Two weeks before the Thanksgiving holiday it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas inside lace enthusiast Patty Foley’s condominium. A lace decorated wreath, and white-lace-made snowflakes dangled from her high, vaulted ceiling. The winter spirit continued through the kitchen with snowflake crochet emblems glued to candles. Over wine and an Italian chicken pasta dinner, Foley took me on an adventure through lace.
Foley, a cheerfully charismatic woman, is an alumna of Central Connecticut State College, class of 1980, before CCSU became a university. She received her bachelor of science in accounting. Along with being an alumna, she sits on the board for Friends of the Elihu Burritt Library.
Foley’s lace story began when she stayed at her grandmothers as a five-year-old girl. “She taught me that we had to keep our hands busy. I was taught to crochet, I was taught to knit and I was taught to embroider. I didn’t know anything else, so you just did these things.”
I’ll have you making lace in five minutes
As defined by Encyclopedia Britannica lace is: “ornamental, openwork fabric formed by looping, interlacing, braiding (plaiting), or twisting threads.” It is one of many different forms of textiles.
According to thelaceguild.org, it all started by the early 1500s. Many European countries claim the origin of lace. The Catholic clergy even had lace on their vestments. It was a privilege to wear such fine, well-handmade materials. Lace was considered a form of “currency” back when Marie Antoinette was queen of France. “Lace was only worn by the rich, and the church,” Foley said. Lace ownership depicted social status in the community. During this time, lace was woven from gold, silk, silver, or linen threads. Linen thread came from the flax plant. The flax reeds needed to be chopped, combed, and by the force of hackling, broken, and then the flax needed to be spun. Even though linen was ideal with its moisture wicking and potent fibers, it was terribly expensive and time consuming. There were no dyes or bleach, so coloring lace took a lot of time. It was like sitting out in the sun to lighten your hair, only you leave your lace out in the sun and hope it lightens to the desired color. For darker shades, tea was used as a dye. By the mid-1800s, knitting machines developed by the textile industry made lace easier and cheaper to produce. Today you can buy lace in the color or material you desire. “Fabrics, lace and textiles were extremely important in everything we do because we wear them.” said Foley. However, this automation stopped the thriving industry of handmade lace.
Foley sat me down at her dining room table, with wooden bobbins wounded in different color thread: red, green, yellow.
“I’ll have you making lace in five minutes”
Seeing her masterpieces, I didn’t believe her, until she told me stories of children handmaking lace. “I was demonstrating making lace at the Muster Field Farm Museum in North Sutton, New Hampshire – during the Farm Days event. Raining all day – and a child walked into the demo area and said to her mother, ‘see mommy, I told you she would be here!’” The child sat in Foley’s lap after insisting she wanted to show her what she remembered from only meeting a short year before. “She’s been talking about you for a year,” said the girl’s mother.
“I was demonstrating making lace on Saturday when they have family day at the Wadsworth Athenaeum in Hartford, and they were having a lace exhibit at the same time.” A seven-year-old boy approached Foley and wanted to know what she was doing. She showed him her lace stitches, and he wanted to try. After sitting and making lace with Foley she had a surprise for the boy. Foley walked him over to the handmade materials at the exhibit, and challenged him to find the design he had made. “With an exuberant outcry from the gallery, he was impressed he made some of the lace on the dresses,” Foley remembered.
At a previous community lace convention, a war veteran asked Foley about a lace pattern. He came back the next year and surprised her. “He brought me the lace that he had purchased for his bride in World War II. She had long since been passed away, but he wanted to show me the lace he bought when he was in Venice, Italy. I have never been so honored.”
Picking up two out of many bobbins from the table, Foley instructed me to first grab two from the far right, then put them over another two on the left, then to pick up those two and put them over the next two, until the row was complete. This pattern repeated, and then we used four bobbins and so forth. I learned how to make a snake bobbin lace piece, all in five minutes.
At the end of the night I passed below the dangling snowflakes one last time. The gray night sky looked as if real snow would fall. Foley walked me to my car. Perhaps I’d return in a year with a lace snowflake of my own.