The lace-making process was long and difficult, making lace one of the most expensive clothing decorations in the eighteenth-century. It was greatly valued, and carefully cared for by its owners. It had a variety of uses in clothing, including being used as trim on women’s jackets, sleeves, and around their necks. Lace was displayed with pride, and highlighted a person’s wealth.

6x8 square centimeters of lace

French lace

People loved the lightness and delicate appearance of lace. There were different qualities of lace, with more fine designs being the most expensive and difficult to produce. Lace making originally took off in Venice, Italy, but to keep business from leaving France, the government organized and supported workshops in specific towns. A desire for French products, such as lace, to be the best in Europe fueled a sense of nationalism. The French lace designs differed from those of Venice in being flatter, with less texture and defined edges. Lace making took up the new concept of the assembly-line, moving away from the previous method of craft-making that was required in guilds, which involved one individual creating objects from beginning to end.

Fine lace

Fine lace (left) and very fine lace (right), both French, 6×8 square centimeters

During the eighteenth century, the process of making lace involved wrapping linen around single horsehairs, though this is no longer performed. This fine, needle lace was made in Alençon, France, and a museum still exists there today. Needle lace was thicker, and usually worn in the winter months. The finer the lace, the more it cost. At a maximum, each lace maker could produce only three square centimeters per day, making the process very time and labor intensive. Many portraits (examples below) displayed lace. The painting of Madame de Pompadour below shows eight ruffles on her arm, drawing attention to her wealth and associated power and status. An alternative type of lace was called “bobbin lace,” which was made on a pillow using pins to poke out a design in fabric, and then drawing over the holes with thread attached to bobbins or bones. Bobbin lace was produced in Valenciennes, France, and was generally worn in the summer due to its lightness. Workers in Valenciennes had to work in special cellars to keep threads at the correct humidity. Many other lace makers could work from home.

Venetian and French lace

Venetian lace (left) and French lace (right), both 6×8 square centimeters

Lace makers

Encyclopédie plate depicting lace makers

Lace patterns

Encyclopédie plate of pin hole patterns for bobbin lace on  left, and intricate lace designs on right

The presence of lace would be highlighted by a person’s movements. For example, when removing a shimmering snuffbox from one’s pocket, the lace on one’s arm would be exaggerated. In fact, any movement of the arm would draw attention to lace. In the portrait of Rose Ducreux, below, the artist’s arm would move as she played the harp, highlighting the valuable materials she wore on her sleeve. Additionally, multiple layers of lace would create interesting patterns as light shone through them. The aesthetic beauty of the material and the knowledge of the labor that went into making it made lace a luxury good in eighteenth-century France. It remained an important indicator of class and wealth throughout the century.


Portrait of Madame de Pompadour

Portrait of Marquise de Pompadour by Maurice-Quentin Delatour

Self-portrait with Harp

Self-portrait with a Harp by Rose Adélaïde Ducreux (1790)

Light through lace

Light has beautiful effects on lace, creating shadows and highlighting delicate areas


For more information on lace, please see:

Bremer-David, Charissa, ed. Paris : Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.
Delpierre, Madeleine. Dress in France in the Eighteenth Century. Translated by Caroline Beamish. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1997.
Hart, Avril, and Susan North. Seventeeh and Eighteenth-Century Fashion in Detail. London: V&A Publishing, 1998.
Starobinski, Jean, Philippe Duboy, Akiko Fukai, Jun I. Kanai, Toshio Horii, Janet Arnold, and Martin Kamer. Revolution in Fashion 1715-1815. Edited by Amy Handy. New York: Abbeville Press, 1989.Image citations:
Bremer-David, Charissa, ed. Paris : Life & Luxury in the Eighteenth Century. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Museum, 2011.

Diderot, Denis, and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert. Encyclopédie Ou Dictionnaire Raisonné Des Sciences, Des Arts et Des Métiers. Geneve: J.L. Pellet; [etc.], 1778.
Higonnet, Anne. “Textiles & Clothing.” Barnard College. Diana Center, New York, NY. 30 March 2015. Lecture.
“Rose-Adélaïde Ducreux: Self-Portrait with a Harp (67.55.1)”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–2015. (December 2013).