Needle lace became popular in very late period, following on from the drawn thread work that was the earliest of laces.
Needle lace first made its appearance as the form punto in aria or "points in air" - named thus as it was a material constructed by string with "thin air" and adding bits until you had lace. This was opposed to the drawn thread work (or Reticella) in which you started from a material and removed bits.
Needle lace generally consists of having a strong edge secured on card or another stiff surface, and using a needle to delicately work many stitches over itself to create a worked area.
It is exceedingly time-consuming (the most time-consuming of all laces), and has thus always been incredibly expensive. The very fact that every stitch can be placed individually also means that the pattern has absolutely no constraints and thus was made into the finest and most complicated of filigree.
Only the most wealthy were able to afford needle lace in any quantity, often the larger pieces (such as the elizabethan ruffs) were supplemented by bobbin lace edges to fill out the space quicker and cheaper - some bobbin lace pieces even attmpting to copy the needle lace in an attempt at mimicry - with mixed success - there are some things that only needle lace can do.
references: [illuminated article on needlelace]