Where to see Early Lace

A surprising amount of early lace has survived and even more can be seen on portraits of the time.  Listed below is information relating to resources I have used within the UK, which is where most of my research has taken place; similar resources are to be found for other countries.


Lace was a valuable commodity so was often depicted with great care in sixteenth and seventeenth century portraits. Images of these portraits may be found in books and postcards and on line, but it is rarely possible to study the lace in any detail without viewing the portrait itself. The BBC website http://www.bbc.co.uk/arts/yourpaintings/ details the location of more than 1,500 publically owned portraits across the UK.

The National Portrait Galleries are good places to start (http://www.npg.org.uk/collections.php, London, and http://www.nationalgalleries.org/, Edinburgh) and there are early portraits in many National Trust properties (http://www.nationaltrustcollections.org.uk/ ).

Searching the website: http://www.culturegrid.org.uk/use/understanding-british-portraits/ will take you to a list of portraits in museums, galleries and other locations across the UK. http://www.britishportraits.org.uk provides access to a range of useful resources for the study of portraits.

Museum Collections

Many museums and galleries across the world have extensive lace collections; some are now digitised making at least low resolution images available on line, however there is something special about seeing the real thing. Listed below are the locations in England and Scotland where I have been able to see examples of sixteenth and seventeenth century lace surviving on garments, furnishings and accessories.

Edging of a hood in the V&A collection

Edging of a hood in the V&A collection

The V&A in London has a very large collection of early lace, with a wide variety of laces still attached to the original garments and accessories. A representative selection is on display in the British Galleries; the rest is in store and will be available for study when new facilities open in 2013. Many of the items can be viewed on the V&A Collections website http://collections.vam.ac.uk/ .

Manchester Museums’ collection of costume and textiles is housed at Platt Hall, where a range of early laces are on display and others can be studied by appointment. One of the star items is a magnificent ruff (ref 2003.86) which can be viewed on the museum website: http://www.manchestergalleries.org/

Until 2003 there was a specialist lace and costume museum in Nottingham, this has now closed, but the collection remains (with a good catalogue) and it should be possible to view items by arrangement with the Keeper of Costume and Textiles at Nottingham Castle Museum. Of particular interest is the Middleton loan collection which contains coifs, caps, collars and other seventeenth century items with metallic and linen edgings.

Cushion Edging, Burrell collection

Cushion Edging, Burrell collection

The Burrell Collection in Glasgow has early lace on textiles on display alongside portraits of the period which puts the lace in context; other items can be viewed by appointment. http://www.glasgowlife.org.uk/museums/our-museums/burrell-collection/

The Bowes Museum, County Durham has several items of early lace on display in the costume gallery and there are numerous examples of later seventeenth century lace in the study collection. http://www.thebowesmuseum.org.uk/

Smock edging, Museum of London

Smock edging, Museum of London

The Museum of London rarely has lace on display, however there are smocks/shirts, gloves and other items which can be viewed by appointment http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/

The Costume Museum in Bath ww.museumofcostume.co.uk/ holds the Worshipful Company of Glovers’ collection of early gloves, many of which feature spangled gold lace. Also in the museum is an impressive embroidered shirt with black and white lace edgings and insertions. Many of the gloves are on display in the museum gallery, others can be viewed by arrangement with the museum – book a study table by contacting: fashion_enquiries@bathnes.gov.uk. A fully illustrated and annotated catalogue of the gloves can be found on www.glovecollectioncatalogue.org

There are a number of items in the care of the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford upon Avon; some can be seen in one or other of the Trust’s properties, others can be viewed by appointment. http://www.shakespeare.org.uk/

Gawthorpe Hall, Lancashire houses the textile study collection assembled by Rachel Kay-Shuttleworth. This is an educational resource, including examples of early lace, that is available for individual and group study by appointment. A few items are displayed in the Hall itself (National Trust). http://www.gawthorpetextiles.org.uk/

In Honiton there is a tombstone recording the death in 1617 of James Rodge , a bone lace seller, who left £100 for the poor of the parish. Allhallows Museum, Honiton, has lace from this period (although most probably not made in the area) which can be viewed by appointment. http://www.honitonmuseum.co.uk/

The Lace Guild’s extensive collection of lace and lace-related artifacts includes a few example of early lace; these can be viewed by appointment at the Guild’s headquarters in Stourbridge. http://www.laceguild.org

Note: both Allhallows and The Lace Guild rely on voluntary curators to manage and interpret the collections.

Hardwick Hall in Derbyshire is famed for its tapestries and portraits, and for Bess, the formidable lady who had the hall built at the end of the sixteenth century. Hidden away in the attic is a small collection of gold and silver lace which almost certainly represents a tiny remnant of the glittering lace that once ‘striped down’ the magnificent beds and numerous cushions of Bess’s homes.

Individual items of early lace are to be found in some surprising places, the items marked with a * were on public display when I saw them:

Alnwick Castle glove edging

Alnwick Castle glove edging

Alnwick Castle, Northumberland: a pair of gloves

Birmingham Museum and Galleries: a child’s shirt *

Discovery Museum, Newcastle upon Tyne: glove *

Drapers Hall, London: Jane Lambarde’s mantle and associated portrait

Isham samples

Isham samples

Forge Mill Museum, Redditch; edging to a tapestry *

Northampton Record Office: five tiny samples of lace on a letter written by Elizabeth Isham

Oxburgh Hall, Norfolk; border of an embroidered panel *

Stonyhurst College, Lancashire: cap and ecclesiastical lace and embroidery

Wadham College, Oxford: a lace edged shift

Warwick Museum: shirt with red embroidery and red and white lace

A worked example of each of these laces is to be found in either Gold and Silver Edgings or The Isham Samples and other Linen Edgings.

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