The Patron Saint of Lacemakers

Where was lace invented?  No one really knows.  Some claim the first lacemakers were in Italy.  A 1493 Italian will and testament for a member of the Sforza family mentions lace, so the first lace must have been in Italy, right? But the word "lace" also means something to tie around your neck. So did the will mean a lace lace, or something that was worn around the neck?

Ermine Portrait of Elizabeth I of England by William Segar, 1585

Elizabeth I in 1585, wearing a lace collar
and lace cuffs. Painted by William Segar.

There's also a good argument for a Flemish claim to the first lace.  In about 1485 Hans Memling, a painter working in Flanders, painted priests gathering around the Virgin and Child, and one of the priests has an intricate white decoration on his purple garment.  Is it lace?  Or just some kind of embroidery that looks like lace?  Again, no one knows. 

But what we do know is that in the 1500s and 1600s everybody was familiar with lace.  Lace collars were high fashion in royal courts, starting small and sensible initially and then growing to wild and crazy proportions.

Saint John Francis Regis, born in 1597, certainly would have been very familiar with lace.  As a well educated young man from a wealthy and noble family, Saint Regis would have been surrounded by lace-collar wearing friends and family.  It was said that even at a young age Saint Regis was plain and unpolished, so we can't say for sure whether he actually wore a high-fa-looting lace collar himself - but certainly many people around him did. 

In 1616, at age 19, he joined the Jesuits and took his vows two years later.  He taught at several collages while also studying philosophy and theology, and in 1630 he was ordained as a priest.  The church sent him to Huguenots provinces in France, thinking that his great faith, teaching expertise and simple man-of-the-people style made him an ideal candidate for the very difficult task of bringing the Catholic faith to the Protestant Huguenots.

He did well with the Protestant Huguenots, and was especially interested in serving the marginalized.  He worked with bubonic plague victims, the poor and orphans.  But he is best known for his work with wayward women and girls, and was realistic enough to understand that it wasn't enough to ask a woman to turn away from prostitution - he had to give her another source of income to replace her prostitution fees.  With the lace collar fashion in full swing, St. Regis taught lacemaking to former prostitutes and established factories to employ wayward women as lacemakers.  Lacemaking provided a good, reliable income.  A single lace collar takes several yards of lace, and while the details of the lace collars changed with fashion trends, the fashion for lace collars lasted about two hundred years - great job security!  In addition to providing a source of income, Saint Regis also also established safe houses for the women to live safely, off the streets and without fear of their former pimps forcing them back into prostitution.   

Saint John Francis Regis

Saint John Francis Regis

He rarely stopped to rest, and St. Regis died of exhaustion at age 43.  He was canonized as a saint in 1737, and is today known as the patron saint of lacemakers.

Building with Lace by Michelle Hunter

Do you want to learn how to knit lace?  If Saint Regis was around today I'm sure he would have a series of lace making instructional YouTube videos, but since he is not we can offer you the next best thing:  Michelle Hunter's new Building With Lace skill-building book.  With the patience of a saint, Michelle has created a carefully designed sequence of patterns that will introduce you to lace work starting with the basics and working towards more difficult patterns, all while creating a gorgeous shawl to show-off your lace making skills!  All of the patterns are supported by Michelle's excellent, and free, online video instruction.

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

Click Here to Leave a Comment Below 0 comments