Leeds, 1983.

2. Montgomery, Florence M., TEXTILES IN AMERICA 1650-1870, W. W. Norton & Company, New York, 1984.

3. Palliser, Mrs. Bury, HISTORY OF LACE, E. P. Publishing, Ltd., Wakefield, 1982 [1902].

4. Swain, Margaret H., HISTORICAL NEEDLEWORK, Barrie & Jenkins, London, 1970.

5. Swain, Margaret H., AYRESHIRE & OTHER WHITEWORK, Shire Publications, Ltd., Aylesbury, 1982.