Are the terms ‘Belgian lace’ and ‘Flemish lace’ synonymous? Was no lace made in Wallonia, the French-speaking part of the country? Whatever the situation had been in the past, by the time of the 1896 Belgian industrial census (whose findings are shown the map below), domestic lacemaking was almost entirely a Flemish specialism, largely confined to the provinces of West and East Flanders, with an offshoot around Turnhout. But if you look carefully at the lower half of this map you can just make out two grey smudges representing two lacemaking communities in Wallonia: to the right Aye in the province of Luxembourg, and to the left Cerfontaine in the province of Namur.
Local folklore claimed that lacemaking was introduced to Cerfontaine by a Flemish migrant in the early nineteenth century, but its history must be somewhat older than that. In 1812 the mayor reported that, while the male population made their living from forestry, most of the female population worked at lacemaking, and this had long been the case. In the first half of the nineteenth century a lace school was organized by Clérie Decourt. Later, around 1850, a lace workshop was incorporated into the girls primary school run by Mélanie Adam, whose servant Eugènie Tolbecq taught lace skills (from 1868 in a separate class). In 1889 the new schoolteacher dropped lacemaking, but Mademoiselle Tolbecq kept up the workshop for girls after school hours in the village hall, teaching about thirty at a time. She was a respected character and her own cushion is preserved in the mairie (or at least it was in 1938). However, when she retired there was no one to take on the task.
In 1896 there were still 207 working lacemakers in commune. Pierre Verhaegen (from whom we borrowed the map above) reported that none of them made more than a franc a day, and in fact they were not paid in coin at all but remunerated in groceries such as bread and butter (the latter reserved for the best workers). The ‘facteurs’ and ‘courtières’, that is the middle(wo)men between the lacemakers and the Brussels lace merchants, owned grocery stores in the village.
Lacemaking tottered on in Cerfontaine after the First World War, and in May 1937 researchers from the Musée de la vie wallonne visited to document this disappearing trade. Antoine Castille made a film of one of the last lacemakers, Madame Deloge, which is available on Youtube, on Image’Est, and by searching on the Museum’s collection site, just follow the links. Meanwhile Arthur Balle (1878-1954), son of the village blacksmith, a poet and expert on dialect (his day job was as a railway inspector) wrote a report, focusing on the terminology used in lacemaking. This was finally published in volume 13 of the Enquêtes du musée de la vie wallonne in 1978, and most of what follows comes from his account.
Cerfontaine lacemakers specialized in ‘point de Paris’ lace, a ribbon lace made – and this was very unusual in Belgium – on a pillow (coussin) with a roller (a roûle) to which the pattern was fixed. By 1937 lacemakers were increasingly reliant on designs they copied and pricked themselves, leading to a certain amount of deformation, although the lacemakers themselves claimed the irregularities were a guarantee of authenticity. The pillow was regularly covered with a new piece of cloth to stop the thread getting dirty, and it sat on a support called a chame. The roller was about 37 centimetres in circumference, in other words half an ‘aune’ or ell of 74cm, though one might need to substitute a smaller or larger roller depending on the size of the design as the ends needed to ‘embrace’, that is overlap. The ell is the traditional measure used in lace manufacture, although the definition of an ell varies considerably from region to region. Each completed turn of the roller represented half an ell, and the lacemaker marked this with a pin (èsplinke) on the side. 32 pins meant she had finished 16 aunes of lace, which was the expected amount for delivery to the facteur. In the meantime the lace fell inside the cushion, into what was called l’cofe, rolled around a small wooden board. The roller could be held stationary with a broche, a wooden peg that, according to tradition, was carved by the husband or boyfriend of the lacemaker (remember that the men were all foresters). The number of bobbins used depended on the number of trèyes (links in the lattice), with four bobbins required for each trèye. Groups of bobbins were arranged on the pillow in neuwêyes of about a dozen.
However, before any lace could be made, the bobbins had to be filled, as shown in the film. The reel on which the thread was deployed was called a toûrpène, while the instrument madame Deloge holds between her legs to turn the bobbin was called an afilwè.
Lacemakers continued their work in the evenings, joining with neighbours in what were called camps. They sat arranged around a table with a central candle and bottles of water (boutèye à chîj’ler) which concentrated the light on their pillow. When a lacemaker had finished her sixteen ells, it was the custom for her to serve coffee to the other campeuses. As chîje means party, fun, one presumes that lacemakers enjoyed this element of their working lives.
Balle finished his report with a selection of lace designs, also shown in the film, with their dialect names. The names mostly derive from the motifs – the corbèye (basket), the kieur (heart), the cramiète (arch)… However, Warzée reported that at least one design was known as ‘Drienne’, after the lacemaker Adrienne who specialized in it.
Pierre Verhaegen, Les industries à domicile en Belgique: la dentelle et la broderie sur tulle (Brussels: Office du Travail, 1902). 2 vols.
Madeleine Herzet, ‘La fabrication de la dentelle à Cerfontaine et Aye’, Enquêtes du musée de la vie wallonne 13 (1974, though in fact not published until 1978): 257-85. This includes Arthur Balle’s report on Cerfontaine from 1937.
J. Warzée, ‘Centre dentellier de Cerfontaine: quelques notes d’ordre folklorique et économique’, Le Guetteur Wallon 14 (1938): 121-4.