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LuxeSci Show Notes: S3E6 - Something Old, Something New, Something Lacy

Hi Fancy Folks! Welcome to another episode of LuxeSci.  I’m your host, Dr. Lex, former parasitologist and immunologist, lifelong fancy person and someone who is always curious about how things work.

This week we’ll be talking all about lace. Lace is a fascinating fabric.  It has a rich history and diverse connotations in today’s fashion world.  It can be seen as both “old and stodgy” as well as sophisticated and elegant or demure and coquettish.  It’s a long-running staple of the bridal and formal occasion designers but also gets a few modern twists.  With the continued popularity of sheer dressing, lace can be seen everywhere from the runway (Michael Kors and Gabriela Hearst’s Fall 2024 collection) to street style to the Oscars.  

Despite having a fully lace wedding dress, personally I don’t wear much of it in my daily life.  I prefer less dainty fabrics personally and I’ve always associated lace with my grandmother.  It’s a positive association though.  My grandmother was always busy, she always had to have something to do with her hands, even when she was mostly blind from macular degeneration.  I always remember her with knitting or crocheting or even quilting. I can picture her in her chair in her family room, clicking away on some project or another.  One year, she crocheted a whole bunch of lace snowflakes as Christmas ornaments, not two the same.  I have some of those snowflakes and they are a nice reminder of her. Since lace is one of the upcoming trends for Fall 2024 and because it has such a positive association for me, I wanted to include it in this season. 

So let’s take a scientifically closer look at lace.


  • How is lace made

  • Using hundreds or even thousands of threads to make an open pattern

  • One key thing to know about any type of fabric weaving is warp vs weft

  • Warp - threads that run up and down the fabric

  • Weft - threads that run side to side on the fabric

  • These are woven at right angles to each other

  • Handmade - usually with a needle.  The thread is stitched into a fabric base in a specific pattern.  The piece is then cut out and perhaps applied onto a dress,etc.  Can also use bobbins (small spools with thread wound around them).  Multiple bobbins can be used to weave a pattern

  • Machine-made - most lace now is made on machines

  • Types of lace

  • Lace - delicate fabric made of yarn or thread in an open pattern

  • Lace is classified by how its made and there are many different types. Some are:

  • Bobbin lace - thread is wound around a bobbin and multiple bobbins are used to weave together the thread and are held in place with pins stuck into a pillow in a pattern

  • machine -made lace - lace made by a machine and there are have been plenty throughout history. 

  • Chemical lace - type of machine-made lace and a pattern is embroidered on a fabric and then it’s treated chemically to disintegrate the background fabric

  • An interesting aside about chemical lace.  There were patents for chemical lace production as recently as 1982.

  • One of the best parts of this podcast is when I find something I think is interesting and I can’t wait to share it with you.  Digging around for information about the podcast topics often leads me down some fascinating rabbit holes

  • In 1982, Carl Freudenberg KG applied for a US patent for a method for preparing water soluble fabric for chemical laces.  The inventor was listed as Miichiro Kawamura and Mitsuru Fujihashi.

  • The patent was granted in 1986

  • Up until this patent, woven fabrics made of polyvinyl alcohol fibers were used to make the water soluble fabrics that the lace would be made on.  Upon immersion in hot water, this base fabric would dissolve, leaving the lace

  • Vocab check: soluble means dissolveable in water and polyvinyl alcohol is a synthetic polymer that is often used in papermaking, coatings, 3Dprinting.  It is white and odorless. It has an interesting synthesis.  Usually, as we’ve learned, polymers are made by bonding together monomers.  However, the monomer, vinyl alcohol is thermodynamically unstable so instead, PVA is made by hydrolysis of a larger compound, which is using water to break down a compound.  So rather than building up, PVA is made by breaking down.

  • This woven PVA was apparently expensive so it made sense to try and make an unwoven PVA to use as the base fabric for chemical lace

  • The authors of the patent devised a new method for making unwoven PVA fabric  by intertwining webs of the fiber and impregnating those sheets with a water soluble resin.  They then stretched the fabric and dried it to adhere the resin to the fibers

  • What’s interesting aside from the invention itself are the patents they cited and the patents that cited them

  • They cite a 1942 patent by Du Pont for “embroidered or tufted products; base fabrics specifically adapted for embroidered work; inserts for producing surface irregularities in embroidered products”

  • And they are cited by a 2006 patent by a Korean inventor whose name unfortunately i couldn’t obtain on hollow copolyester fibers

  • Wow - so in the world of nerdom, i think i may have hit a new level of nerdiness, diving down a deep patent hole. Thank you for coming with me and now let’s climb back up to continue our discussion of types of lace

  • Crocheted lace - this is what my grandmother would do. It’s lace made by using fine threads and crochet needles and techniques

  • Cutwork - portions of a textile are cut away and the resulting hole is reinforced and filled with embroidery or needle lace. A good example is eyelet fabric

  • Knitted lace - style of knitting that has stable “holes” in the fabric that are arranged in a pleasing pattern. You can see this in shawls sometimes

  • Knotted lace - this includes macrame and tatting

  • Tatting - making a durable lace by creating a series of knots and loops.  It can be used to make doilies, collars, etc.  the lace is formed by a pattern of rings and chains.

  • Needle lace - use a needle and thread to create hundreds of small stitches to form the lace

  • History of lace

  • While lace and things referred to as lace (likely ties) have been around for a long time, what we consider lace is thought to have originated in Europe in the 15th century and from there it spread quickly.

  • It was considered a luxury material because of the time involved in making it.

  • Bobbin and needle lace were both being made in Italy early in the 1400s and lace was found in an inventory of the Duchess of Milan from 1493

  • By the 1600s, high quality lace was being made in most European cities, including in Flanders, Spain, France and England

  • Lace became increasingly delicate over the centuries with French needle laces and Flemish bobbin laces being especially popular

  • The first lace machine was made towards the end of the 1700s but it took another decade or so until a man named John Heathcoat was able to produce a wide fabric that didn’t fray and unravel when cut.

  • Innovation happened quickly and by the end of the 1800s there were as many machines as there were types of lace and unfortunately many handmade lace producers were put out of business

  • Nowadays - the vast majority of lace is made by machine with individuals hand-making it as a hobby or to keep a tradition alive.


  • I have to start the science portion with this amazing opinion piece that i found from the journal Nature from 1947.  It’s about a technical report from the Board of Trade Working Party on the Lace Industry in the UK.  In the report, the authors bemoan the lack of scientific research supported by the lace industry and call for increased scientific inquiry into:

  • “Investigations into a satisfactory substitute for graphite, the use of which as a lubricant for lace machines hs given the machine-holding sections the character of a ‘dirty trade’

  • Graphite - mineral that is made up of carbon atoms stacked in sheets and with a hexagonal crystal structure

  • It’s very soft and relatively non-reactive and has high electrical and thermal conductivity

  • It’s made when high temperatures and pressure compress carbon in igneous and metamorphic rocks or created synthetically

  • When it breaks, it breaks into thin, flexible flakes that easily slide over one another, which feels greasy - this makes it good for a dry lubricant

  • “It is questionable whether inquiries into the use and handling of different yarns have in general been prosecuted with sufficient system to yield their full potential”

  • Was the research into yarns (cotton at this point) robust enough to yield any meaningful and helpful conclusions

  • Four barriers to the development of research in the industry as a whole

  • As in cotton - lack of contact and alignment between those making the machines and those using the machines

  • There are few to no scientifically trained personnel in the higher ranks of the industry

  • Non-cooperation between firms has prevented a united approach to technical and other mutual improvements

  • Many of those who are operating the machines (companies, not the individual operators) are fine as long as the machines are doing what they are supposed to do and people aren’t complaining.

  • Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

  • The authors solution was to impose a levy (financial payment) on the members of the group to fund both scientific research and also economic and market research and this opinion piece seems to be in defense of that levy

  • I thought this was so interesting both because it highlights how little has changed in industry and funding of scientific research but also gives a glimpse into some of the issues around lace production

  • There wasn’t much science about lace specifically.  We’ll get to it’s component parts in our episode on denim, when we talk about cotton.  What i did find is an interesting study on how lace making techniques may someday be used to weave structures in space

  • A doctoral student at the School of Architecture at Princeton, Lauren Dreier, was inspired by patterns of the German architect Gottfried Semper that were inspired in turn by lace.

  • She decided to try and mimic the patterns using a ribbon-like plastic material. 

  • What she created, much to her surprise, was something called a bigon ring. 

  • She had expected the plastic ribbons to form a dome but instead she ended up with something with hills and valleys

  • She partnered with Sigrid Adriaenssens and her postdoc Tian Yu to investigate further

  • The structures differ from lace in that they are arranged in loose, looping formations

  • The started with bigons - a polygon with two edge and two vertices

  • These could exist in two different stable shapes that could toggle between each other with slight pressure applied

  • They then began arranging the bigons in chains and then a loop

  • These could form numerous possible shapes

  • Yu created a numerical model that captures the behavior and this can be applied to other studies to examine how interlaced elastic networks work

  • The researchers hope that their structures can be used for new designs for materials that need to packed up to take as little room as possible, but that will assume a much larger form when unpacked - an example would be materials that have to fit into a rocket to be sent to space

  • This is also a great example of interdisciplinary collaboration between artists and engineers

  • And finally something on the lighter side

  • For those of us with kids, we know the pain of perpetually untied shoe laces.  

  • But physics is here to get us to stop blaming our kids or our inept shoe tying lessons

  • A mechanical engineer from the UC Berkely, Oliver O’Reilly and his team sought to understand the physics behind untied shoe laces

  • The set up a high-speed camera to film a runner on a treadmill to catch the laces in the act

  • the y also used a pendulum with weighted laces on it to mimic the forces of running or walking

  • They found 2 effects that impact shoelace tying.

  • Each time the runner’s heel hit the ground, the knot stretches and deforms, loosening it

  • As the legs swing back and forth, the laces’ inertia cause them to whip around, pulling on the free ends

  • Reminder - inertia in physics is a property of matter by which it remains at rest or in unchanging motion unless acted on by some external force

  • One way to try and keep laces tied is to use a square knot - where the laces are first tied right over left, and then the bow is tied left over right


  • Soluble - dissolveable in water

  • Hydrolysis - using water to break up a compound

  • Graphite - mineral that is made up of carbon stacked in sheets and has a hexagonal structure

  • Bigons - polygons with two edges and two vertices

  • Inertia - property of matter where it wants to stay moving or not moving unless acted on by an external force

Cocktail party facts

  • Graphite used to be used to lubricate machines used for making lace and is still considered a good dry lubricant

  • Lace inspired new material design that may enable bigger shipments to space

  • If you want your shoe laces to stay tied longer, tie them with a square knot

Wow, I for one am very proud of myself for doing such an engineering-heavy episode without my trusty engineer cohost.  Perhaps after almost 10 years of marriage, a little engineering has rubbed off on me. I hope you enjoyed this episode and all its spectacularly nerdy tangents. 

LuxeSci is a production of Erevna Media, produced by me, Dr. Lex.  Audio engineering by Dr. Dimos and our theme music is Harlequin Mood by Burdy.

We’re all over social media at LuxeSci Pod. Please drop us a line and say hi, we love to hear from you.

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