Lace in Russia

Origin and evolution of Russian laces

Lace with pearls, 16th cent

Probably, lace was known in Russia in 16 cent., as in the end of  17 nth. cent., and later was widely used, forming a new type of decorative applied art. Coming from Western Europe, Russian lacemaking has not only preserved and developed the best traditions of lacemakers in European countries, but has become a genuine national art form.

The prevalent kind of lace was the passementerie or metallic lace, made of silk thread entwined with thin wire of plain or gilt silver, very expensive, so only the Tsar’s family and his court could wear it.

This type of lace was quickly mastered in the Tsarina’s Sewing Rooms and those of the rich houses in Moscow. Unfortunately, only a few examples have come down to us. Lace insertions of women’s and men’s attire were often decorated with scalloped laces and pearls. The combination, of metallic lace and precious stones or pearls, may be considered a typical characteristic of lacemaking in the early period.

By the eighteen cent., certain patterns became common and were developed new technical methods. It was introduced the flat-sided metallic thread to brighten the effect. Ornamental compositions appeared, featuring the figures so characteristic of folk art. These, flourished for almost two hundred years, up to the late 19th. cent., when metallic laces finally went out of fashion. Metallic laces were gradually replaced by linen and silk. New styles were imported from Western Europe due to the reforms carried out by Peter the Great. Fashion demanded other uses of lace trimming, such as neckerchiefs, scarves, ties, flounces, jabots, and gathered lace cuffs.

At this time, a lace company was opened in Moscow, and lacemakers from Brabant were invited to supervise the work. Soon the lacemakers were making lace to order, and by the middle of the 18th. cent., Russia had a sufficient number of qualified lacemakers to satisfy the demand. 

Silk and metallic threads

In the first half of the 19th cent., appeared a new type of bobbin lace, with the design carried out with heavier thread for a cleaner definition. Worthy to note is lace from Torzhok, distinguished by original motifs with figures holding horses, birds, or sailboats, themes always connected with traditional Russian embroidery. From 1825 until the mid-century, blonde laces were fashionable. These were soft, shimmering, lustrous silk laces with floral designs or raw silk on a thin mesh background. It was imported silk , and it was produced genuine blonde lace, made only by serf-lacemakers or well-to-do land owners. Others copy the designs working them in linen thread.

All along the 19th cent., they were created new companies in remote regions of the country as were Vologda, Kirov, Yelets, and Riazan and by the early 20th cent., the companies that were dedicated to laces occupied up to 100.000 lacemakers. Yelets (Orel province) held first place in lace production, Vologda was second. The appearance of lace changed, according to external influences and fashion. In large Russian towns, part lace had their own features which reflected their origin. , The main characteristic of Vologda part lace, was the greater density in its design.  The motifs were outlined with thick thread, and appeared some motifs in network only in the mid of 18th cent., changing in the late 19th cent., to the typical cloth bands flowing from one figure to another, and forming a harmonious and complicated rhythm.

The airy lightness and the characteristic geometrical and floral designs of Yelet’s lace do not lose through time. Instead of linen, it was used thin cotton thread, which impaired to a certain degree the quality of lace. Made to order, Yelets scarves and shawls were famous for their imaginative designs and meticulous execution. Lacemakers used part-lace technique.

Riazan 19th cent.

At the time that Mechlin lace spread in Europe,  Russia applied a name to a mixed type of lace with the design worked with thick thread on a tulle background, with small and compact details and floral ornament.

Another type of lace came into fashion, which was called “Russian Valenciennes” (after the famous French type, a straight-edged lace with a diamond mesh ground and a pattern of scrolls and flowers without gimp). This lace was in great demand, but it was only made in Orel Province.

Vologda 18th cent.

Orel-Yelets, 19th cent.

The variety of types of lace made at this time shows that lace making in Russia continued developing during the whole of the 19th cent. Two centers showed great originality in their works. The first was the town of Mikhailov (Riazan). The lacemakers adopted a patternless method. They worked without a set pattern, from memory, pieces decorative and colorful, with geometrical motifs, as to decorate peasant costumes, household use, and especially towels. The cotton gimp on plain linen background created a delicate combination of two shades of white, or with color. The second of the two centers it was not far from St. Petersburg. They have no contact with other lacemaking centers except Vologda. This isolation led to the creation of an individual style. The lace was made without a pattern and designed a stock of about thirty motifs that they reproduced from memory. Fancy figures were formed of scallops.

Last years of the nineteen cent., Russian laces came into fashion in Western Europe. They were constantly shown at exhibitions. However, the growing demand for it was very difficult to satisfy, as there was no organization to supervise lacemaking in Russia. The industry expanded but this could not ensure high quality. Linen thread was gradually changed to cotton, which was cheaper.

In the 1900s, the women lacemakers were exploited by their employers, who paid them a mere pittance (the abolishment of serfdom was carried out in the year 1861). As the lace was from hand to hand, its price rose three times over.

Although the schools played a positive role in the development of lacemaking, radical changes were necessary for the whole system of lace production. This reorganization took place in the first years of Soviet power. Thus, the first cooperative was aroused in Vologda in 1917. Started then new work associations, in other traditional lacemaking centers.

After organizational questions were settled, measures were taken in order to improve techniques. Various refresher courses were offered to working lacemakers and they were trained in three newly opened industrial art schools:  in Vologda, Yelets, and Leningrado.

Post war period, 20 th. cent.

They organized Art laboratories to control the quality of design and to produce new patterns for articles of mass production. By the middle of the 1930s, the lace industry had a sufficient number of qualified lacemakers, designers, and experienced administrators.

Most of the lace production was affected by Second World War in 1941, but the lace production in Vologda got over as it had not suffered seriously during the war. In the post-war period, the pieces created were devoted to themes of war and peace and constructive labor, and appeared monumental decorative panels designed by outstanding designers such as Elena Grabovnikova, Ana Korabliova, Nina Simakina, or Tamara Vaniukova.

The versatile talent of one of the oldest Vologda designers, Kapitolina Isakova, finds a brilliant expression in multicolored compositions, using motifs of the North of Russia and narrative subject panels. As director of the Vologda Industrial Art School, she trained more than one generation of skilled craftswomen.

Here is a slideshow. It can be appreciated the evolution of laces in Russia