Monday, October 22, 2012

The Enduring Beauty of Lace

QUESTION: Recently, I was going through an old trunk in my grandmother’s attic and discovered several beautiful old lace tablecloths. One of them had a label which read “Quaker Lace Co.” Can you tell me anything about this company and whether these old tablecloths are worth anything?

ANSWER: In the past decade or so, vintage linens have gained in popularity. Fine old lace ones are in rather high demand, as people seek to bring back the nostalgic beauty of bygone eras.

Finely patterned handmade lace has been available for centuries. However, lace tablecloths have only been used since the latter part of the 19th century, after the invention of mechanical lace-making looms. Traditionally, making lace by hand was a labor intensive process, but with the mechanical looms, it became possible to produce lace wide enough for tablecloths.

Taking care of fine lace tablecloths required extra help, so when domestic servants began to disappear from middle-class homes, so, too, did high- maintenance lace linens. But a new generation of housekeepers have discovered the beauty and elegance of lace. They tend to use fine lace tablecloths to dress up their dinner tables for special occasions.

While many of these fine old pieces were handmade and can cost hundreds and sometimes thousands of dollars, others were mechanically produced by companies such as the Quaker Lace Company of Philadelphia. Those produced by the company from 1880 to about 1913 are highly desired by collectors. To collectors, it doesn’t matter whether a lace tablecloth is handmade or machine-made or simple or ornate. Vintage Quaker Lace pieces sell for $10 to $200, with the average price being around $60-100 for a large tablecloth big enough to fit a table for 12.

Originally founded in 1889 as the Bromley Manufacturing Company by the three sons of John Bromley, an English carpet maker who came to the United Sates in the 1840s and became successful in textiles. The Bromley brothers used the profits from their carpet manufacturing business to purchase looms from Nottingham, England to produce machine-made lace. In 1894, the Bromley brothers purchased a factory on 4th Street and Lehigh Avenue in Philadelphia, and renamed their company Lehigh Manufacturing. A bit later, they opened a second factory on 22nd Street and Lehigh Avenue. In 1911 they renamed their operation once again the Quaker Lace Company.

Quaker Lace became the leader in machine-made lace. Their lace was durable, resisted stretching and pulling, and could withstand washing without losing its shape or transparency. In 1987 they closed their  4th Street factory, but continued to produce tablecloths at plants in Lionville, Pennsylvania, and Winthrop, Maine. The company continually researched and invented new ways of chemically treating their lace so that it would maintain its shape. The Bromleys sold their tablecloths mainly in department stores, but when many of them began to close, the company’s profits declined. The company had to  declare bankruptcy in 1992. Lorraine Linens purchased the patterns and Quaker Lace name and  continued to manufacture lace tablecloths until 2007 when it, too, filed for bankruptcy.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Bob, for much info. From all the Quaker Lace sites I've search, I haven't found a picture that matches mine, or the mention of #4158 (from the tag). Is there a way to find a list of the tablecloth patterns by pattern and number? I've also checked Abe Books and our regional library -- no luck. Might the Lorraine Linens Co., if they still exist, be a source of this info? Thanks.