Interview: Elizabeth Kurella

LaceNews is most fortunate to be able to speak to Elizabeth Kurella, longtime collector, lacemaker, author and dealer. Based in Whiting, Indiana, on the shores of Lake Michigan, she runs the “LaceMerchant” website, http://tinyurl.com/nd9afyp, and sells under the name “lacemerchant” on Ebay. Her publications cover a broad range, from lace identification to care. The analysis she has done of Normandy Lace and whitework embroidery are quite unique, topics not covered anywhere else at the time of publication. Her newsletter “The Lace Collector” which ran from 1991 to 1994 was one of the inspirations for LaceNews. Her most recent activity is a new website that she refers to as “LaceCurator”, http://tinyurl.com/nh3rm4x.

LaceNews: Thanks so much for agreeing to talk with LaceNews. You have been involved in the lace world for a long time, how did you get started and what first interested you in lace?

Elizabeth: Family of course is what got me started in lace.  My whole family crocheted, knitted, embroidered.  It was just part of life.  Somewhere in Slovakia is a small village church with an altar set crocheted by my tetka (aunt)  Dora.  At about 8 or 9, I loved darning socks!  That probably is reflected now years later in my Anybody Can Mend Lace and Linens.

After taking the lace tour to Czechoslovakia with Radmila Zuman in 1990, I attempted to adapt a part of a wide pinless edging from the village of Liptowsky Mikulas, where my father came from. Here is the result — Book was Slovenksa Ludova Palickovana Cipke (Slovak bobbin lace) by Geciova-Komorovska. No patterns — just adapted from enlarged zerox of photo. Was going to be on cloth for Easter Basket – never happened!

Much later in life, when I began traveling to Europe for The Upjohn Company, I discovered real antique lace.  What really made a difference was attending the Phoenix IOLI convention — probably in the 1980s.  My sister saw a small notice in the Chicago Tribune that there would be a class in Lace Identification, and she knew I was bringing back old lace from Europe.    I took that class, taught by Jules Kliot, and life changed.  His method of looking at lace did not focus exclusively on slapping labels on lace, but instead on looking at what was really there.  That appealed to my scientific side — I graduated as a Chemist from Purdue, then went on to get a Master’s in Science Information from Illinois Institute of Technology.

Looking at lace through the lighted-stage microscope he brought was revelatory. That class also led, over the years, to my own development of my COMBO method of looking at lace (Described in “Be Your Own Sherlock” on the LaceCurator website, and used in my Guide to Lace and Linens)  of looking at the parts of lace to learn what was there.

“How was it made”  always was more important to me than “What label do I put on this?”
It was years, for example, after I bought a Normandy style patchwork of old lace that the French were doing fond de bonnet whitework that was even more amazing than Ayrshire. Is it embroidery or lace?

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LaceNews:  How do you go about collecting lace? Do you focus on certain areas, or is there a theme running through everything?

Elizabeth:   When I first started, it was opportunistic.  I would find really interesting things in London flea markets, and only years later realized how lucky I was.  Speaking of lucky, those were the years when Phillips auction house in London had at least a half dozen auctions of antique lace every year.  Hundreds of lots each containing possibly dozens of pieces.  That had to be like the Victorians discovering herds of bison and passenger pigeons in the New World.  It seemed endless!   I had full access to the material before the auction, pleading that I was in London only a few days and rarely on the official auction preview days.  I would leave low bids on many lots of really old stuff.  Sometimes I bid blind from the catalog.  And another side benefit of shopping at the Phillips auctions was meeting interesting people like Maria Niforos.

Having large amounts of sixteenth through 20th century lace to wallow in, I learned quickly what really was rare, what wasn’t.  I remember one trip I made with my teenage niece.  We blew through the preview in record time so we could go see Phantom of The Opera.  We devised our own secret code, and she took notes for me in the catalog of what lots to bid on.   Exclamation points and A’s might mean “lord what awful stuff!”   B’s might mean “Buy Buy Buy!”

That niece, by the way, grew up to be a professional photographer, and took some of the cover pictures for my books. We could not find a pretty magnifying glass for what I wanted on the cover of Secrets of Real Lace, so she took the handle from her mother’s cake server and glued it on my magnifying glass. It took years for my sister to get over that. Niece also took the cover shot for Anyone Can Mend.

Later, after the auction, with the bags of old lace (yes, there were bags with dozens of pieces of raggy dusty stuff!) spread out on the bed in our hotel room, I started really looking at what I bought.  A couple of pieces kept snagging other stuff, and that was when I really understood the phenomenon of horsehair in Alençon.  What I bid on as a couple study fragments of old Alençon turned out to be a pair of late eighteenth century lappets, in poor condition, but a pair nonetheless.  The key was having lots of stuff to HANDLE.  Truly getting the feel for lace is important.  The real thing is so much different than pictures in books or on the internet.  There is nothing like the feel of linen.  “Like cool cream falling over your hand, luv!”  was how one London lace dealer described a pair of Brussels lappets.  You really need to see pieces for real in your own hands to appreciate the fine scale.  That’s when I started putting a penny in each picture I took.  Actually, I first used an old coin from the reign of Elizabeth I, but realized nobody knew the size of those, so switched to pennies.  I was astonished earlier this year when someone asked my permission to put a penny in their Ebay picture — they thought I had trademarked that!

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The Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids, Michigan public libraries for some reason had excellent collections of lace study material.  Grand Rapids had an excellent collection of antique lace from Mrs. Gerber, until they sold it all off at auction. (Some may remember the Frostflowers exhibit there.)  Original copies of Palliser, Kellogg Bobbins of Belgium,  a dozen other classic texts.  So I had some idea of what to look for.  Also Kathe Kliot’s bobbin lace books, so that gave me an idea of where the art form could go today.

So early collecting was really a voyage of discovery.  I always thought I was Darwin on the Beagle traveling the Galapagos.  What was out there in the world did not match up with the textbooks, so I just started looking at what was out there, and quit worrying about matching up with labels and names.  I’m still trying to find a name to put on these critters.  Even nameless, they are wonderful.

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LaceNews:   Do you attend events as a lace seller? Are you involved with lecturing, teaching, or other activities?  Any immediate plans?

Elizabeth:   I have not been attending as a seller or at all for that matter.  For several years I was on a walkabout, involved in local politics and government reform.  People in lace all seem to do that at some point.  Pat Earnshaw turned to poetry after her wonderful lace books!  If invited, I would certainly get back into lecturing, teaching, whatever.  Most of my selling now is on my LaceMerchant website, or on Ebay.  I have started offering up study bits and fragments, and was surprised that I’m getting notes from people saying they are happy to find curious study pieces.  I’ll see what I can do to do more of that.

Immediate plans are to figure out how to keep the LaceCurator website going and fed coherently and usefully with new material.  Still learning the technology, so archiving the old material when new is posted will be a challenge. Blogs typically are archived by date.  That’s useless for me.  Who cares about the date, it’s the keywords and titles that help readers retrieve material.  Beyond that I still haven’t gotten a grip on social media.  Will use whatever tools I can find that are useful and that I can get a handle on.

LaceNews: You say on your new LaceCurator website that you have evolved from collector to lacemaker to dealer, to author. Can we expect another phase in the future? Perhaps more embracing social media?

Elizabeth: I don’t know why not.  We’ll see.  Need to learn these new technologies and see where that goes.  Just now, for example, I’m planning to spend some days in Belgium in September, and really appreciate what a network like Arachne can provide in terms of suggestions and ideas.

LaceNews: Tell us about the inspiration for the LaceCurator website.

Elizabeth:   Don’t know for sure what the inspiration was.  For a few years I had absolutely nothing to say about lace.  But during that time, I would have play days with Kate Henry, lacemaker, lace designer, lace collector, reenactor extraordinaire, and she kept me interested in old lace.  Her taste in lace is similar to mine.  Astonishment at what lacemakers would do when not constrained by any lace police.  Doing show and tell with who could come up with the most bizarre piece that best demonstrated imagination, perhaps great skill, sometimes maybe dementia.  Pieces that made us THINK.  Her library of lace books is magnificent.  Her fascination and love for point ground laces has really been infectious.  I WILL learn to tell the difference between Bucks Point and Tønder!

Cutwork Alencon COPY FLR erased
Try thinking about this one!

I also was pushed by a vintage clothing dealer, whose name I have lost, who wanted more information on what to do with lace that came along with boxes of old clothes at auctions.  She had a fun website,  and kept pushing me to start a blog.   Gradually I realized there was a lot I wanted to say about lace.  But books were too constraining.  They are linear, and I am not.  I could only afford to do black and white, and that too was constraining.  But the internet allows it all. It took quite a while to figure out just what I was, and how to focus the website.  I finally realized a curator pretty much covers it all.  Managing a constantly changing collection, encouraging others to learn from it and enjoy it.

LaceNews:  Please, tell us a little about the focus of the new website.

Elizabeth:   First, my focus in the LaceCurator website not just the collector but anyone.  I am often surprised when people will say “I’ve got this stuff from my grandmother, don’t know what to do with it.”  No one had been addressing them.  Someone needs to, so good material is not lost.  An older couple at one of my lectures in Michigan said they had just thrown out some bags of old fabrics.  What a pity, I said, someone might have loved it.  Well, not to worry, they said. It was really dirty and probably well over a hundred years old.  My reaction: Civil war era reenactors would go crazy!  They looked at each other, and asked each other what time garbage is usually picked up.  Out they ran.  I never found out if they retrieved those bags!

Second, I have seen so many really interesting pieces of lace, I always wanted to encourage lacemakers to see beyond the current textbooks, which by necessity are limited in what they can present.  That is the idea behind “COPY THIS!”  in the LaceCurator.

Lacemaking centers, like Milan, were inventing techniques to present the ideas they had in their heads.  No lace police! The variety and imagination in old Italian lace is astonishing.  Again lucky me.  I lived near the Art Institute, and Lorelei Halley would take me along on her study missions to the Art Institute.  Milanese with figures with curly hair worked in raised tallies!  Belly buttons both innie (tiny holes) and outy (Teeny tiny tallies)! Just crazy wonderful.  I actually read Santiny Levey’s book (didn’t just look at pictures!)  and she talked about, and showed, wonderful animals with curly manes and fur in the Cleveland Museum.  I went, and there they were!  Milanese was NOT just a flat lace.  The imagination they put in the variety of stitches in the clothwork extended to dimensional raised effects.

I was very fortunate to have had access to the Connin-Barber collection, now at the museum at Sweet Briar college.  For several years, I was able to study and photograph it before it was donated to Sweet Briar College.  Lacemakers on retreat there have access to some really remarkable pieces.  One of the pieces that still amazes me is a piece of Milanese bobbin lace – the outside looks pretty  much like conventional Milanese lace.  The inside I always thought was drawnwork.  One day, when looking at it with a good magnifying glass, I realized it was actually bobbin lace embellished with embroidery.

201CB-Milanese-Pall-overvi

LaceNews: Thank you so much for all your wonderful memories! Do you have anything else you’d like to add?

Elizabeth: How about this for a Valentine to all those who helped me in the early years, and have helped me all along the way!

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5 Responses to Interview: Elizabeth Kurella

  1. Mary A, Carroll says:

    Wonderful to read Elizabeth’s fine ideas.

  2. Barri Adams says:

    Thank you, Thank you. I just discovered the Lacenews website and linked onto Elizabeth’s LaceCurator site. As a novice I appreciate so much the time and effort it takes to keep sites running. This is a wonderful way to keep adding to the body of knowledge of lace study and an extraordinary gift to novices like me.

  3. Pingback: Lecture: Elizabeth Kurella Workshop and Roadshow 2014 – April 25-27, 2014 | LaceNews

  4. Pingback: Book Announcement: “Youghal, Irish Needle Lace for Connoissuers and Lacemakers”, Elizabeth M. Kurella | LaceNews

  5. Good article. I absolutely appreciate this
    website. Continue the good work!

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