Diving into the Details: Learning to Love Lace

By Lauren Lovings-Gomez, Curatorial Intern, European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800

Fig. 1. Lauren Lovings-Gomez, curatorial intern, European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800, examining lace for the filet/lacis or burato technique

The CMA’s galleries are dynamic and always changing. The museum rotates pieces in its early Italian lace collection, one of the most significant in the United States, each year. In the blog post below, learn more about how the recent installation came to be from Lauren Lovings-Gomez, Curatorial Intern, European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800.


The early Italian lace collection at the Cleveland Museum of Art is one of the most significant in the United States. As a way to gain greater insights into the collection, the museum displays different lace in the Renaissance galleries, rotating the display each year. Yet the collection still requires more dedicated examination, documentation, cataloguing, and research. Last June 2018, I was tasked with the next phase of this project.

During the summer, I was lucky enough to spend many of my days in the textile conservation lab with textile conservator Robin Hanson. After learning how to properly handle the objects, I examined about 40 pieces of lace, starting with the smallest fragments and working toward the larger complete lace. With another summer intern, I measured each object, estimated the medium, identified the lace-making technique, and provided each object with its own unique title. I spent many hours in the lab looking closely at lace with optivizor in tow, trying to figure out if there really was a difference between the filet/lacis and the burato techniques (fig. 1).

Both techniques are types of needle lace, meaning they are constructed stitch by stitch with a needle and thread. Filet/lacis uses a knotted ground (fig. 2); burato uses a twined ground (fig. 3).

Left: Fig. 2. Enhanced detail of the filet/lacis technique with a knotted ground. From Fragment with a Floral (tendril) Motif, 1500s–1600s. Italy. Linen: bleached and dyed blue, needle lace, filet/lacis (knotted ground and darned in two directions); 12.5 x 7.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of J. H. Wade, 1920.1126. Right: Fig. 3. Enhanced detail of the burato technique with a twined ground. From Fragment of a Band with Dragon, Castle, and Vegetation, 1500s. Italy. Linen: bleached, needle lace, burato (twined ground and darned in one direction); 35.7 x 32.5 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of J. H. Wade, 1920.1143

For the most part, these objects did not have any updated information since they entered the museum’s collection nearly a hundred years ago. So for me, this project was an important effort to make sure that information on this lace was readily available to museum staff and the public. After focusing on the material details of the lace, I gathered research, learning more about the history of lace, collectors, donors, and iconography.

As an MA student in Art History and Museum Studies in the joint program at the Cleveland Museum of Art and Case Western Reserve University, I had the unique opportunity to continue the work I had begun in the summer throughout the academic year. My internship supervisor, Betsy Wieseman, the CMA’s curator of European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800, decided that my major internship project would be to help her co-curate the next installation of lace in the Renaissance galleries. I quickly went to work considering what story I wanted to tell. During the summer, I was fascinated by the lace with figures on them, considering the range of figures and the level of skill it would have taken for a lace maker. Betsy agreed to focus on figural lace, in part to coincide with the upcoming exhibition Medieval Monsters: Terrors, Aliens, Wonders at the CMA, opening July 7, and we hoped that visitors would make connections between the two installations.

I dove deeply into research, learning about unicorns, sirens, monkeys, lions, and other notable motifs that appeared in the set of figural lace. Months later, Betsy, Robin, and I met to look at all of the figural lace, while I explained my research on particular pieces. I learned from Betsy that the visual story is just as important as the historical story. There is a tricky balance in telling the most unified, fascinating narrative using the more aesthetically pleasing objects. Thankfully, we unanimously selected my favorite lace, Cloth with Unicorns, Dragons, Other Animals, and Floral Patterns (fig. 4).

Fig. 4. Cloth with Unicorns, Dragons, Other Animals, and Floral Patterns, 1800s. Italy. Linen: bleached, needle lace, filet/lacis (knotted ground and darned in two directions) and alternating cutwork, embroidered squares, and bobbin lace edging; 113.5 x 138 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, The Frances McIntosh Sherwin Collection, 1936.95

This large lace combined multiple lace-making techniques with various flora and fauna motifs, ideal for telling multiple stories to a visitor. Scattered throughout this textile are depictions of both real and imaginary animals: unicorns and dragons exist alongside lions, stags, and an assortment of birds. There are also identifiable plants, flowers, and fruits as well as simply decorative or fictional ones. The maker, whose initials CM appear between the unicorns, perhaps chose to mix fantastical motifs with natural ones to create a more captivating spectacle. This work is quite literally a visual scavenger hunt and is worth a close look in person.

We decided to highlight one of the techniques, called cutwork, represented in this focus object.

In cutwork, portions of the textile ground, such as a linen or cotton cloth, are cut away and threads are removed to create holes. The edges of the hole are then reinforced with embroidery and a pattern of needle lace can be created within the perimeter. Rather than adding to the cloth to create a design, the needleworker removes threads to fabricate a pattern. Robin was able to pull multiple pieces of early Italian cutwork from the textile collection, and we found two pieces that we believed would help viewers understand this technique.

Fig. 5. Fragment of Needlepoint (Cutwork) Lace, late 1600s. Italy. Linen: lace, needlepoint; 14 x 45.4 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Bequest of Louise Tifft Brown, 1933.354

In figure 5, you can see progressive stages in the process of creating cutwork. On the left, the linen is untouched. The designer’s pencil marks can be seen in the center. Warp and weft threads of the plain-weave foundation have been selectively trimmed away and their edges embroidered to create the cutwork.

Fig. 6. Needlepoint (Cutwork) and Bobbin Lace Cloth, 1500s. Italy, Venice. Linen: lace, needlepoint, and bobbin; 66.7 x 100.3 cm. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Gift of J. H. Wade, 1920.1164

In the band of cutwork in the lace cloth shown in figure 6, the potential clarity and intricacies of the cutwork technique are visible. There are elaborately designed lace cutwork squares alongside stacked rectangles and corner edges with simpler encompassed designs.

Fig. 7. The CMA art preparators installing the early Italian lace rotation in gallery 118

I spent months with these objects, writing labels and texts on them; it was a surreal experience when I was able to help with their installation in the gallery. You really have to consider which object the viewer will see first and how they will move through the gallery space.

Fig. 8. Lauren Lovings-Gomez, curatorial intern, European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800, with installation of early Italian lace rotation in gallery 118

Though the installation is small in scale, I believe the objects are compelling and allow visitors the time to understand and soak in the details. Textiles in the museum setting need extra love, care, and attention. Just like sculptures and paintings, textiles are a window to our history, but they provide a different story. I hope that viewers can learn to love lace, just as I have through this experience.

Fig. 9. Lauren Lovings-Gomez, curatorial intern, European Paintings and Sculpture, 1500–1800, with the installation of early Italian lace rotation in gallery 118 featuring Cloth with Unicorns, Dragons, Other Animals, and Floral Patterns (1936.95)

CMA Thinker

Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

Cleveland Museum of Art

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CMA Thinker

Art from another angle: Stories from the Cleveland Museum of Art.

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