Exhibition Spotlight: Lace from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection

By Maeve M. Hogan exhibition curator and PhD Student in Design History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Rectangular white lace textile on a black background
Point de Flanders a Brides Picotees edging, 1670–1700, Unidentified maker, Flanders. Bobbin lace, linen. Purchased with HLATC funds, L.P.E.1296

Rather than being driven by a large burning thematic question Lace came together as an exploration of a particular material in the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection (HLATC) and is driven by the strength and resources that we have here for research and preservation. Part of the reason I came to study at the University of Madison’s School of Human Ecology was the extensive Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection and opportunities for object-based learning through exhibitions in the galleries of the Center for Design and Material Culture. As a scholar of design history and material culture, I am interested not only in objects and processes of making, but also histories of collections and the institutions that house them. As a curator, I am interested in turning this passion around and translating it into exhibitions that make these ideas, objects, and artworks accessible to others so that they too might be inspired. 

white lace sewn onto a square, light brown background
Point de Flanders a Brides Picotees edging, 1670–1700, Unidentified maker, Flanders. Bobbin lace, linen. Purchased with HLATC funds, L.P.E.1296

I came to this project with a general knowledge of textile history and making techniques, but without specific knowledge of lace itself, so the research was very much a learning process for me. This was also my first real exposure to the Collection. HLATC has at least 1500 objects that could be categorized as lace, and more that are related, or could help us understand lace by contrast. Because HLATC is a teaching collection, housed within a school with students who are aspiring interior architects and designers, textile artists, and historians I tried to think about what would be most useful for them, choosing objects that might inspire designers, or illustrate process and cultural connections well. 

tan lace piece depicting a woman at bust length with a floral crown on a black background
Study to a Figure of a Bride, 1966. Luba Krejčí (1925–2005), Czech Republic. Bobbin lace, braiding; linen, metallic thread. Gift from the Estate of Professor Helen Louise Allen, L.P.E.0033

I have tried to share as much as I could of what I found useful in learning about and developing an understanding of lace. For example, in addition to actual lace, visitors can find lace making tools, patterns, and in-process pieces in the gallery. These items were selected to help demystify what can be a delicate and highly technical material. Lace can be made through many different techniques, and while it has a strong association with high fashion in early modern Europe, it also has connections to utilitarian nets used for fishing or carrying goods, and textile construction methods developed by Indigenous peoples in the Americas. While much of the show is centered on lace in the European tradition, there are also examples in the exhibition descended from North African traditions, and examples of Indigenous-American made laces. I also thought about the role of our collection as a resource for our design students, our instructors, and the broader community interested in textiles. There are several pieces associated with 20th-century design reform and craft revival movements that might appeal to those looking for more contemporary inspiration.

image of a gallery with dark blue walls and lace mounted on the walls
Installation view of “Lace from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection.”

This show ended up being an excellent opportunity to bring out some special objects that really have not been on display before, and do not regularly get pulled for class visits here. I am really happy to have the opportunity to put a work on view that we think is very likely by the important 20th century designer Mary Walker Phillips (1923–2007), as well as an opportunity to showcase the creative sculptural works of Madison’s own Virginia Tiffany (1923–2018). In addition, visitors will also find some of the Collection’s oldest and most technically beautiful pieces of lace in the gallery. Because there was so much lace that couldn’t fit onto the wall of this exhibition, at the back of the gallery visitors will find a series of drawers which function as visible storage, a dense array of other laceworks that give a sense of the depths of the lace collection. As ever, the rest of HLATC’s lace collection is available for class visits, and research viewings by appointment, and it is our hope that having had a taste, our community will come back to engage further with this rich collection of textiles. 

The exhibition will be accompanied by several opportunities for further engagement through public programs this fall, including an artist talk by Maggie Hensel-Brown; a webinar with the International Organization of Lace; and a hands-on workshop with lacemaker Dagmar Beckel-Machyckova.

Lace from the Helen Louise Allen Textile Collection is on view in the Lynn Mecklenburg Textile Gallery until November 17th.

Gallery Hours:

Wednesday: 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Thursday: 10 a.m.–7 p.m.
Friday: 10 a.m.–4 p.m.
Saturday-Sunday: 12–4 p.m.

Location and Parking

For more information contact: 608-262-1162   cdmc@sohe.wisc.edu