Re-Creating a Lace Form
Lady Cecilia Bartoletti
Mezza mandolina is a lace form that many lacemakers have heard of, but nobody seems quite sure of what it is exactly, or how it’s made. There are farflung paintings, of ladies wearing mezza partlets or dress embellishments. There are precious few existing examples of pre- 1600 mezza, and your average museum is not going to let an amateur come in and dissect those works of art. In five years of inquiries, talking to SCAdians, writing to museums, talking to historians, and to mundane craftspeople, I have found nobody doing this art form, nobody who could teach me.
This is not a lot to go on, if, like me, you have an obsession with All Things Lace. There were no teachers that I could find inside or outside the SCA to show me how it's done. There were no books or webpages that describe the process. There were no existing examples that I could pick up and study. But I was determined to learn mezza. So I was going to have to use my ingenuity, my knowledge of Lacis, and my inborn stubborn streak. If I was going to learn this art form, I had to figure it out for myself.
Figure 1 16th century Portuguese, lacis and point coupe panel
The foremost experts on lace -- Ricci and Levey -- agree that mezza mandolina is a variant of lacis, but do not give much more detail than that. But what the heck is lacis?
Figure 2 close up of lacis panel, showing detail of darning and mesh; created by author
Lacis, (also known as darned netting, filet lace, and Filet Italien) is one of the oldest known lacemaking techniques. Examples of the netting itself – which even the most hardened Viking would recognize as simple fishnet -- has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs.1 Fine netting, delicately darned, have been found in sites dating back to the earliest days of the 14th century1. It is mentioned specifically in the Ancrin Riwle (a novice nun’s ‘handbook,’ c. 1301), wherein the novice is admonished not to spend all her time netting, but to turn her hand to charitable works.
Simply put, lacis is decorated fishnet, the same knotted mesh. Only, instead of doing it big, with nettle hemp or another seaworthy cord, it is done fine, with silk or linen thread. Then it is stretched in a frame, and various decorative stitches are darned into the mesh, creating pictures, geometric patterns or other embellishments. They were also decorated with gold and silver threads, beading, and embroidered slips.
It is arguably the oldest lacemaking form; pieces have been found dating to the earliest years of the 14th century. That predates the next oldest lace form, reticella, by over a century. Lacis were used in period to decorate furniture, pillows, to embellish bedspreads, to make partlets and crespines, and occasionally to embellish clothing.
The Building Blocks of Mezza Mandolina
OK, I knew lacis very well. I knew that mezza was a unspecified variant of lacis. Where to now? Well, the first lucky coincidence for me was to make the acquaintance of another lacemaker, Lady Ranvaig. Like me, she was also trying to fathom mezza. To that end, she had collected a series of paintings and photos that showed examples of that lace form. She was good enough to share them with me, electronically, in hopes that, as a lacis maker, I would have a bit more success than she had enjoyed.
The second lucky coincidence appeared almost immediately. I recognized one of the photographs! During my four-year search for mezza, I had run across the webpage of a mundane lady who made lacis-like doilies, very similar to mezza. She was devising her own stitches, doing increases and decreases of the mesh to cause certain effects. Her work is in pursuit of a modern version of mezza, still being made today in Scandinavia; the patterns of this modern mezza are closer akin to crochet or macrame, than they are to their Renaissance roots.
Figure 3 16th century lacis, demonstrating Tumbling Blocks stitch
However, one of her own stitches was an exact duplicate of the photograph Lady Ranvaig had given me. This was the "Eureka!" moment I needed, the clue to understanding Mezza Mandolina's basic nature: it is lacis, done with increases, decreases, and other variations on the actual stitches, in sequence, to make the decorative element. Seems simple enough, but bear in mind, Lacis -- the art form I was familiar with -- depended solely on applied elements to make the decorations. This was an extreme departure from what I had known before.
I had a place to start. From 2003 until 2005, I applied myself to experimentation and study, and discovered the nature of six Mezza Mandolina patterns.
NOTE: I have found no period manuals that name the patterns shown in these paintings. I have found no modern books that name these patterns. So I call them by descriptive names that I have made up, to keep them straight in my mind. When I find the proper period names, if they exist, I will happily revert to those.
In knitting, there is only "knit" and "purl," combined in specific sequences to create the thousands of possible patterns. Lacis is the same; there are only a few ways you can vary the stitch, in order to change the way the mesh looks. You can make a standard stitch (also called a "short" stitch); a series of these will create the plain mesh that I was familiar with. You can do a "long" stitch, by wrapping the thread an extra time (or two or three or eight, depending on how big a loop you want) around the mesh gauge before you make the knot; this can also be done by changing mesh gauges, using a larger diameter to create a larger stitch. You can do an increase by doing two or more stitches in the same mesh; you can decrease by reversing the process, and doing a single stitch that catches two or more meshes.
I had the clue, I had the paintings, I had practical expertise with the four possible variations of normal lacis. It was now only a matter now of dissecting each picture, to figure out the exact sequence of variations and stitches that would make each pattern.
Tumbling Blocks is the gimme stitch, the one I found on the mundane craftsperson's webpage, and the one that gave me the vital clue to the nature of mezza mandolina. I simply followed her directions:
Figure 4 Tumbling Blocks, first variation
Figure 5 Tumbling Blocks, second variation
Row 1: a row of normal mesh
This creates a very dense pattern, looking like a complicated mesh-within-amesh; when it is done with a very small gauge, it almost looks ribbed. I did play with this a little bit; when I staggered the pattern -- putting a single short stitch at the beginning and end of Row 2, so that the decreases/increases did not line up vertically -- I came up with a curious effect: when opened up, it made a pattern consistent with the out-of-period quilting pattern, "Tumbling Blocks." Hence the name.
Now that I had gotten used to manipulating the mesh, figuring out Doubled Fan took only a few tries.
Row 1: normal mesh
Figure 6 Doubled Fan stitch, detail from “Portrait of a Young Spanish Woman” c.1560, (school of) Mor (Prado Museum, Madrid)
If repeated several times, the result is a long piece of lace, much longer than it is wide, with surprisingly little stretchiness. The fan doesn’t open cleanly unless it is stretched.
The Spiderweb stitch, which is arguably the most famous mezza piece, thanks to Janet Arnolde’s “Patterns of Fashion” was not so easy to figure out. Several months, and dozens of variations did not give me satisfactory results. I tried working top to bottom (as with traditional netting). I tried working around the center, as a modern doily might be done, also with no success.
I was repeatedly stumped. I could make any number of circles, but they did not have the incrementally enlarging spiral that appears in the original.
Finally, I figured it out: work the arms of the spiderweb as mezza, and darn the spiral. That worked.
Figure 8 detail of mezza overskirt, Spiderweb stitch, “Portrait of an Unknown Woman”, Marcus Gheeraerts the Younger, c. 1605-1610
Figure 9 this is my first successful spiderweb. This one has survived the depredations of a 16 year old, a 2 year old, and a cat, as a test of its strength. As you can see, the only damage was a little distortion around the outer edge.
Row 1: do eight long stitches (very long, a quadruple wrap over a large mesh gauge)
Then I cut the fan free of shuttle and anchor, and pinned it to a darning frame (a cloth-covered polystyrene board, in my case; it’s my stretching frame for hard to manage meshes). From there, I simply darned the spiral, using the same thread, and a large darning needle; I used a doubled buttonhole stitch to secure each thread crossing.
This is the first and only mezza pattern I have found where darning is necessary to finish the pattern. It results in a surprisingly strong piece of lace, much more strong than I had anticipated.
This is the pattern that is most commonly shown in the paintings that I was studying. Fully half the portraits depicted variations on this stitch. Its most famous incarnation would have to be in Bronzino’s portrait of Eleanor of Toledo, from 1560.
Its simplicity – merely squares of normal mesh, divided by diagonal rows of long stitches – is deceptive. It wasn’t possible to work normal mesh for a while, then switch to long stitches, then back to normal. All mesh patterns, lacis or mezza, are worked on the diagonal. Therefore, instead of simple rows, it became a bewildering sequence of long stitches, half-long stitches, and short stitches – and that sequence changed every row! -- to create those longstitch diagonal lines. The trick was to figure out the sequence.
Figure 10 detail, “Eleanor of Toledo,” by Bronzino, 1560
Figure 11 a simple computer graphing of how to lay out the pattern. The red and blue lines show the successive rows of thread.
This was going to be too complicated to just get out my tools and experiment. So I started with graph paper. I graphed a simple pattern, and started drawing a continuous line, to try and figure out how the thread might move through that pattern.
Step Two was to figure out the Finesse Stitch. The finesse stitch is a sort of “half-long” stitch; the same length as half a long stitch, plus the diameter of the mesh gauge. This stitch was necessary to maintain a stable tension across the length of the long diagonal bands.
The final step was to figure out how to criss-cross those finesse stitches.
If you look quite closely at the period samples, you will see that the long stitches sometimes loop over each other in loose x’s. That was fairly simple: just feed the shuttle thread through the preceding loop, just before creating the shed.
So, to create a 5-mesh floating square, each row is done in a slightly differing sequence.
Row 1: 5 standard meshes, one long mesh, 5 standard meshes, one long mesh.
Figure 13 five count Floating Square. Note the criss crossed stitches in the diagonals.
Figure 14 13 count Floating Square, with long strips between each square. The squares have been darned with a simple flower pattern, interlock stitch
Row 4: 2 standard mesh, 1 finesse stitch, 2 standard stitch, 1 finesse stitch, 2 standard stitch, 1 finesse stitch
The versatility of this pattern cannot be emphasized enough. It is possible to have large squares (I’ve worked as large as 13 meshes in the “floating” square), or small, to have long strips between the squares, to criss-cross the stitches or not, to have several long strips, to darn or decorate the squares after the mesh is complete. This one, while one of the most difficult to figure out, has turned out to be one of my favorites, due to this incredible versatility.
Fan and Square
Once I had figured out the Floating Square, this one became marginally easier to fathom. It is another variation of the Floating Square, only some of the squares are replaced with Doubled Fans. The trick was in understanding how to sequence the stitches, to make both patterns happen at the same time, and still come together again at the bottom.
Again, this one took graph paper, and many failed attempts. But eventually, I figured it out: get halfway through a Floating Square, and then begin to do the Fan.
Figure 15 detail of 16th century tablecloth, showing Fan and Square pattern
Row 1: 8 standard stitches, 1 long, 8 standard stitches, 1 long
Row 2: 7 standard stitches, 2 finesse stitches, 7 standard, 2 finesse
Row 3: 6 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 1 standard, 1 finesse, 6 standard, 1 finesse, 1 standard, 1 finesse
Row 4: 5 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 2 standard, 1 finesse, 5 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 2 standard, 1 finesse
Row 5: 4 finessed stitches (bringing the loop down so that its length matches the bottom of the half-finished Floating Square), 1 finesse (to the bottom of the Floating Square), 3 standard, 1 finesse, 4 finessed stitches, 1 finesse, 3 standard
Row 6: “Double Fan” long stitch decrease, 3 Double Fan increase, 1 finesse, 4 standard, 1 finesse, “Double Fan” long stitch decrease, 3 Double Fan increase, 1 finesse, 4 standard, 1 finesse,
Row 7: 5 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 3 standard, 1 finesse, 5 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 3 standard, 1 finesse
Row 8: 6 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 2 standard, 1 finesse, 6 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 2 standard, 1 finesse
Row 9: 7 standard stitches, 1 finesse, 1 standard, 1 finesse, 7 standard, 1 finesse, 2 standard, 1 finesse
Row 10: 8 standard stitches, 1 long, 8 standard stitches, 1 long
Row 11 (and afterwards), begin the pattern again, staggering the Fans and Squares
Hexagon stitch was actually another gimme. After discovering the Tumbling Blocks stitch on the internet, I became involved in a correspondence with the webpage’s author, Ms. Rita Bartholemew. We discussed the history of mezza and how it compared to modern Scandinavian techniques, we discussed patterns and stitches – we geeked lace.
I asked her how she thought this stitch might be done, and she described it to me.
Row 1: normal mesh
The results proved very similar to the lace pictured in this portrait.
Figure 17 detail of Portrait of Elizabeth 1, unknown artist, c.1575-1580, Cambridge University Old Schools.
Mezza mandolina is still a mystery, for the most part. I don’t know if this is how it was done in period. But I have spent the last two years working on these patterns. The lace that results is strong and versatile, and looks like the lace in the paintings and photographs I have studied. I am satisfied, for now, that this is a viable period technique.
BOGDAN, Nicholas Q. "The Textiles." In The Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation: 1975-77, Scottish Development Department.
Ancren Riwle (Nun’s Rules), 13th century, “ne makie none purses... ne laz but leae and schepied and dwouwed and amended cherche closes and pour monne clodes.”
BOGDAN, Nicholas Q. "The Textiles." In The Perth High Street Archaeological Excavation: 1975-77, Scottish Development Department.
WEBPAGE: Beautiful and Practical Netting http://knotsindeed.com/gallery/decorative.html