"Ne None so small a trifle or conceyte, Lase, girdle, point, or proper gloue straite."2Existing laces from the Middle Ages are tiny little textiles. Most of the loop-manipulated braids found in the London archaeology digs are less than 1/4 inch wide. Virtually all are under 1/2 inch wide.3
England and the Continent are our main areas of study, but loop manipulated braids may exist in the Far East (Japan) during this period.4
But what of lace, that frothy, hole patterned, often wide, expensive trimming made with hundreds of bobbins and infinite skill to produce images of flowers, people, and complex patterns in silk or linen? The laces of braiding predate the laces of bobbins. The earliest mention of "las" in the Middle English Dictionary is circa 1230 CE in the Ancrene riwle, an anchorite's handbook.5 Our modern word "lace" was also spelled lase, lasse, lace, laz and lesse in Middle English.6 In fact, as bobbin laces are discovered and become popular (authorities believe this is happening as early as the 1500's 7) historians have to use care in interpreting the word "lace". A "lace" can be made by many different textile techniques and it can be a lacing cord, narrow trim, wide trim or whole fabric.
For the purposes of this booklet, the word "lace" will mean a braided cord generally used for fastening ("lacing"), though some of the following patterns were clearly used as trims, as their famous bobbin lace cousins will be in coming centuries.
The instruction manuals for these braided laces have long sat in museum collections uninterpreted.8 No one could figure out the "code" that the braiders used to record their braiding moves. To compound their difficulties, the scribes used abbreviations and made copying errors. If used by the Guilds, important basic information might have been obscured or written incorrectly to confuse people trying to find out about the Guild's "mysteries" - i.e. trade secrets. Various silkwomen's guilds9 sprang up in England and Europe to produce all sorts of fancy small silken articles, among them silk braids, laces, points and other passements (after 1500) and merceries (before 1500).
Laces show up prominently in 13th century fashion. Spiraling a lacing cord through two eyeleted edges becomes an increasing popular (and sometimes scandalous) way of achieving a tighter fit in clothing. Ladies lace the sides or fronts of their gowns10. Men lace their doublet fronts. In some periods the lacing doesn't pull the opposing edges tight; a gap is left to show off the undergarments of fine linen or other expensive cloth and the silken lace itself. Garments are made into smaller units and laced loosely together ("Italian Ren"11) to capitalize on showing fine billowing undergarments.
Laces called points, aglets or chapes12 hold up men's hose - often tied visibly to the bottoms of the man's doublet as the period progresses13. Points also tie armor to the padded jack beneath. In the Far East (Japan) laces ("odoshige") will become an integral part of the armor of small plates14.
Laces are threaded through casings to gather and tighten. These are seen on underclothing at wrists and necks. Also purse mouths are gathered in this way - the decorative braided silk cords for purses will persist from the beginning of lace use in the 1200's until past period into the 1700's15.
Laces hold hats on and serve as mantle cords16. Laces with their ability to divide in two form the holding cords for seals on documents. A tiny lace supports "a peire of bedis..ber Upon a las, all of whit thred" in the Romaunt of the Rose17.
Some of the wider and more decorative laces become trim in their own right. A late period sleeve is trimmed with many small braids matched with wooden-form passement buttons18. Lengths of braided lace are formed into pairs of "frogs" that close garments, both military and civilian19. A silk braid fits a hairnet to the head and adds a colorful, firm edge20.
Thus Laces: very small and very very useful.
Braids themselves offer diversity in form: flat braids, square or round cross-section braids, as well as asymmetrical braids. As is done in weaving, a top and bottom layer can be braided at once, with the braider choosing to close one edge (double width) or both edges (hollow braid), or neither edge (two braids at once). Braids can start with a large number of elements to form one braid and divide to form more than one braid. Patterning is possible and can be complex.
Few garments, let alone laces, survive from the early end of the period the manuscripts were written in. Many of those that survive have been dug up from garbage pit, latrine or human internment and are fragile, fragmentary and seldom attached to what they laced. This can make analysis difficult.
The most commonly found braids in the 13th - 15th centuries in London were the 8-strand braid (from straight elements) and the finger loop braid (from looped elements, often 5 - 7 of them). Different periods of time featured different "favorite" braid structures. These were not the only braiding types found; 3-strand (the common pigtail braid)22, 4-strand, 5-strand, 6-strand, 12 strand and many others can be found spread out in different countries and timespans.
It is important to note that the variety of textile techniques used to form laces was not limited to braiding. Narrow cords could be made by tablet weaving and plain weaving ("reed" lace or what is now called band weaving), both tubular and flat. However, braiding was a popular choice for good functional reasons: the unbroken long elements that make up the braid structure run lengthwise to bolster the stress a braid experiences as it is tied. There are no weaker cross elements, as in weaving. And the braiding structure has a stretchy "bounce" that helps with comfort.
Combine this desirable braided structure with silk's unbroken, extra strong natural filament, and a very long lasting, almost unbreakable, smooth cord is produced that also uses an expensive material in a decorative way. Add in the fact that silk takes many beautiful dye colors and a winning commercial product was created.
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Webbed by Greg Lindahl