Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Lace Work from the Greenwich Handicraft School

Illustration: Greenwich Handicraft School. Lace design, c1908.

The Greenwich Handicraft School was a venture that was started at Greenwich House in Greenwich Village, New York in 1905. The school was aimed to provide some useful means of gainful employment for both recent immigrants, often from Europe, but also for those native New Yorkers who found it difficult to find employment because of physical difficulties. All those who were part of the Greenwich programme were women some of whom were unskilled, but not all as many of the immigrants in particular had brought with them a craft skill of one sort or another, usually textile based. However, often there was a need to channel their decorative and material skills towards a form that would be seen as acceatible for the American market.

Two of the major craft disciplines that the Greenwich Handicraft School found themselves concentrating on, was that of embroidery and lace. These were two disciplines that European immigrants often had fairly extensive skills in, both practically and technically. However, America was not a natural home to either traditional embroidery or lace and in some ways the school was a form of transitional base whereby the traditions of European craft were made accessible and perhaps more importantly, more relevant to the American public.

Girls and women with physical difficulties that often made it impossible for them to train within normal factory or retail situations became a standard at the school, producing work of excellent quality and craftsmanship. This allowed them to at least make both a creative contribution in their own right as well as the possibility of becoming at least partially if not wholly economically independent.

Illustration: Greenwich Handicraft School. Filet lace cushion covers, c1909.

Another group of women that the school catered for were those who only wished to supplement an income and therefore were only willing to work on a part time basis. Many of these women already had homes and families and were therefore unable to work full time.

Interestingly it was lace making that was the first craft taught at the Greenwich Handicraft School when it originally opened in 1905. This was largely due to the reason that Greenwich Village at that point in its history was home to a large number of European immigrants many of whom had intrinsic lace skills which ranged from needle to crochet lace. Although the school started, as with many craft institutions, with simple copying and adapting of historical design work, eventually original patterns were introduced, a number of which could well have been either created or at least partially worked out and adapted by the women of the school. Although the school went on to introduce embroidery, weaving and dyeing techniques and skills in their textile repertoire, it was lace that was at its origin and that in some respects came to define the school for many.

Marketing a domestic lace making craft in early twentieth century America was difficult. The country had been inundated with various European imports of lace that were often sold by the retail trade at a much cheaper rate than the Greenwich Handicraft School could ever hope to compete with. However, many of the imports were of a relatively poor quality and it was hoped that if the school was to offer a much higher quality lace product, the public would realise this fact and choose the Greenwich produced lace over the inferior European imports. Although making logical sense, this scenario has been tried many times across the planet and has rarely been successful. The majority of the buying public have often preferred much cheaper and less well-made versions of handcrafted products than those offered by domestic makers. Whether that be imported handcraft or machine made, many have never been and never will be swayed by the higher technical and craft skills that are available locally, and so the market for hand production, even in our own contemporary era, is small, with many hand crafters struggling to make any form of living.

The Greenwich Handicraft School was an institution that had the physical and economic welfare of women at its heart. For a period when women were often vulnerable and far from independent, any form of self-sufficiency no matter how small, was a step towards greater freedom. Many during this period saw the economic independence of women as being a far greater prize than gaining the vote. It is still a goal not yet reached by many women across the planet. The Greenwich Handicraft School, while not unique and part of a raft of institutions aimed at the welfare of women, was instrumental in producing original lace work in America that, although perhaps inevitably influenced by the long traditions of Europe, was still part of a domestic decorative scheme and should be seen as such.

Reference links:
Pictorial Archive of Lace Designs: 325 Historic Examples (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Design Techniques for Modern Lace
Renaissance Patterns for Lace, Embroidery and Needlepoint (The Dover Pictorial Archives Series)
Lace: The Poetry of Fashion : With Representative Values
Knitted Lace Designs of Herbert Niebling Translation of Gestrickte Spitzendecken
Italian Lace Designs: 243 Classic Examples (Dover Pictorial Archive Series)
Second Book of Modern Lace Knitting
New Designs in Honiton Lace
Creative Design in Bobbin Lace
Antique Lace Patterns (International Design Library)

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