Dear Nancy, Arlene and fellow Arachnids,
I was also puzzled by the claim that there are four great lace collections and
wondered what they were. I had it in mind to contact the Wall Street Journal
writer and ask her to tell me. However, I imagine this was information
contained in a press packet from the museum, so it might be better asked of
the curators, or possibly the Textilmuseum in St. Gallen. (I did feel that it
might be a little bit embarrassing, me being a big time lace aficionado,
having to ask a reporter for the Wall Street Journal what the four big lace
collections were.)
But, I haven’t had the time to ask about this because the Threads of Power
exhibit at the Bard Graduate Center Gallery in New York is keeping me really
busy. This is a great exhibit, including 151 pieces from the Textilmuseum in
St. Gallen, Switzerland. I encourage everyone to try to see it. It is strong
on 17th century lace and has pieces of astoundingly fine thread that allows
for a great deal of definition to tiny figures of animals, mermen, etc. I have
never seen such fine thread and it has really made me think. This is certainly
the best and biggest lace exhibit to happen in New York since the
Cooper-Hewitt show in 1982.
The first floor is devoted to 17th century lace which is a transformative
experience. But, it also includes a wonderful piece by Elena Kanagy-Loux. She
was inspired by the fact that there are two very similar needle lace
depictions of the story of Judith and Holofernes, one in the show, and one in
the Metropolitan Museum collection. She was asked to make a piece of lace and
keep track of the hours. She chose to do a very imaginative collar depicting
Judith and Holofernes in the scallops. (Recall that she made an original
collar for Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to be a gift from Columbia University.)
It took over 200 hours to make the collar for the Bard. She filmed the process
and there is a speeded up video of her working it. This is actually the first
thing that visitors see when they enter the exhibit.
On the second floor there is more 17th century lace, be still my beating
heart, under the concept of focusing on the Habsburg’s lace. Included is a
table cover with representations of the Golden Fleece that Is identical to the
one in the V & A. I say this without fear of contradiction because I actually
looked up the one at the V & A to check its measurements and they are the
same. In fact, the information on the piece on the V & A’s website is that
there is an identical one in St. Gallen. The one at the V & A entered the
collection in 1880 and the one at the Bard was bought at auction in 2006. What
is the story behind this? What auction? Were there two or more originally? Is
one a copy?
Also on the second floor is an area on the French lace industry of the 17th
and 18th century with some breath- taking lappets, again in incredibly fine
thread. There is an area on ecclesiastical lace which includes the most prized
possession of the Textilmuseum, a needle lace piece, possibly an antependium,
dating from the late 17th century with tiny figures in 17th century dress
incorporating gold thread.
The third floor deals with the Ikle family’s use of the collection to assist
them in making authentic looking lace on the Schiffli machine. Also on the
third floor is contemporary fashion made of machine made lace including
Michelle Obama’s dress that she wore to the 2009 inauguration. This was an
extremely important loan to the Bard, although, for my part, I find my
interest flagging when we get to machine made lace. In fact, a number of
people have told me that they cannot take in the entire exhibit in one visit,
and since they are lace people, I think they are talking about the first and
second floor. Personally, I was so exhausted by the first floor that I had to
traverse the second floor by moving a Bard provided folding museum stool along
with me. I still feel I have not really absorbed it all.
The exhibit includes oil paintings of people wearing the lace, an original
pattern book, a print of a 17th century lace shop and all sorts of didactic
material which I would find most interesting if it were not for the fact that
I have only enough energy to focus on the lace itself. There are videos
showing how lace is made. The scholarly work on putting on the exhibit is very
impressive. There is also a catalog that is over 400 pages long with articles
by lace scholars that we know and others that we do not know. There is an
attempt to include lace made and worn by non-Europeans.
In the exhibit there is an emphasis on the lacemakers themselves. The Bard
held a class about the lacemakers and the members of the class researched them
and produced digital material that enhances the exhibit. There are kiosks with
a screen that allows you to interact with the material. Also there are black
holes with glass surfaces in various places in the museum which allow you to
down load an audio file with more material about the lacemakers. (I have to
ask for the assistance of the guards to do this successfully.) This emphasis
on the lacemakers led the Bard to have a very nice event, a Lacemakers’ Day
in which about 30 of us, from all over joined together to see the exhibit,
hear a talk by Maggie Hensel Brown and to be fed a small repast. We had people
from New York, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Denver, California and Canada.
Another lacemaker inclusion is the Lacemakers’ Studio on the fourth floor.
This is a special area built out just for the Brooklyn Lace Guild to have an
Artist Residency. I confess that when I realized that it had to be stocked
with members of the group every weekend, Saturday and Sunday 1-5 for three
months, I felt a cold terror and wondered if we could do it. But, it has been
tremendous fun! An endless crowd of people come in to see us and talk to us.
The crowd includes curators, some of whom have flown to New York just to see
the show, artists and enthusiastic young people all demanding to know how they
can learn to make lace. I am encouraging them to take classes from the Lace
Museum online. A surprising number of the young people claim that they learned
lacemaking from YouTubes during the pandemic.
There are various events, including a symposium on November 18th, a
performance about Ruth Bader Ginsburg and her collars, and a conversation with
menswear designer Emily Adams Bode that will “explore the importance of the
archive in contemporary lace fashion and how the craft of lacemaking connects
us to our past.”
As for the original question about the three other great lace collections, I
will agree with Nancy about the V&A, but suggest that the collection of the
Royal Museum of Art and History in Brussels might be a contender, also, as a
museum chauvinist I will go with the Met as an important collection. Actually
the Cooper-Hewitt has a very good collection, as well. But, I think it is a
very hard question. Many collections are virtually hidden. Might there be a
Spanish collection? A Vatican collection? Historically, it seems that the
French had lace in the Museum of Decorative Arts, but I can never find any
trace of it. Has it been dispersed, or is it hiding in storage? I think the
Viennese museum MAK has a very interesting collection. They tend to emphasize
their lace industry of the late 19th and early 20th century, but what else do
they have? I happened upon a small unannounced exhibit there a decade or more
ago with fantastic older lace and still cannot figure out what this exhibit
was. (There was an Adam and Eve that continues to haunt my dreams.) There are
so many museums with different kinds of collections of varying accessibility
that there are probably stunning collections out there that we don’t even
know about.
Who else wants to hazard a guess about the four great lace collections in the

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