Creating Freestanding Lace for Embroidery Machines

“Thread is manipulated to make stitches,
Stitches are combined to make lace,
Lace is used to make or decorate things”.

The word Lace brings to our minds visions of grandeur, softness and luxury. From time immemorial Lace has been a much desired and sought after commodity by all. Lace was more than just a sumptuous and highly coveted luxury, affordable by only the privileged and well-born. It was also the product of an industry that provided a living to thousands of workers, formed a huge portion of the revenue of many nations, and played a role in history that goes largely unrecognized and un-remarked today.

We know little for certain about the origin of lace. Textile historians classify lace as “true lace” and “other lace”. Needle lace and bobbin lace are considered to be true laces. The other laces are forms of crochet, tatting, knitting, and a variety of openwork decorative textiles. The principle difference between the two lies in the extreme fineness, fluidity, and delicacy that characterize True Lace.

Laces were never considered “incidental trimmings” but rather prized possessions and were even used to pay one’s debts. Lace makers who produced lace for the rich and well known learned the art in early childhood, either in lace schools, convents, or from their parents. They continued to work in this trade throughout their life to perfect their skill and to keep their hands delicate and sensitive to the very fine threads they used for the creation of laces. These workers were very professional. Those who could not match this skill or whose skill deteriorated made a less delicate and simpler lace for the less wealthy. While men made lace, it was primarily a woman’s craft. Common practice for production of lace was carried out by middle men who hired workers to create lace, buy threads and provide patterns. The lace maker did not have to worry about buying the costly threads nor did they have to design the patterns. Drawing the patterns on the parchment took a skilled artist. The more elaborate the pattern, the more skilled the artist had to be. Nuns also made lace in the church. Not only were these laces used for vestments and linens for the Church, but also sold to raise money for the church.

The earliest form of any publications on laces dates from about the middle of the 16th century. Before that time, lace was described in such articles as cords and narrow braids of plaited and twisted threads, used not only to fasten shoes, sleeves, and corsets but also in a decorative manner to braid the hair, to wind round hats, and to be sewn as trimmings
upon costumes.

Another form of needle lace that can be found in some of the earliest forms of examples is “Reticella”. Reticella referred to open areas within the foundation fabric upon which needle-woven ornate designs were created using needle and thread. Reticella has been confused with cutwork which is similar yet different.

ABC’s of Lace

Stitches, in Lace terminology, are the smallest single unit. Surprisingly, for all the dazzling differences there are in pieces of lace, there really are only a handful of basic ways of manipulating threads. As we use the letters of the alphabet to form words into sentences, hence, stitches spell out the stories lace has to tell. Just like the various fonts, the stitches give the dimension, some are big, some are small, some are fat, some are skinny, some are plain and flat others round and curvaceous. As we can place the alphabets in any direction, with or without spaces, capital or smaller case, similarly
stitches in lace are placed in various directions to give the look of a pattern, whether floral or abstract etc.

As we all have a nose, eyes, mouth, body, lace too have its basic features. These features make up the basis of all laces. Some laces do not possess all the features but to recognize lace and to create lace, some of these features are always present.

The concept of COMBO

Making of Lace is based upon five elements, Cloth-work, Outline, Mesh, Bridge and Ornament.

Cloth-work: Dense, broad areas generally define the designs. These broad dense areas are called cloth-work. The cloth-work may be woven fabric; free form bobbin lace weaving or it may be stitched, needle-woven, crocheted or knotted. This is generally the foundation of lace.

: How the edge around each bit of cloth-work is formed can be a helpful clue to identify the lace. The edge treatment may be a specific technique, or purely decorative, used to set the design off from the background.

Mesh: Some sort of openwork background holds the cloth-work motifs together, and provides an airy, open contrast to the dense designs areas. A regular, nearly identical endlessly repeating unit is a mesh. A window screen is a mesh, chicken wire is a mesh, chain-link fencing is a mesh. The fencing is obviously much heavier, larger and coarser than window screen, but it still has regular, nearly identical units endlessly repeating. If the lace is made with gossamer fine thread, the mesh will be fine. If the lace is huge, and made with strings, the mesh can be very coarse and still qualify as a mesh.

Bridge: Bridge or bars may provide an alternative to a mesh background. Sometimes both are used in the same piece of lace.

Ornament: Finally, lace is all about ostentatious display. This is the ornament. Fancy stitches fill in the spaces between motifs. They also may appear on any of the parts of lace. Tiny thorn like projections called picots fringe the edges
of the cloth-work or decorate the bridges between motifs, fancy patterns may be worked right into the cloth-work.

Combinations of any or all of these features make up a piece of lace, and provide the clues as to how it was made.

An example of lace designs available for the home embroiderer can be found by Kae
Barron at Criswell Embroidery and Design. ( These
designs are also categorized in Chemical Laces as they are sewn upon a layer of
chemically treated paper which dissolves in water.

Cloth-work is almost always used as a form of underlay defining the areas that the other features will be placed upon. Outline generally only is used as a decorative edge and may or may not be present in a lace design. Mesh is generally the overlay on top of the Cloth-work identically created laying a chain like effect. Mesh may or may not be present in all machine laces. Bridges or bars are well defined and join areas of the Cloth-work together. Not all machine laces require bridges or bars. Ornament is the heavy decorative topstitching used to give depth and dimension to the laces. These may or may not be present depending upon the look of the Lace design.

As seen from examples of K-Lace samples above, it is apparent that similar antique laces can be duplicated on home embroidery machines using the Chemical method. Many such Chemical paper products are available in the market today ranging from light to heavy plastic films (badgemaster etc)to almost cloth like fabrics (water soluble vilene)which will dissolve in water. Also several other Chemical papers (stabilizers) are available which will dissipate under heat. Learning from the COMBO method, it is imperative to lay down the foundation or the cloth-work.


The documentation above was prepared by Sadia Andrews for the American Embroidery Conference, Atlanta, GA 2004. The documentation may be referred to in classes but may not be published, nor quoted without permission by Sadia Andrews.

K-Lace samples above were used by permission and may be found at