A GUIDE TO VINTAGE LACE WEDDING DRESSES Part 2: the story of modern lace

Dear Reader

I didn’t realise how much I love vintage lace until I started sourcing the perfect fabrics for my own collection of vintage inspired wedding dresses.

My search took me to specialist ateliers all over the world, where I became completely absorbed in the beauty of the vintage and reproduction lace I saw.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

On my vintage wedding blog today, I’d like to share a little of what I learned and show you some beautiful examples.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

The best lace is a blend of cotton and synthetic fibres. Cotton keeps its shape and colour over time and gives a firm feel and structure. Synthetic fibres add strength. This marriage of beauty with strength is perfect for recreating vintage wedding dresses.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Audrey’ lace cover-up, from the vintage-inspired Heavenly Collection

Lace first became fashionable during the 1500s, when all lace was handmade, and was highly prized for both men and women as it was so labour-intensive. An extravagant gentleman’s lace ruff (popular in Elizabethan times) required over 40 metres of lace, which would take one person a whole year to make. No wonder it cost the equivalent of several acres of good land!

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
Ornate lace ruff, from a painting by Spanish Renaissance artist, El Greco

Fashionable ladies made their own, and the skill of lace-making was a very desirable attribute in a wife! It continued as a rich lady’s pastime or a ‘cottage industry’ for over 300 years, until the Industrial Revolution.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

In the 1800s, lace-making machines were invented in England. Suddenly lace was available on a wider scale, and Nottingham became the lace-making centre of the world. My Butterfly and Angel dresses, below, use lace made specially for me by one of the oldest family firms in Nottingham. This original vintage style from the 1930s used to be called ‘English Net’.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Angel’ from my Heavenly Collection of vintage-inspired wedding dresses
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Angel’ vintage-inspired wedding dress
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Angel’ vintage-inspired wedding dress
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Butterfly’ from my Heavenly Collection of vintage inspired wedding dresses
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
‘Butterfly’ from my Heavenly Collection

By 1809 new machinery could replicate hand-made lace. But in 1813 came the biggest change of all: John Leavers invented the ‘Leavers machine’ in Long Eaton in the East Midlands. Lace became affordable, and a thriving industry sprung up making ‘Leavers lace’.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

Leavers lace is still the kind most used by couture houses, notably Dolce & Gabbana, Christian Dior, Etro, Yves St Laurent, Paul Smith and even Vivienne Westwood.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature - Dolce & Gabbana dresses
Lace dresses c. Dolce & Gabbana

The next development happened when the Leavers machine was smuggled to France – broken up in parts disguised as scrap metal! This made lace even more popular as the French competed with the English lace industry, and created an amazing variety of patterns.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature - Dolce & Gabbana lace detail
Detailing on lace dresses, c. Dolce & Gabbana

Today the French lace making industry is still centred around a small area of Northern France, in towns like Chantilly, Valenciennes, Alencon and Cluny. The industry has been kept alive by the passion of its local workers, who have stepped in to buy the machinery themselves when faced with closure.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

In turn, the machines were sold to Far East producers and lace production in France was scaled back. Now the Far East creates wonderful lace too. Amazingly, all modern Leavers lace is still produced on the same machinery, invented 200 years ago!

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature
HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

And English lace has become a luxury once more, with just a handful of small companies producing it. For more on the modern English lace industry, there’s an interesting BBC feature here.

HVB vintage wedding blog, lace wedding dresses feature

For my Heavenly Collection of vintage inspired wedding dresses, I use lace from all these different sources – choosing the best from ateliers in Nottingham, France and Japan.

I’ve included some of my original vintage wedding dresses above, too, to show a variety of lace. Some of these are no longer available – but I always have lots of beautiful lace vintage dresses at my studio in West London (as well as my own collection of reproduction vintage dresses). Do come and have a look! To make an appointment, just contact me here.

Thanks to Abby at Cherished for the loan of her beautiful headwear, to the lovely Robert Lawler for photography. And to you, dear reader, for stopping by today!

Love

Helena 

Heavenly Vintage Brides