A Little History
Whitework has existed throughout the ages in almost every country in the world. It is not one, but actually a host of techniques that create textured patterns, either by creating voids in the background fabric, or imposing patterns on top of the fabric. It is likely that Whitework techniques were used in China before recorded time and that the techniques traveled from China, to Persia, Turkey and Egypt along trade routes, eventually making their way to India.
In Egypt, primitive Whitework has been found in Coptic tombs, and Cleopatra is said to have worn gossamer drawn work clothing. In India, delicate, filmy muslins were stitched in pulled-work open patterns and then blanched with lemon water. Cleopatra’s robes have been described in a similar technique. Known pieces of Lacis have been found in England dating from the 13th Century. This technique was based on knotting threads into fishnets, and then darning solid patterns through the net.
Needle lace techniques – mostly pulled and drawn thread work – were practiced in the 15th and 16th Centuries in Europe. The Reticella technique came from the Ionian Isles and Corfu. A light and airy technique, this was the first needle-made lace with a book of patterns published in 1587, and it made its way through Italy to France. This technique did not rely on the background fabric to form the base for stitching. Rather, it combined the withdrawing of threads and filling areas with buttonhole stitches to create patterns. Reticella lace was important to the cuffs and ruffs of the upper class fashions throughout the 17th Century. In 17th Century England, girls in orphanages and workhouses were taught lace making and knitting. In fact, legislation was enacted to teach needle skills so that the poor could earn wages. Apprenticeships have been recorded from as early as 1530.
In the 18th Century, the development of looms meant that fine muslins and cottons no longer needed to be imported from India. Britain began cottage industries of Whitework that continued through the late 19th Century. Some of this work was done in a tambour frame in chain stitch, imitating Indian work. In Ayrshire, a cottage industry that combined Broderie Anglaise with chain stitches was created. In Belfast, the cottagers gathered for companionship while working together.