“Real” Lace

“Look, mamma, this is the lace I want; just the right pattern,” said Eva Dunlap in Isabella’s short story, “Mrs. Dunlap’s Commentary.”

“Is it real?”asked Mrs. Dunlap, bending over it with anxious eyes.

1912 illustration of a lady examining lace collars in a store as a sales clerk looks on.

“That is what I don’t know,” said the daughter, lowering her voice. “I wonder if Mrs. Stuart is a judge?”

On being appealed to, Mrs. Stuart came forward and bent over the lace with careful gaze. “It is really quite impossible to tell;” she said at last. “The imitations are so very perfect, nowadays; I have to judge by the price of the article. Do you want real?”

“Oh, yes indeed!” chorused mother and daughter, emphatically.

“Well I buy the imitation, nowadays; it is just as good, and no one can tell them apart.”

“I won’t have imitation,” said Miss Eva, with decision.

“I never buy imitation,” said her mother, with firmness. “I dislike shams of any sort. I take real things or none.”

The Stuarts, mother and daughter looked at each other, and directly they were on the street they said, “How awfully extravagant the Dunlaps are! I don’t see how Mr. Dunlap endures the drain.”

And said the mother: “I don’t see how a Christian woman can think it is right to spend so much on things; the idea that she won’t wear anything but real lace—and she can’t tell it from the imitation—that is nothing but pride. I don’t understand how Christians justify themselves in these things.” There was actually an undertone of complaisance that she, at least, was not a Christian.

Old photo of young woman in dark dress with white lace at cuffs and throat.

In Isabella’s world, when people mentioned “real lace” they meant hand-made lace. Skilled lace makers used fine threads to create delicate motifs—such as flowers, leaves, animals, urns, and even people—in their designs.

1894 Illustration of a woman making lace as she sits in a chair and refers to an instruction book open on a table beside her.

But machine-made lace was also available (and had been for over one hundred years). As Mrs. Stuart said in the excerpt above, it was difficult to tell machine-made laces from “real” hand-made laces, but a sharp eye could tell the difference.

old photo of a woman in dark clothing  At her throat is a bow with lace, secured with a small brooch.

One hint was the feel of the lace. Hand-made lace had texture; there was a rise and fall to the stitches, while machine lace felt flat when you ran your fingers across it.

The stitches were another tell; machine lace could unravel because large areas were made from one continuous thread. 

Photo of a woman wearing a shirtwaist made of lace.

Unlike Mrs. Dunlap, Mrs. Solomon Smith (in Mrs. Solomon Smith Looking On) was something of an expert when it came to lace. She had a keen eye and knew the value of a dollar. But when she attended her niece’s wedding in the big city, she went shopping in a department store for the first time, where she found herself dealing with a less-than-honest sales clerk when she tried to buy “real lace:”

[He was] showing me cotton laces of half a dozen kinds, and imitation laces, calling this machine-made stuff ‘real Valenciennes,’ and this cotton imitation ‘real Spanish lace,’ until I got out of all sort of patience with him, and says I, at last, ‘I don’t bear you no ill-will, but for your own sake, if I was you, I would get out of this habit of telling lies. Now I knew real lace of almost every kind you can think of long before you was born, and it is real lace and no other that I’m after, and if you’ve got any I’d like to see it.’

Photo of a young woman wearing a shirtwaist with lace trim on the bodice, neckline and sleeves.

In Household Puzzles, another one of Isabella’s novels, Helen Randolph’s love of fine things was well documented. Helen insisted  upon buying only the most expensive trims and “real lace” for her gowns, even if it meant her family had to go without basic necessities.

But on the eve of her wedding day Helen read a Bible verse that made her realize how wrong she had been to value earthly possessions:

“Whereas ye know not what shall be on the morrow. For what is your life? It is even a vapor that appeareth for a little time, and then vanisheth away.”

She closed the book suddenly, and laid it back in its place. If this were all there were of life—a vapor—of what use were lavender silks and real lace, after all?”

Photo of a young woman wearing a gown of lace.

In each of these passages from Isabella’s books, she used “real lace” as a way to show readers her characters’ personalities and priorities, and to illustrate Christian life lessons.

What lesson do you think Isabella intended readers to learn when she wrote the exchange between the Dunlaps and the Stuarts? On the surface, she might have wanted to illustrate the Dunlap women’s love for finery, and the Stuart women’s more practical approach to shopping.

Or maybe she wanted to show that Mrs. Dunlap took a strong stand for truth, not realizing that her behavior could be interpreted as extravagant and proud by others.

Old photo of a woman wearing a gown with a lace wrapper; she also wears a wide-brimmed hat trimmed with lace.

In the scene with Mrs. Solomon Smith, she may have wanted to show how wrong it is to judge a person based on their appearance. Or maybe she wanted to show that everyone is deserving of respect and kindness.

That’s the beauty of Isabella Alden’s novels; her stories always give readers something to think about. And the lessons her characters learn make us examine our own actions.

Is there an Isabella Alden story that made you pause and reflect on your own behavior?

Has one of her stories made you think of changes you can make in your own life?

By the way, Isabella mentioned “real lace” in these stories, too:

  • Doris Farrand’s Vocation
  • Ester Ried
  • Julia Ried
  • Household Puzzles
  • Modern Prophets
  • Only Ten Cents
  • The Hall in the Grove
  • The Pocket Measure
  • Wise and Otherwise
  • Workers Together; An Endless Chain

2 thoughts on ““Real” Lace

  1. What an interesting article! And just as I have been contemplating purchasing some lace pieces from the period to wear with plain modern things… and wondering – handmade or machine made? The Lord is in the little things as well.. Thank you as always. Mrs. Artus

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