The Archdukes’ Coverlet

This amazing linen coverlet was once owned by the Archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, who were appointed by King Philip of Spain in 1599 to rule over the Southern Netherlands. It is now part of the collections of the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels. There are similar large panels which combine bobbin lace with other linen textile techniques (cutwork, needlelace, filet) however this is the only known piece of this size and style that is entirely bobbin lace. Some of the bobbin lace techniques are also unique.

The Archdukes Coverlet, 174cm x 131cm (68 inches x 52 inches) ©RMAH

 Extensive research into the coverlet was undertaken in preparation for a four-venue exhibition in Antwerp in 2021:  P.LACE.S – Looking through Antwerp Lace. An extended catalogue (with the same name) was  published to complement the exhibitions, this includes a selection of detailed photos of the coverlet, technical studies by Nora Andries, Frieda Sorber and Godelieve Vroom and a chapter by Ria Cooreman detailing the source of many of the images. The central area is composed of 120 rectangles, each approximately 12.5cm   x 9cm (5.25in x 3.5in). Within each rectangle is a square enclosing a picture and alongside each square is a rectangular panel containing a pair of  holly-leaves – symbols of Christ’s suffering.  Narrow open braids separate the sections.

One of the 120 rectangular panels with, on the left, paired holly-leaves bordered by open braids; on the right a camel with rider and leader. ©RMAH, Brussels

Fifty-eight named people are depicted in the border: emperors along top and bottom, sibyls along the sides and elaborate corner sections, with smaller figures and objects between the people.  This is not a piece that could be hung on a wall, and the most likely place for display would be on a state bed.

Two emperors from the border, with a cherub between them  and their names below their feet. ©RMAH, Brussels

The makers are unknown; however they must have been skilled lacemakers who had grown up handling linen thread, probably spinning flax from childhood. It is likely they lived in a convent in the country we now know as Belgium, where they had access to a wide variety of high-quality religious and historical images, and had time to make lace without domestic responsibilities. Several of the squares contain pictures of the Archdukes and one square has the couples’ initials topped by a crown, indicating clearly that the coverlet was made for them.

The figures of the emperors and sibyls used for the border were adapted from engravings by Adrien Collart, Aegidius Sadeler and Christoffel van Sichern published between 1587 and 1608. Many of the images used in the central area have been traced to paintings and engravings produced in the first two decades of the seventeenth century, including images in rows one and twelve which all come from a painting by Denis van Alstoot of the 1615 Brussels Ommegang (a civic parade).  This indicates the coverlet was not made before 1616 and probably nearer 1620.

Techniques used

The entire coverlet is worked in bobbin lace (except stitching to link sections) using fine linen threads. At the end of the sixteenth century most bobbin lace was edgings/borders and insertions composed of plaits and twisted pairs. Over the next two decades there was increasing use of clothstitch; more complex arrangements of stitches came into use for wide borders and a few attempts were made at producing simple figures. Virtually all the lace was continuous, ie worked with one set of bobbins/threads that remained in use for the whole piece.

Techniques used for the coverlet opened up different ways of working. Only the holly-leaves and their edgings were worked as continuous lace (13 pairs for the leaves,10 pairs for each  narrow edging); this was cut into sections for the rectangles. The holly-leaves are slightly tricky to work, however they are well within the capacity of an experienced sixteenth century lacemaker, and the work could be done on a pillow such as those shown in later seventeenth century portraits of lacemakers.

The picture squares and border require a completely different approach. The figures are each started with threads wound in pairs and worked from head to foot. Working is mainly clothstitch with features formed by twisting pairs. In the more complex motifs there are several changes of direction and plaits of two or more pairs are used to emphasise certain features. Large numbers of bobbins may be needed  (70 pairs or more) which requires a large pillow.  ‘Sewings’ (made with a small hook) are used to connect sections along the border and within individual squares. 

A corner section: the sibyl on the left is worked almost entirely in cloth stitch with twisted pairs; the King on the corner is much more complex with surface features and detailed stitch patterns in the robe. ©RMAH, Brussels

It is unlikely that the lacemakers working the pictures had more than a sketched outline as a pattern, possibly drawn on unbleached linen; as they were not tied to a pricking, they were able to work freehand  – taking threads where they needed to go. The best could ‘draw’ with their threads, in the same way that a skilled artist can draw with a pencil or painted line.

The figure of King Philip on the right of fig 4 was clearly made by an extremely skilled lacemaker: there are small areas of perfectly even clothstitch; however the main interest comes with the additional techniques including the raised features of collar and sword, and the decorative detail provided by open braids worked vertically or horizontally.

The lacemaker who made the sibyl on the left was equally skilled, but less adventurous, concentrating on twists in the clothstitch to depict the clothing, and she did manage to create a very effective foot with plaited toes. The small figures – which are less precise in their working – act as links to form the continuous border with sewings to the larger motifs.

Each of the squares can be worked as a separate unit. Several appear to be mirror images of each other, however when shown side-by-side it becomes clear that they have been made by different workers using slightly different techniques. [fig 5]  Most of the squares have at least a partial frame of a multi-pair plait: pairs that were not discarded within the main area can be absorbed into this plait, and pairs can be taken out to work branches or simple chains to link the motif to the frame.

Two pelicans, clearly using the same basic pattern (reversed), one started from the beak, the other from the arch of the neck, with other variations in the working. ©RMAH, Brussels

 It is not known whether the coverlet was commissioned, if so who by, or if it was a group project that grew as more lacemakers became involved. One possibility is that it started early in the seventeenth century with a small group making a border for a linen cloth; later, when other lacemakers became interested in the new techniques,  a decision was made to work the entire coverlet in bobbin lace. It  is a great example of a collaborative project, involving not only the many lacemakers who worked the lace and the seamstress who stitched it all together, but the artists and engravers who produced the original images and the individuals who planned the coverlet and prepared patterns for all the sections. Not forgetting the people who grew and processed the flax and those who spun the fine linen thread.

The techniques developed for working the coverlet do not seem to have led directly to a new style of lace, however many features are there that can be seen in later laces, notably starting with bobbins wound in pairs, then adding and removing pairs –  techniques found alongside continuous lace in the wide collar laces from the 1630s onward, then in pieced laces such as Honiton and Brussels. Over the centuries since the coverlet was made a few lacemakers have experimented with pictorial lace, however it was not until the end of the twentieth century that individual lace makers have again broken away from traditional ways of working to use bobbins in new and creative ways.

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