This Week in History: Rembrandt and Bobbin Lace

July 15, 1606. On this day, Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn was born in Leiden in the Netherlands. He apparently knew early in life that painting would be his mission in life. In 1631, Rembrandt moved from Leiden to Amsterdam and embarked on his career as a professional portrait painter.

Here’s the needlework connection to this date:

This master painter was so well-known for his portraits that being painted by Rembrandt became one of the benchmarks for the upper echelons of Flemish society. While there is no evidence that Rembrandt was a lace aficionado, he painted the lace worn by the people in his portraits with meticulous attention to detail. He would have known that lace signified wealth and privilege.

One of the articles in the May/June 1994 issue of PieceWork is Marni Harang’s “The Flowers of Flanders: Seventeenth-Century Flemish Bobbin Tape Lace.” Marni, bobbin lacemaker, teacher, and designer, delves into the history of bobbin lacemaking in the epicenter of European wealth during the 17th century. Here’s an excerpt from Marni’s fascinating article:

  • The period between 1600 and 1650 was one of economic strength and relative political stability throughout much of Europe. The great merchant cities of Bruges and Antwerp, easily accessible by land, river, and sea, formed the hub of a vast international trade network. During this period, the citizens of the United Provinces of Flanders were among the most prosperous in Europe. Their success in economic competition and the resulting wealth in Flanders brought about an unprecedented demand for luxury goods, which led to rapid advancements in techniques for producing fine textiles, especially lace.
  • During the first half of the seventeenth century, bobbin-lace techniques multiplied and spread throughout Europe. The result, in the United Provinces of Flanders, was the production of fine tape laces known as Flemish bobbin-tape laces. The dark, rich colors of fine wool and velvet clothing showed off the dense, wide textured white laces to perfection.
  • The prosperous burghers and members of the upper classes of society whose portraits were painted by Rembrandt and other artists of the period wore clothing heavily decorated with Flemish tape laces. Rembrandt’s Portrait of a Woman [shown above] offers a fine example of the Flemish bobbin-tape lace of the period. The subject is dressed in characteristically modest but fashionable attire. Her clothing includes three different Flemish tape laces. A wide, flat insertion forming the central portion of the broad collar is connected to a wide edging of deep symmetrical scallops. A third lace, comprising small rounded scallops of separate petals joined by tiny braids and sewings, edges her cap. In the collar, a relatively small plain linen section extends from the middle of the neck to the collarbone and acts as a base for both the square lace insertion and the scalloped lace edging. The shape and depth of the former copy the squared necklines of fashionable gowns of the period. In this lace, flowing, circular floral forms alternate with smaller, four-petaled flowers. At the inner corners of the insertion, a vase motif with a narrow base and broad top lets the lace change direction in a symmetrical and continuous line without having to be folded or overlapped. A more complex version of this simple vase shape recurs in the wide lace edging.
  • The entire insertion band has been worked in a continuous line of dense bobbin-lace cloth-stitch tape that has been curled back upon itself and joined with simple sewings. The spaces between the large, circular flowers and the smaller, four-petaled flowers, as well those between the floral motifs and the vase motif, have been filled with small two- or four-strand braids and narrow lace tapes.
  • Two layers of deeply scalloped tape lace in a vase and floral design extend the collar to form a small cape over the woman’s torso and shoulders. The upper layer rests upon the lower one in soft folds: the lower layer is made in the same overall design as the upper, but its motifs are larger. The entire collar is full enough to meet and slightly overlap in the front without a closure.
  • The delicate Flemish bobbin-tape laces shown in the Rembrandt portrait represent a step in the development of bobbin-lace techniques in Europe. They reflect a prosperous time, and the people, especially the members of a well-to-do merchant class, who helped create the prosperity, benefited from it, and were pleased to wear its finely made products.
bobbin lace

Portrait of Marten Soolmans by Rembrandt van Rijn shows that lace was a very important accessory in the Netherlands in the 17th-century. Oil on canvas. 1634. Collection of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; joint acquisition by the Dutch State and the French Republic, collection Rijksmuseum/collection Musée du Louvre. (SK-A-5033). Photo courtesy of the Rijksmuseum.

Further Resources

Marni Harang designed her companion project for readers to learn the basic techniques of bobbin lace. Here are the materials needed to make “A Floral Motif in Flemish Bobbin Tape Lace”:

  • 6 pairs of lace bobbins (affiliate link)
  • 18- to 20-inch (45.7- to 50.8-cm) cookie-style lace maker’s pillow
  • Linen threads, size 50-2 and 80/2
  • Fine silk sewing pins
  • Steel crochet hook (affiliate link), size 14
  • 1 sheet thin cover-stock-weight paper
  • 1 sheet light blue tinted see-through graphic film

Download the May/June 1994 issue of PieceWork for Marni’s complete article and the instructions for making the motif.

Happy birthday, Rembrandt (affiliate link). Thank you for your portraits that showcase the exquisite handmade bobbin lace that was being made in Flanders in the first half of the 17th century. And thank you to all of the bobbin lacemakers, past, present, and future for bringing us such beauty.

—Jeane Hutchins
PieceWork Editor

Featured Image: Rembrandt van Rijn’s Portrait of a Woman, painted in 1635 or earlier, shows off bobbin lace to perfection. Oil on wood. The Netherlands. Collection of the Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland, Ohio; the Elisabeth Severance Prentiss Collection. (1944.90). Photo courtesy of the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Discover more about lace and lacemakers in these issues of PieceWork!

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