Women at work: The lacemakers

Lace was a luxury in the 1600s, sometimes formed with metallic threads of gold and silver—you could literally wear your wealth on your sleeve. Women made all of it. Young women, usually, even girls. The work required so much focus, squinting in dim candlelight, that failing eyesight was an occupational hazard. Lacemaking was not a career to grow old with.

The women embodied all the contradictions of the time. Most of them thought that wearing lace was a sin, a selfish hoarding of resources. But making lace was another story. The women were regarded as paragons of virtue, quietly and industriously occupied with domestic work, the sort that kept the devil at bay.

By the middle of the 1600s, lace had become extremely refined, with certain styles ranking among the most intricate and imaginative creations of the era. And then, at its peak, the art vanished. The Industrial Revolution gave lacemaking over to machines, and women were out of work. Their careers became hobbies and ultimately a cliché, the preoccupation of spinsters.

“Women at Work” celebrates Women’s History Month by highlighting female artists in Mia’s collection.

Images: (left) Caspar Netscher’s The Lacemaker, painted in 1662, from the Wallace Collection in London. (right) Maltese collar, date unknown, from the collection of the Minneapolis Institute of Art