LABOR AND LACE:
THE ART OF PIPER SHEPARD & THE BALTIMORE
MUSEUM OF ART'S CONE COLLECTION
Chambers (Variation #1), 2002.
Photo by Dan Meyers
Although artist Piper Shepard does not pick
up sticks and string, she has something in
common with any lace knitter. She creates
lace that isn't "official."
This summer, Shepard's two installations
-- together called Filigree Spaces
-- grace the halls of the Baltimore Museum
of Art (BMA). To create each work, the artist
coated huge muslin panels with graphite, then
hand cut an exquisite, intricate lace design
into each piece -- making enough fabric to completely
drape the floor-to-ceiling windows in the
museum's lobby and create five fabric rooms.
The mind boggles at the sheer size of the
work -- Shepard's largest to date -- the focus and
patience required, and the delicacy of the
fine-boned patterns. Shepard's panels cast
elaborate shadows. They're handmade. They're
fabric. They're full of delicious holes. But
they're not lace.
There are two official kinds of lace, explains
BMA's Curator of Decorative Arts for Textiles,
Anita Jones. Most textile pros classify lace
first by technique, then by geography and
design. The only two traditional kinds are bobbin lace and needle lace. Bobbin
lace involves a sort of weaving process, with
the lace maker crossing several strands of
fiber in complex patterns over a special pillow.
Once complete, the lace is removed from the
pillow and exists on its own. Needle lace
involves sewing a series of buttonhole loops
into a backing, the loops varying in their
placement and complexity, but all connecting
to one another and creating a stand-alone
fabric once the backing is removed.
Jones's own definition, created on the fly,
is freeing and thought provoking. "Lace is
a fabric that has open areas," says Jones.
"What is not there is as important as what's
Shepard says, "I like Anita's definition.
It's broad and therefore could encompass other
traditional processes. If I consider it then
crochet, knitting, tatting, possibly some
weaving, and my work can be interpreted as
Jones herself notes that many other techniques
-- Irish crochet, tatting, knitting -- can
result in a fabric that has lace tendencies.
She has not been part of the sometimes passionate
debate over whether knitting results in true
lace. Her broad definition seems to leave
room for the leaves/waves wraps
out scarves of our craft. "Anyone
looking at it would consider it lace,"
But as a curator she seems compelled to add,
"...though it's not officially."
Piper Shepard created her stunning installations
in response to some gorgeous "official" lace
-- historic pieces found in the museum's impressive
|Detail, Flounce. Point
de France needle lace. 17th century. France.
Linen. The Baltimore Museum of Art: The
Two Baltimore sisters, Claribel and Etta
Cone, were art collectors known for their
holdings of Matisses and Picassos. But virtually
unknown to the public, and even to textiles
historians, was their impressive collection
of more than 400 laces, purchased between
visits to galleries and artist studios in
Florence and Paris. Their collection -- bequeathed
to the BMA in the 1950s -- ranges from very
early pre-lace, such as 16th century
embroideries, to early 20th century
needle laces. Most are costume pieces that
would make modern-day crafters salivate, including
collars, cuffs, fan leaves, and flounces --
wide borders worn at the hems of skirts or
All these laces were gifted to the museum wrapped
in blue tissue paper, or mounted on red silk and
folded into fabric envelopes that bore Claribel
Cone's monogram. They were kept in a wooden chest
with many drawers.
Talk about a rare treat! When curator Jones
first began working at the BMA in 1985, it
was her job to open those drawers, reach into
the delicate envelopes and tissue-wrapped
packages, and study, research, identify, catalogue,
and re-house the Cone laces. She engaged a
volunteer lace maker to help her focus on
each piece. "To measure it, photograph it,
write down what we thought it was as opposed to what someone else
thought it was before. It's difficult to be
absolute about things, because lace makers
could travel and pick up techniques. You have
to be somewhat open-minded. Very knowledgeable
people will make different judgments about
Once the whole collection was studied and
re-housed, Jones was ready to create the first
full exhibit of Cone laces, currently on display
at the BMA. And she was ready to engage Shepard
in commenting on the Cone Collection with
her contemporary installations.
Delving into the collection "was amazing,
a bit intimidating, and rather humbling,"
says Shepherd. "The quality of handwork, the
intimacy of scale and intensity of the structure
was incredible. Just thinking about an individual
or individuals making a textile so intricately
and with such labor intensity was a quality
I wanted to focus upon."
Shepard selected four pieces
of the Cone Collection for her inspiration:
a 19th-century Rosaline bobbin
lace shawl from Belgium, a 16th-century
Italian cutwork Reticella handkerchief, a
19th-century Belgian Point de Gaze
needle lace, and a black Chantilly parasol
from the 1800s. She did much of the cutting
herself, a tremendous task, but brought in
one other artist and one or two helpers to
complete the installation on deadline.
The two exhibits, contemporary art and historical
lace, now stand side by side at the BMA through
fall 2005 -- a binary star of intricacy, intention,
Piper Shepard with a panel from Along Lace
Lace and Labor
Perhaps what is most striking is the similarity
between what a knitter does, what Shepard
does, and even what Jones does. Every one
of us is engaged in an intimate, laborious
hand-work process, in which we must focus
one stitch, one cut, one acid-free tissue
package at a time. And then we must repeat,
repeat, repeat. "Attention to detail" merely
scratches the surface of describing jobs -- knitter,
artist, curator -- that border on self-treatment
In a world where the last repeats of a shawl
can seem demoralizing, hand cutting thousands
of square feet of intricate lace must have
been a crushing task. "The space was so inspiring
and overwhelming that I knew I had to work
consistently," Shepard says of the drive to
finish. "Having an exhibition at a major museum
in my home town also helps keep the motivation
going. I knew when I saw the space at The
Baltimore Museum of Art, that it was a very
Though Shepard has the walls of the BMA,
and we knitters have our state fairs, curators'
work is rarely enjoyed by the public. Jones
says, "When you open up box after box after
box and you have to laboriously fold things,
write them down, enter them in a computer,
you think why can't I show people this? They
don't realize what it takes. The meticulous
work to save things."
For all of us the tedious process is crucial
and so ultimately, soothingly, maddeningly
enjoyable. The results are stunning -- be they
tiny packets trimmed with hand-written tags,
sumptuous shawls made of Kidsilk Haze, or
room-size installations that cast shadows
on the floor and create environments of hole-y
fabric for us to move through.
Whether any of these results are considered
lace turns out to be up to us.
To read more about Piper Shepard's
installation and the Cone Collection Legacy
of Lace exhibit, go here.