Brooklyn-based Artists Launch NYC Lace Guild
Lace was declared a new trend to watch by the New York Times for 2016, which noted that it was popping all over the spring runways in looks ranging from Victorian elegance to rock ‘n’ roll sex appeal. But rarely do we stop consider the way in which this very old material, which has cycled in and out of fashion endless times, was made before the industrial revolution. Dating back to the late 15th century, lacemaking can be divided into two main categories, bobbin and needle lace, which are believed to have originated in Belgium and Italy respectively. Bobbin lace is created on a pillow using wooden bobbins, which are twisted and crossed to create a pattern held in place by pins, while needle lace is created by repeating buttonhole stitches on a paper pattern backing, which is later cut away.
Two Brooklyn-based artists, Kaelyn Garcia and Elena Kanagy-Loux, have set out to not only learn, but share and preserve the nearly-forgotten art of bobbin and needle lacemaking within the textile community. Together they are launching a new guild chapter of the American lacemaking organization, IOLI, with meetings starting May 26th at the Textile Art Center’s Brooklyn studio. The NYC Lace Guild meetings will create a space for lacemakers and enthusiasts alike to gather and work on projects, see live demos of lace, pore over patterns and skills on the subject, and generally celebrate the beauty and pleasure of lacemaking together. Beginners can try their hand at bobbin lacemaking at an upcoming evening class at TAC on the 26th & 27th of July.
We met with Kaelyn and Elena to discuss how they got into such an obscure craft, and to find out a little bit more about what their projects entail.
Why did you want to learn how to make lace?
Kaelyn: When I was younger my aunt and uncle had just returned from visiting family relatives still living in Cordoba, Spain. My great aunt brought back hand fans from the region as a gift for members of the family. The fan my mom received was beautifully decorated with intricate black Spanish lace along the edges. I remember being so intrigued by these tiny little windows of space in-between the threads. I had been working within the needle arts for a while and I wanted to learn how to make lace because it felt like the next step to me.
Elena: As a child I learning to crochet and embroider from my mother and grandmother, so I was always working with long, tangly threads. Later I studied fibers and textiles in university, and I was incredibly drawn to lace, but despite my desire to learn to make it, I couldn’t find a teacher anywhere in my vicinity.
How did you get started?
Kaelyn: Like Elena, I also had trouble finding a teacher. I had been looking into various institutions, but was coming up with nothing. I was eventually introduced to a friend-of-a-friend’s mom, Devon Thein – a lacer and lace historian who had been working in the field for years. She connected me with a lace guild in Ridgewood, New Jersey. I started attending weekly classes at the guild and was hooked! During this time I also heard of Elena and a few other lacers in the NYC area who were looking to learn and cultivate a community here in Brooklyn.
Elena: Thanks to the power of google, I eventually discovered that there was a lace school and annual festival in Idrija, Slovenia. I barely knew where that was on a map but I booked a ticket there in 2012 for the lace festival, and I discovered that there was an entire universe of lacemakers scattered in little pockets of the world. It blew my mind! The school didn’t have private adult classes at the time, but I was able to arrange my first bobbin lace lesson from a lovely young Slovenian lady, and I was hooked.
After I flew back home, it proved too difficult to continue learning on my own. It took another year, but my heart skipped a beat when I saw that the Textile Arts Center was offering a bobbin lace class in December 2013, and I immediately signed up. That’s how I met Kaelyn – she was my teacher!
I loved the class so much, and I knew that lacemaking was for me, but it was still difficult to find time and instructors to continue studying. I ended up applying for the Dorsch Award, a research grant offered by FIT’s Art History department, to fund a four-month long lace study trip across Europe in 2015, and I won! I spent all of last fall and winter studying bobbin and needle lace at seven different schools in Slovenia, Italy, France, Spain, and Belgium, and it completely changed my life.
What type of lace interests you most?
Kaelyn: How do I choose!? Well, I really love the look of Spanish pointe lace, Russian tape lace, and Croatian lace. Recently, I’ve fallen in love with Tenerife lace – a 17th century Spanish needle lace.
Elena: When most people today envision lace, we think of these frothy tulle fabrics with florals outlined in a thicker thread. Though they’re now made by machine, this type of lace is part of the point lace family, which includes famous favorites like Chantilly lace. I can’t help but be drawn to the delicate beauty of point laces, and they’re some of my favorites to make too! On the other extreme, I love heavy Baroque needle laces like Venetian gros point, although making needle lace gives me a headache, haha.
Why do you love slow work?
Kaelyn: Good work takes time. I enjoy the complexity – lacemaking is the most technical textile method I’ve done. It forces you to take your time and I enjoy that.
Elena: I can be such a manic person, I feel like I need slow work to calm me down. Something magical happens when I get deeply involved in a piece I’m working on, where I feel like I’m floating away in the clouds. I can’t for the life of me clear my whirring mind to meditate, so slow work is the perfect way for me to have a zen moment.
What do you love about lace?
Kaelyn: I love that there are no restrictions – you can almost think about lace as having a moveable warp like in weaving. That’s the weaver in me talking, and I know I’ll offend a few lacers out there, but, seriously! I learned how to make lace and it blew my mind! There are so many possibilities. I find the structure of lace fascinating.
Elena: What don’t I love about lace?! For me it exemplifies the ultimate expression of femininity and representation of undervalued traditional craft, which has long been excluded from the art historical canon. It serves no utilitarian function, it can’t keep you warm, it’s incredibly impractical, expensive, and time-consuming to make – it only exists to be beautiful, and I truly love that.
What do you see as the future of lace?
Kaelyn: I don’t know that it will be as wildly popular as other textile techniques – it takes time, and doesn’t necessarily have the immediate visceral satisfaction of, say, dyeing, weaving, and knitting; but I do think younger people are starting to become more interested in it.
Elena: It’s sad to see lace fading in many parts of Europe where it once flourished. But, as I discovered on my trip, there are other towns, mainly in Eastern Europe, where it is still widely practiced and celebrated! There are also many up-and-coming contemporary artists using lace in new and innovative ways, which is exciting. Lace may never again be a popular commodity for the public to purchase, but I definitely foresee it expanding into the world of fiber artists and hobbyists.
What are your goals as a lacemaker?
Kaelyn: My goals are to continue to learn different lace techniques and use them within my own work, career, and as an instructor. I would like to make this skill more accessible for people to learn.
I’ve also enrolled in FIT’s textile conservation program and begin my studies this fall. I aim to apply the skills I learn to lace preservation, and I look forward to sharing any additional knowledge I pick up along the way!
Elena: My goal as a lacemaker and history student are to band together with other lacemakers and spread our love of lace and lacemaking far and wide! Kaelyn and I are starting the NYC Lace Guild to create a space where fiber artists and lacemakers can meet and celebrate our love of lace. We’re already drumming up a lot of interest from our students and beyond, so I really believe it will be a great success!
The first official NYC Lace Guild meeting will be on Thursday, May 26th at 6pm. If you have any questions regarding the guild meetings email Kaelyn and Elena at firstname.lastname@example.org
Textile Arts Center’s Brooklyn studio is located at 505 Carroll Street, Brooklyn, NY 11215.
If you are interested in learning more about Elena’s lace research project and travels across Europe, she will be giving a talk at our Manhattan studio (located at 26 W. 8th St.) on Tuesday, June 21st at 6:30pm. Here she will give an overview of her lace itinerary through a dozen countries, touching on the differences in lace styles in each region, and sharing some stories from the lacemakers she met along the way. She will also be bringing samples of her lace work that she created at each school, as well as giving a live demo of bobbin lacemaking in action. Come out and join the fun!