Artifact Corner: Frances Henrietta’s Wedding Dress

Hi Everyone, and welcome back to another artifact corner. Today, we will be looking at Frances Henrietta’s wedding dress from 1832. This is the overdress that she wore for her wedding to Henry Webb. It is made entirely of French silk lace, and is very delicate and fragile. It has a short but very full gigot sleeves, and the waistband is situated right at the natural waist. The skirts hemline would have fallen right to Frances’ ankles, allowing the wearers shoes to be seen. The dress also would have sit low on the shoulders, exposing them, and allowing the neck and the shoulders to be on display. This time period was a unique transition between the Regency Era (think about the fashions in Jane Austen novels) and the Victorian Era (which was the beginning of crinoline and bustled gowns). The lace itself is absolutely stunning, and was made entirely by hand! Let’s learn a bit more about the history of lace making.

So, what is hand made lace? Lace is a textile displaying openwork, obtained through the intersection of threads that form motifs linked by a ground. This intersection is produced either with a needle or with bobbins. The appearance of the lace depends on the technique used, its geographic origins and also the era when it was made. Needlepoint lace originated in embroidery and is used until now to create embroidery lace and re-embroider other types of lace. Bobbin lace was woven on a pillow using bobbins, hence the name. It is one of the most versatile techniques that helped to create numerous styles of laces and finest tulles. Lace making first began in Europe in the 17th Century. Lace thread was typically made from linen, and later silk or metallic gold threads, followed by cotton in the nineteenth century. Needle and bobbin laces were often named after the region or town where they were made. Preeminent lace making centers were established in Italy, Flanders, and France. The finest lace involved the talents and skills of three distinct specialists: the artist who created the designs on paper, the pattern maker who translated the designs onto parchment, and the lace maker who worked directly on the patterns to make the lace.

Making lace by hand takes incredible patience and skill. On average it could take 9 to 10 hours of labor for one square inch of lace per lacemaker. A single sleeve cuff could take up to 250 hours to complete. So, of course, lace was insanely expensive, and therefore only the wealthiest in society could afford to have their garments trimmed in lace. It was common for husbands to buy their wives lace instead of jewelry, because of how precious it was and how hard it was to make. Lace was a status symbol. All of that was a bout to change though. In 1808 in Nottingham John Heathcoat patented the bobbin net machine, the granddad of all lace looms. And after that John Levers modified Heathcoat’s machine in 1813. The original machines made only tulle net, but by 1841 lace complete with pattern, net and outline could be made on the Leavers loom. The Leavers loom is a marvelous creation, weighing several tons and making lots of noise to weave the most delicate and complex of all fabrics. It takes insane precision to load thousands of threads into the machine and physical strength to operate it. Some of these looms still use old Jacquard punch cards with classic century old lace patterns. This meant that lace could be made far quicker, and therefore, it could be made less expensively. Today, you can buy machine made lace for $5 a yard, an insanely inexpensive price for such a complex material.

Our dress is in decent condition. There is some blue staining on the lace, thanks to someone wrapping the dress is blue colored tissue paper in the 1950s. There is also some shattering of the lace, due to some UV damage to the garment that was again done in the 1950’s and 1960’s when the dress was on display in front of a window. Thankfully we know a lot more about garment conservation, and will be storing the garment correctly. It is a stunning example of fashion from the Romantic Era, and of a textile that is so labor intensive, it was worth it’s weight in gold. We are so lucky to have this dress in our collections. Thanks so much for stopping by!

Music: Acoustic Breeze by Benjamin Tissot,