flatten and block antique needlepoint lace
(Portland, Or, USA)
How do I flatten and block a piece of needlepoint lace with a lot of floral inserts etc?
Thanks, Christine Zachary, Portland, Oregon
I had to ask a professional lace restorer for advice on this for you, Christine therefore I do apologise for the delay in answering your question.
Needlepoint lace, by definition, is not designed to be a flat textile. It is composed of raised borders or cordonets (in antique needlelace these may even be padded with horsehair), and finer areas filled with stitches worked entirely of a form of blanket stitch.
To block it you would need to take a large piece of polystyrene foam (such as used in packaging large electrical items) which is no less that 1.5 inches thick, and of a density that will support lace pins. Cover this with polycotton fabric in a plain colour that contrasts with the lace. Please check this fabric for colour fastness and ensure it is washed prior to this procedure.
Lay the antique needlepoint lace on a clean surface (if it is a large piece, you may need to support it on net in order to lift it later). Spray lightly with distilled water only. Do not saturate it, the chances of it tearing with the weight of lots of water are quite high, a light dampening spray will do. If you can, get another pair of hands to assist you. Carefully place the damp lace on your prepared polystyrene mounting block and gently stretch it out.
The idea is to re-shape the outer edges first, so that folds, tucks and the pleating of use are gradually straightened out. Sadly this may take more than one attempt if the lace has been bunched up for long.
Once you have laid the lace out to your satisfaction, then you can pin it in place. For this to be successful only use brass lace pins for this operation or you run the risk of introducing rust to your lace.
Using no undue pressure or force on the lace, gently insert a pin, using the same principle as good bobbin lacemakers. Pin from a corner or recognisable starting point and very slightly angle the pins away from you, which puts a little tension on the lace as you continue to pin it out, inserting 1 pin every quarter of an inch. Leave at least a quarter of the pin exposed to allow easy removal. It is imperative that you do not lay anything other than a protective cover on top of the stretched work.
Once the lace is pinned all-round, securely cover it with another piece of polycotton fabric and place the whole thing somewhere clean and warm to dry. In a hot climate, or where there is bright sunshine, it may be possible to dry the damped lace quite quickly. Otherwise use a warm room, even an airing cupboard, but never apply heat directly.
I remember seeing a wonderful needlepoint ruff (15th century) totally ruined by someone who thought the fabric should be flat, and who had steam ironed it!
Damping and pinning (or blocking) the lace under light tension should be enough to restore it for further evaluation, but my advice, in general, would be - "if in doubt don't touch it. Instead, get someone else to look at it before potentially damaging an object of real merit.
For a modern piece, the above advice stands with additional warnings.
If the lace is composed of a variety of man-made threads, be ultra-careful about applying too much water. Unequal shrinkage is a problem that could cause more distortion than is present already. If the lace is composed of coloured thread, check for colour fastness by dabbing especially bright areas with a dampened cotton bud first.
On no account expose lace of any age to direct heat, hairdryers, irons, fires, high wattage light bulbs etc.
The great maxim on cleaning antique lace or any other kind of lace is "When in doubt, DON'T! Call in an expert before destroying it yourself!"