On a high, sunny windowsill, a small plastic bag holds two pieces of filigreed fabric no larger than a fingernail. At the moment, they’re inconspicuous leftovers. Soon, they’ll be a surprise forever-and-ever gift: earrings that a new husband is having Gabe (short for Gabrielle) Bratton create from snips of his wife’s wedding dress.
In Gabe’s one-room Raleigh studio, every little thing in every little space begs to be touched. And then admired, and then exclaimed over (and then, for the fortunate, tried on and taken home). The bits and pieces you’re looking at aren’t clutter: They’re a step in the process of creating something unique, something singular and wearable, from a piece of lace.
Think of lace, the delicate, weblike fabric called by a simple syllable that Southerners have been sporting — often visibly, often invisibly — for centuries. Once, lace jabots and handkerchiefs and bonnets and unmentionables. Now, lace shirts and bikinis and christening gowns and unmentionables.
Gabe digs a hand into a box filled with pieces of limp lace whose hues range from sepia to snowy white. “I get it from everywhere,” she says. “People have sought me out and given it to me.” In the fistful she brings up are pieces that friends have brought her from a Croatian flea market, spools of inexpensive hobby-store lace ribbon, and samples she’s discovered “down the rabbit hole” of eBay at 3 a.m. She opens a tablecloth of joined lace ovals that a woman in Wilmington mailed to her. “I got the sweetest note from her that said, ‘I love what you’re doing. I’ve been saving this because I love the pattern,’ ” Gabe says. “And I’ve been making cuffs and pendants from it ever since.” Sure enough, the studio’s industrial carpet shows through in perfect ovals here and there, where she’s snipped carefully from the whole. After being written up in a Charleston newspaper, Gabe was invited to several elderly ladies’ beautiful Battery homes for “wonderfully weird meet-ups,” glasses of sherry — and gifts of their old lace.
And then what? “I make a big mess,” Gabe confesses. She irons and starches whatever piece she’s selected. Then, with grain wax of different densities, she makes a mold in a “lost wax” process whose precise steps she’s reluctant to reveal — an artist’s prerogative — aside from the fact that it’s the most delicate stage of creation, and that she burns her fingers frequently. Layering is hugely important: A waxy clump will distort the fabric; too little wax will give the piece an inherent weak spot.
At the University of Georgia, where Gabe earned a BFA in jewelry and metalsmithing from that Lamar Dodd School of Art, she did the casting herself. Now, she outsources her work to kilns in Raleigh and New York, depending upon the metal she’s using: sterling, bronze, and, recently — “because I can finally afford it” — 14-karat gold. Bronze is the most durable medium, and the most affordable, but the most unpredictable as to final color, ranging from a deep brown to, well, bronze. In many other aspects of her jewelry-making, plain old experimentation plays a part. Her favorite days are “play days,” when she comes to the studio, puts aside the to-do list, and simply imagines and creates with her lace scraps and sections. “Everything I see sticks with me subconsciously,” Gabe says. Sometimes she “paints a patina” on a piece. She likes the look of lace in oxidized silver, which is achieved with a chemical bath. Since there’s no fume hood in her studio, “I just go outside in the parking lot,” Gabe says.
Compared to the intricate fabrics and delicate pieces she works with, 20-something Gabe is relaxed and easygoing. Tall, dark-eyed, and dark-haired, she makes an ideal model for many of her creations. “I love how messy this gets,” she says of a masterful, movable, three-dimensional necklace of 34 connecting, soldered lace pieces meant to drape down both in front and back. She holds up a large, flat, lace silver bow-turned-pin, the original of which, I’m pretty sure, was once appliquéd on a fussy linen blouse I wore in the ’80s. But in Gabe’s language, this is no “pin”; it’s a “brooch,” as pins were termed in another era, which is appropriate for its origin in lace. But who wears brooches anymore? “I do!” Gabe exclaims. She fastens it to a tailored shirt collar, or a blazer pocket, and the effect is instantly transforming — a funky and whimsical, yet classy and classic touch to soften a style.
The stories behind the jewelry are as appealing and charming as the pieces themselves. Often, and unsurprisingly, they’re about brides and weddings. Like the mother of the bride who secretly cut away a length of the veil her two daughters wore, and had cuff bracelets made to give them on their first anniversaries. Or the headpiece — attached with hidden combs — is fashioned from a piece of a veil. For dancing, the bride removed the veil and replaced it with Gabe’s replica in silver, a tangible memory she’ll wear again and again, for far less formal events. And from those days of trousseaus and peignoirs, another headpiece, fashioned from a grandmother’s wedding negligee, preserved all these decades for a new bride to wear in an entirely modern manner. Gabe is currently creating a custom ring for a bride out of her wedding dress, and will incorporate a family stone. “She just never got a regular wedding ring,” Gabe says. “So this will be her ring.”
Remnants, fragments, scraps, and bits; flat, scalloped, ruffled, floral; handmade, manmade, personal, or purchased. In Gabe Bratton’s interpretations, a timeless Southern fabric becomes an adornment, and that much more long-lasting. This is preservation of a different ilk, a wearable and — sigh — covetable sort. Impervious to fades, tears, or stains, this is lace for the ages.