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John Heathcoat and the Muslin and Net Period

  The wedding was very much like other weddings, where the parties have no taste for finery or parade; and Mrs. Elton, from the particulars detailed by her husband, thought it all extremely shabby, and very inferior to her own. “Very little white satin, very few lace veils; a most pitiful business! Selina would stare when she heard of it.” But, in spite of these deficiencies, the wishes, the hopes, the confidence, the predictions of the small band of true friends who witnessed the ceremony, were fully answered in the perfect happiness of the union.
-Emma

Jane Austen fans are familiar with the high-waisted muslin dresses popular during her adulthood. How many are aware that machine-made net or gauze became a “hot” item from 1810 and on?

1823 Evening dress with gauze overlay
1823 Evening dress with gauze overlay

“Net dresses were very fashionable and their popularity was spurred by new inventions. The development of machine-made net in the late 18th and early 19th centuries meant that gauzy lace effects were increasingly affordable either as trimmings or garments. The bobbin-net machine was patented by the Englishman John Heathcoat in 1808 and produced a superior net identical to the twist-net grounds of hand-made bobbin lace. It was so successful that women in the highest ranks of society, including the Emperor Napoleon’s first wife, Josephine, wore machine-net dresses. Initially, however, all machine nets were plain and had to be embroidered by hand.” – Victoria and Albert

Detail of an evening dress with net lace. Image @Victoria & Albert Collection

Machine-made bobbin net was first made in England in 1806 (and in France in 1818). Until this date, lace as it was made was known as old lace. After that date, lace is categorized as being modern.

Silver embroidery on net on Empress Josephine’s court gown. Image @Madame Guillotine

Machine made lace made an appearance around 1760. The nets and tulles became immediately popular. Their arrival spurred the production of other silk lace cloths, which led to a general rise in popularity of the silk lace trade – until a machine was invented that could produce silk net lace as well.

Evening dress with net overlay, 1817-1818, V&A Museum

In the 18th century the hand-made net was very expensive and was made of the finest thread from Antwerp: in 1790 this cost £70 per pound, sometimes more. At that time the mode of payment was decidedly primitive: the lace ground was spread out on the counter and the cottage worker covered it with shillings from the till of the shopman. As many coins as she could place on her work she took away with her as wages for her labour. It is no wonder that a Honiton lace veil before the invention of machine-made net often cost a hundred guineas. Heathcoat’s invention of a machine for making net dealt a crushing blow to the pillow-made net workers. The result is easily guessed. After suffering great depression for twenty years the art of hand-made net became nearly extinct, and when an order for a marriage veil of hand-made net was given, it was with the greatest difficulty that workers could be found to make it. The net alone for such a veil would cost £30. – A history of hand-made lace: Dealing with the origin of lace, the growth of the great lace centres, the mode of manufactures, the methods of distinguishing and the care of various kinds of lace, Emily Jackson, p. 170

Hem of 1817-1818 Evening Dress with net overlay, V&A Museum

The most popular European centers for lace making were located in France, the region known as Belgium today, Ireland, England,and Italy.

During the French Revolution the French textile industry had suffered and unlike in England, use of textile machinery had been non-existent.  Emperor Napoleon stopped the import of English textiles and he revived the Valenciennes lace industry so that fine fabrics like tulle and batiste could be made there. – Regency Fashion History

Black net over gold gown, 1818. Image @Defunct Fashion

Between 1806-1810, net gowns embroidered with chenille embroidery became popular. Profits rose for the manufacturers as the price for the cloth plummeted.

In 1809 Heathcoat took a patent for his bobbin net machine. But the profits realised by the manufacturers of lace were very great, and the use of the machines rapidly extended; while the price of the article was reduced from five pounds the square yard to about five pence in the course of twenty-five years. – John Heathcoat and the Bobbin Net Machine, Samuel Smiles (1859)

By 1813, the bobbinet machine had been perfected. After 1815, gauze was used over satin evening dresses, with the fabric gathered at the back. By 1816, crepe, net and tulle were worn over evening wear made of satin, silks, velvets, kerseymere, satin, lame, and both plain and shot sarcenet.

La Belle Assemblee Court and Fashionable Magazine contains this description of a lady’s dress in Her Majesty’s Drawing Room in January 1818:

Hon. Lady Codrington.—Net draperies, magnificently embroidered in gold  lama, in bouquets and sprigs, over a petticoat of white satin, with blond lace at the bottom, headed with a rouleau of gold lama; train of crimson velvet, trimmed with gold lama and blond lace. Head-dress gold lama toque, with ostrich plume, and diamonds.

1818 Evening Dress, June. La Belle Assemblée. ENGLISH. No. 1.—Evening Dress. Round dress of embossed gauze over white satin, with coriage of peach-coloured satin, elegantly ornamented with rouleau medallions and palm leaves of white satin. Mary Queen of Scots hat, ornamented with pearls, and surmounted by a full plume of white feathers. Negligé necklace of fine pearls, and gold chain beneath, with an eyeglass suspended. White satin shoes, aud white kid gloves.

Not every lady of that era was obsessed over bobbin net lace or tulle. Many began to publicly and proudly favor the old hand made lace.

…both in England and on the Continent and at Almack’s, the Assembly Rooms at Bath and Tunbridge Well, the chaperons would gossip of their lappets of Alencon or Brussels. Numerous were the anecdotes as to how this treasure or that had turned up having escaped the doom the rag-bag, which alas! was the fate of so much old lace during the muslin and net period. – Emily Jackson, A History of Hand-made Lace, 1900, p 48.

Machine made lace dealt a great blow to the industry of hand-made fabrics. In Tiverton in 1822, where once 2,400 lace makers worked, only 300 lace makers were still employed.

Evening dress with net overlay, 1818. Image @Old Rags

The Duchess of Gloucester was one of the few whose affections never swerved from her love of the old rich points towards blondes and muslins, and her collection was one of the finest in Europe. Lady Blessington, too, loved costly lace, and, at her death, left several huge chests full of it. Gradually lace began to be worn again, but it was as it were ignorantly put on, worn simply because it was again the fashion to wear lace, and lace must therefore be worn; the knowledge of its history, worth, and beauty was lacking…  – Emily Jackson, A History of Hand-made Lace, 1900, p 48.

Princess Mary, Duchess of Gloucester (Daughter of King George III) Image @Justin F. Skrebowski

Sprigs beautified the machine-made net. It is said that Queen Charlotte introduced applique on net to support the machine net industry. Honiton appliques consisted of white linen thread sprigs mounted on the net, but black  silk sprigs were applied as well. The black silk cost twice as much as the linen threads and soon went out of fashion.

The trade of lace making remained for several generations in some families, thus in 1871 an old lace maker was discovered at Honiton, whose turn or wheel for winding cotton had the date 1678 rudely carved on its foot –Old lace, a handbook for collectors: an account of the difference styles of lace, their history, characteristics & manufacture, Margaret Jourdain, 1908, p94-95

Detail of early 19th c. tamboured net shawl. Image @Vintage Textiles

Sources:


Vic Sanborn oversees two blogs: Jane Austen’s World and Jane Austen Today. Before 2006 she merely adored Jane Austen and read Pride and Prejudice faithfully every year. These days, she is immersed in reading and writing about the author’s life and the Regency era. Co-founder of her local (and very small) book group, Janeites on the James, she began her blogs as a way to share her research on the Regency era for her novel, which sits unpublished on a dusty shelf. In her working life, Vic provides resources and professional development for teachers and administrators of Virginia’s adult education and literacy programs. This article was written for Jane Austen’s World and is used here with permission.

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