Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Demystifying Lace

They kept telling me it was easy. “You never use more than four bobbins at a time.” That still seemed like a lot. Take one look at the lace bobbin pillow that the Rocky Mountain Lace Guild members donated to the Denver Art Museum’s new Thread Studio (photo below), and you’ll likely be as skeptical as I was. Many times during my collaboration with the “lace ladies” (as I affectionately call them, despite there being at least two men in the group), leading up to the opening of Spun: Adventures in Textiles in May, several of them downplayed the technical difficulty of making lace.

In the process of putting together the Thread Studio, I worked with various local groups, guilds, and individual artists specializing in the six primary areas on which we focused: lace, needlework, quilting and applique, dyeing, weaving, and spinning fiber. Members from each group expressed admiration and awe for each other’s group. “Quilting? I could never do that!” It became abundantly clear that the complexity of the wide range of textile art techniques is as baffling to many practitioners as they are to us admiring lay-folk.

A Chance to Look at a Lace Cheat Sheet

After working with the lace ladies for several months, I finally decided I needed them to put their bobbins where their mouths were; they needed to prove that I, of less than ideal attention span and woefully limited dexterity, could achieve success, too. My first opportunity came at a Saturday gathering at the home of Guild President Linda Thompson. I realized that this was the first time I had actually witnessed some of the members at work. Attendees included a stylish and sweet 12-year-old girl who seemed right at home with her older counterparts. Rock star. They showed me their cheat sheet and I watched them demonstrate. Nope: Still intimidated.

"Lace Lady" Gives Me a Beginner's Pillow

My next attempt came a couple of weeks later when, one Friday at the end of June, bobbin lace wonders Jane Meier and Freda Stevenson stopped by to spend a few hours making lace in the Thread Studio. Jane is persuasive. Like magic, she produced a “beginner’s pillow” from her bag and set it down in front of me. She all but put the bobbins in my (trembling) hands. Jane explained that, despite there being more than a dozen bobbins on the pillow, I would only use four at a time—just like they had promised. The active four are, from left to right, 1, 2, 3, and 4. So logical! Stitches are made by crossing certain bobbins over other bobbins (for example, “2 over 3”). Jane patiently helped me work through it and I was hooked. At one point, my phone buzzed—my 11:30 meeting had been canceled. It was a sign that I had to sit there for another hour; I was obsessed with making progress on my little strip of lace (that's me at the top of the page).

Djamila Ricciardi, who had helped me develop the Thread Studio, came in to check out what was happening. Jane tried to convince her to try, but Djamila politely declined. “Chicken!” Freda called from across the room. The gloves were off. Obviously lace can be infinitely more complicated than the pattern I tried on my first go-round, but I learned that it’s possible for someone like me to make it, once that initial hurdle of intimidation is jumped.

Post-script: Jane led up a “human bobbin” program at the museum’s July Untitled event, further demystifying this delicate art form by encouraging visitors to—quite literally—jump into bobbin lace.

Try Lacemaking Yourself

Check out the Rocky Mountain Lace Guild demonstration (complete with beginners’ pillows) on Friday, August 16, 6-8 pm in the Thread Studio (North Building,  Level 6). Free with museum admission. No reservation required.

Also check out: Lace: An Intricate Web at the Avenir Museum Gallery in Fort Collins.

Stefania Van Dyke is the master teacher for textile art and special projects in the education department at the Denver Art Museum. Stefania has been at the DAM since 2012 and her favorite (non-textile) experience here was Side Trip, associated with The Psychedelic Experience: Rock Posters from the San Francisco Bay Area, 1965-1971, exhibition in 2009.