When Mary Salmon of Northville looks at a piece of vintage handmade lace, she sees much more than carefully crafted, delicately beautiful geometric patterns spun from threads.
What she sees, instead, is much deeper: the souls of the age-old craftswomen who spent days and hours creating beautiful art, art that would last hundreds of years into the future and for which they would receive no credit.
“These women were brilliant; they were uneducated women who created incredible intelligent and articulate pieces of work which they would sell — without ever attaching their own names to their art,” said Salmon, owner and curator of The Lace Museum of Detroit, “It wasn’t like a Van Gogh or other pieces of art to which they could sign their names. They sold their work and it went out into history without them.”
It is her appreciation for those craftswomen and the lovely lace they made that led her to open the museum, one of only three lace museums in the nation, last November.
The Lace Museum of Detroit in Northville. (Photo: Mary Salmon)
The 1,000-square-foot museum, on Main Street in downtown Northville, features 18th and 19th century handmade lace and linen, as well as lace-making tools, textiles and fashion, carefully chosen and amassed by Salmon throughout her 55 years.
The museum’s permanent collection focuses on European and American lace and its influence on fashion and home décor during the 19th century. Bolts of linen and lace share space with individual textile pieces, Victorian and Edwardian-era fashion ensembles and table linens, as well as antique dressmaking tools, sewing machines and more. The museum also offers fine antique lace, as well as antique/vintage textiles, linens and clothing for purchase.
An example of antique lace at The Lace Museum of Detroit. (Photo: Submitted)
It is collection that has been meticulously curated with both the artisanal and historical value in mind.
“There is so much history in every piece. Handmade lace was a huge part of the economy in the past; it was very valuable,” Salmon said. “Lace was so valuable and exquisite that it would be smuggled in and out of countries.”
Lace was particularly popular with men in the United States as a status symbol in colonial times and proudly worn by early statesman such as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Alexander Hamilton, she said, adding, “It was a statement of your station in life.”
According to Salmon, lace began to fall out of favor around the time of the Civil War
Mary Salmon recently received a letter from Buckingham Palace from Queen Elizabeth's Lady in Waiting about her efforts at maintaining antique lace in America. (Photo: Submitted)
“It was a more serious time and lace began to be considered pretentious by some,” she said. In addition, the Industrial Revolution introduced machine-made lace and lace fell out of fashion as it became more accessible.
Overseas, however, handmade lace continued to be favored by European nobility and aristocracy.
Salmon recalls seeing portraits of historical figures in lesson books and as a child being drawn to their lace cravats.
“I may have been the only child in my school to have noticed the details on the clothing when we learned history,” she said with a laugh.
Growing up in a Polish-Irish family in the Detroit area, Salmon said she was surrounded by beautiful lace in her own home, as well as the homes of her aunts.
“I was always fascinated by the intricate design. The fact that it was made by hand from pieces of thread just amazed me,” Salmon said.
Her fascination with lace followed her through college, where she earned both bachelor's and master's degrees in political science. It continued through law school and as she raised her four, now-grown children.
“I spent time in Ireland and London and other parts of Europe and was able to learn so much about the art of making lace. I remember going to Versailles and seeing the portraits of kings and queens, all wearing gorgeous lace,” said Salmon, who works as representative for disabled Americans in the federal court system.
She began attending auctions in Boston and other cities on the east coast of the United States, purchasing handmade lace and linen pieces, as well as antique lace clothing, keeping some pieces for herself and selling others.
Serving as a merchant of lace, it soon became apparent that she was keeping more than she was selling. Friends began teasing her that she should open a museum.
“I would go to these big shows out east and find things that I just couldn’t part with,” she said. She also harbored a desire to share her collection with others and draw attention to an art form that is “all but dead.”
Salmon said the museum has had a positive response from the public since opening, with many visitors expressing a shared admiration for the almost-extinct art form.
Salmon recently learned that she and the museum goers are not alone in their admiration; it is also shared by certain reigning royalty “across the pond.”
Just last month, Salmon received a handwritten note from Queen Elizabeth II’s Lady-in-Waiting Phillipa de Pass, indicating that the queen shares Salmon’s enthusiasm for handmade lace. The note, written on Windsor Castle stationery, included well-wishes for the museum and the queen's appreciation “for all that I have done for handmade lace,” Salmon said, “It was so beautifully written and such a lovely gesture.”
Salmon said she is hopeful that an upcoming exhibit on the Civil War and another featuring antique equestrian habits will inspire increased interest in the historical pieces, drawing even more visitors to the museum.
She also has another objective.