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Needle Lace – First Steps

Ever since I became interested in lace in general, I’ve always wanted to find out more about all the different types of lace and ways of making it!
It all started with bobbin lace, which I taught myself in the winter of 2020 and have continued to pursue with great fun ever since.
‘But another type of lace has become just as interesting to me: needlelace!

A few months ago, I discovered a video on YouTube about the famous needle lace technique from Alençon and how it is still practiced today, in connection with the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle d’Alençon.

I was extremely impressed with this technique, the work and the intricacy behind it, and was eager to try it out for myself.

What exactly is needle lace?

Needle lace is made primarily with a needle and thread.
A motif is drawn on a paper covered with foil and placed on several layers of fabric. Then a tracing thread, which is also called cordonnet thread, is laid along the pattern and fixed with all the layers of fabric and paper underneath. This thread forms the outline of the design. The resulting areas can then be filled with various stitches. Needle lace is worked exclusively on the surface and not poked through the pattern.

My first attempts

The necessary materials:
  • a pointed sewing needle
  • a blunt tapestry needle
  • sewing thread
  • fine linen or cotton thread (more on this later)
  • self-adhesive book cover film
  • clay paper (in a darker shade)
  • 2 layers of fabric about 2-3 cm larger than the motif
the necessary materials for making needle lace

First I draw my motif on thick paper and stick the adhesive foil over it. Then I baste the paper on top of two layers of fabric. This makes it easier to fix the tracing thread later.

attatching the needle pad to the fabric

Next, the tracing thread is laid out. In my case, it consists of a double-laid NeL 35/2 linen thread. This thread is laid along the drawn pattern. Then, using an ordinary sewing thread, stitch through all the layers and fix the tracing thread by looping it around. It may be easier to work with a sewing thread of a contrasting color. This makes it easier to remove the thread in the end.

detail photo of attaching the cordonnet thread

When you reach a junction of the pattern line, take one of the doubled threads, lead it to one end, loop it around the thread at the end and put it back, and fix it (see photo).

making a junction when attaching the cordonnet thread
the cordonnet thread

Now that the cordonnet thread has been finished, all the surfaces can be filled.
In this 3×3 grid, I use different techniques from different sources as well as different threads.

the finished needle lace stitches

The left column is based on YouTube videos by Michael Dennis, who gives very detailed and precise instructions for creating needle lace. In this method, the individual areas are worked from top to bottom, with the needle pointing toward the lacemaker. In this case DMC pearl yarn No. 12 was used.

The center column is made in the way that Alençon lace is usually worked. This involves placing the lace pad around the index finger and holding it in place with the other fingers. The areas are filled from the bottom to the top and thus the needle points away from the observer.

The YouTube videos of Cathy Monier are very helpful for learning Alençon needle lace!

For the lace I used the yarn DMC Cordonnet No. 100.

The right column is worked just like the left column, from top to bottom. The stitches are from the book “Encyclopedia of Needlework”, published in 1886 by Thérèse de Dillmont. I found this method of working to be the most pleasing. The thread tangles less often than with the Alençon method and the thread tension is easier to control. I used a 60/2 Bockens linen thread here.

finished needle lace with description of lace stitches

After filling in all the areas, all the trim threads are covered by a buttonhole stitch. This creates a nice finish before the thread can be released from the clay paper underneath.

The best way to detach the lace is to cut the stitches of sewing thread between the two layers of fabric. This will prevent the lace from being damaged. As the final and perhaps most tedious step, all sewing thread remnants must be removed from the lace. This is where tweezers can be very helpful.

In this example, red sewing thread was used, which can be an advantage- but also a disadvantage! On the one hand, the sewing thread is easier to recognize and thus it can be ensured that all remnants can really be removed. On the other hand, small fiber remnants of the red sewing thread can get stuck in the lace and not be pulled out – as it is the case here. These are now visible on the back of the lace.

In my next attempt, I think I will switch to a more neutral thread color!

pulling the sewing thread pieces off of the needle lace
pulling the sewing thread pieces off of the needle lace

Despite many imperfections and some mistakes, I am very happy with the result! The activity of needle lace is incredibly relaxing and a lot of fun! There are endless possibilities in designing lace patterns. There are less technical limitations compared to bobbin lace making for example. You can really let your creativity run wild!

In addition, there are only few other needlework techniques that can be so easily transported and executed like needle lace! This makes longer train rides, like the ones I regularly take, much more enjoyable!

finished needle lace