A new article, connected to our ‘Lace in Context’ project, has just been published by the journal French History. It explores French pillow-lacemakers’ relations to the tools of their trade, which they decorated, celebrated and paraded, but which they also sometimes beat and burnt. The article is published under an Open Access licence so should be freely available to all at the journal’s website. However, if you have difficulty with the website and would like a copy, simply email David Hopkin at email@example.com (and the same applies to other articles mentioned on this site about lace legends, lace and the Flemish cultural revival, Flemish lace tells, and Normandy lacemakers’ songs.
Visitors to this site might be interested in a new article by David Hopkin on ‘The “Dying Art” of Lacemaking and the Flemish Cultural Revival’. It is published in English and Catalan, open-access, in the magazine Datatèxtil 42 (2023), pages 51-63. The article, and the whole magazine, is available here.
The article tells the story of Mechelen or Malines lacemaking in the two decades before the First World War. Despite various attempts to revive handmade lace in this Belgian city, the industry was in terminal decline. Three figures combined to provide it with a swan song: the local historian Guillaume (or Willem) Van Caster, Canon of Mechelen’s cathedral; the artist Alexander Struys; and the novelist Herman Baccaert. The article follows the interweaving of their different activities.
Datatèxtil has published lots of excellent articles on lace, mostly but not exclusively Spanish and Catalan lace. For example, there are articles on popular names for Catalan lace patterns in vol 28, the Honiton lace industry in vol 29, ‘modernist’ lace designs in vol 30, the lace collection of Madrid’s museum of Decorative Art in vol 33, Almagro lace in vol 36… All these are free to read and download via the link given above.
Our lace ‘Grand Tour’, which we mentioned in the previous post, is not unique. Around 1900 quite a few travellers, especially Americans, explored in turn the various centres of European lacemaking. For instance, Florence G. Weber, who taught lacemaking at the Society of Arts and Crafts of Boston, took a tour through Italian and Belgian lace districts at the beginning of the twentieth century. She reported on her findings in the American publication The Craftsman in 1903. Her first stop was Santa Margherita, a coastal town about twenty miles south of Genoa, where she encountered lacemakers at work under the arcades which protected them from the sun.
After you watch [a lacemaker] a few minutes, she will rise from her work, disappear into the house only to reappear at once with a finished scarf of glistening white silk. This she silently unfolds with a touch so loving that it at once becomes to you a precious thing. Then, this Margherita proceeds to adorn her pretty head with it. As she quickly draws it about her throat she smiles and says: ‘For the teeater’. No French milliner ever adjusted a Paris hat with more convincing skill. You see the scarf, the beguiling smile and the lovely face. The combination is irresistible. You buy the scarf.
By 1900 Santa Margherita and the surrounding lacemaking towns of Portofino and Rapallo had become major tourist destinations. Italy had long been favoured by rich and cultured travellers, but the possibility of tourism to the Italian Riviera was greatly increased by the arrival of the railway in 1868, a few years after Italian unification. Cultural giants of northern Europe – including Nietzsche, Jean Sibelius, Max Beerbohm and W.B. Yeats – came here to winter; Erza Pound would settle in Rapallo, and Elizabeth von Arnim wrote her novel Enchanted April (1922) about Portofino. Northern Italians also came here for the climate and the sea air: the diplomat Constantino Nigra, Cavour’s right-hand man during the unification of Italy, retired to Rapallo. His villa now houses the local lace museum, which is in the process of reopening after a hiatus. The whole region was transformed by an influx of rich and often titled visitors, and the proliferating infrastructure of hotels, villas, restaurants and other services they required.
Which brings us back to lace. There is a strong correlation between the survival of handmade lace in the late nineteenth century and the development of tourism, particularly high-end tourism. We mentioned this in our last post about Arenys de Mar; we also see it in the revival of Burano and Palestrina lace in the Venetian lagoon, we see it also in the relations between the spa towns of the Auvergne such as Vichy and the nearby Velay, or the spa towns of Bohemia and the lace regions of the Erzgebirge, we see it again in turn-of-the-century Ostend and Bruges… One can even see it, to an extent, in England, with such initiatives as the Winchelsea lace revival.
The lacemaker – working on the streets with her decorated pillow and bobbins, and wearing local costume – was one of the picturesque attractions these destinations had to offer, and so they feature on railway posters, postcards and tourist literature. But while picturesque, the lacemaker (and her imagined partner, not only in Italy but in Flanders and Normandy, the fisherman) grounded the tourist in a more authentic economy of production, not one tied only to the needs of tourists. Because lacemakers (and fishermen) were so visible on the streets, and indeed on the beach, visitors could interact with these representatives of the local culture, with its particular crafts and traditions which long preceded the arrival of the railway and the hotels. Tourists could spend their money in the expectation that they were supporting hardworking locals, the genuine exponents of a distinct regional culture, and thus ensure the survival of a handicraft that, in Weber’s words, was ‘so refining, so ennobling’.
In the case of the Ligurian Riviera south of Genoa, and specifically the Gulf of Tigullio from Portofino to Lavagna, lacemaking was mentioned as a draw in much of the tourist literature of the nineteenth century. John Murray’s Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy (first published in 1842) states that ‘the manufacture of lace is carried out’ in Rapallo. A rival publication, Dudley Costello’s Piedmont and Italy, from the Alps to the Tiber (1861), reported that the town’s ‘houses being almost all built on arcades, beneath which a numerous population of women and girls industriously ply their trade, – lace-making being the speciality of the town’.
In addition to these guidebooks, another genre of travel writing flourished in the Victorian and Edwardian period, in which English (or anglophone) visitors described their experiences of Italy and the Italians, often accompanied by sketches and watercolours. The first of these to cover the Italian Riviera (to our knowledge) was Alice Comyns Carr’s North Italian Folk (1877), illustrated by Randolph Caldecott. Carr is best known these days as Ellen Terry’s costume designer, but she grew up in Genoa as the daughter of the resident Anglican clergyman, and so knew this part of Italy well. Lacemakers feature in her descriptions of Santa Margherita and Portofino, and she also dedicates a whole chapter to describing a lacemaker’s life. A generation later, the art critic and translator George Frederic Lees published Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (1912), this time illustrated with his own photographs. Again, the lacemakers of Portofino are featured, because:
This artistic occupation adds in no small measure to the picturesqueness of the village. Under the arches of the porticoes and at many of the street doors the workers from little girls of six to wrinkled dames of seventy sit in front of the three-legged stands which support the pillows on which their work is produced, and on all sides you hear the click of their wooden bobbins.
All of these authors, Carr and Lee as well as Weber, emphasise that the traveller can – and perhaps should – form a connection with the lacemaker. As we’ve seen in legends of royal patronage of lace, the social divide between rich and poor, the leisured and the sweated, could be ameliorated if the former undertook to directly support the latter. Although there were lace merchants and lace shops in all these towns (and indeed one still exists in Rapallo – Emilio Gandolfi’s), it was this direct relationship between consumer and producer that introduced a moral element to the tourist economy. Carr’s lacemaker Lucrezia, wife of a fisherman, is visited in her cottage by ‘one of the ladies from the palazzo on Santa Margherita’s beach’. And as ‘a private customer buys at double the price offered by Genoa shops’, Lucrezia brings forth her ‘handsome store of completed lace’, even though some of it is already promised to the lace merchant. ‘There are lengths of all widths, in flounce and edge, and insertion-lace; there are scarves and shawls, and parasol covers, and every kind of female adornment that is in fashion’. The Marchesa buys five metres of black silk flouncing (which, given that Lucrezia completes about five inches a day, represents a very substantial contribution to the household income).
Lee’s later experiences of Portofino echo those of Weber:
During the season for visitors, the streets are hung with lace; stalls, bearing every article of feminine adornment that can be made on a tombola [pillow], are erected on the piazza and at all the points where prospective buyers are likely to pass; so that how to get by without stopping to admire and purchase becomes a most difficult problem. The fair young lace-makers invite you with such pleasant smiles and in so sweet a voice ‘merely to look’ that it seems unmannerly to hasten away without accepting the invitation, and when you find that the price of their beautiful work is less than would satisfy the most unskilled of city toilers, you rarely resist the temptation to buy lace collars and handkerchiefs for your friends across the seas.
However, once the tourist had made her purchase, how was she supposed to get her lace back home? Lace bought direct from the producer might seem like a bargain, but in part this was because the consumer had yet to pay the duty levied on lace at the border. And this brings us to another aspect of the lace business which we’ve skirted up until now – its role in the black economy. Eminently respectable and usually law-abiding citizens, persons who in every other circumstance would expect their own economic interests to be protected by the state and its agents, had no qualms about smuggling lace. Mild law-breaking was itself an aspect of the more relaxed habits of holiday life. Another artist who spent the winter of 1913/14 in Santa Margherita reported these stories of his fellow guests:
The Russian ladies were also about to return to their country and seemed exercised in their minds as to how they could smuggle their purchases through the customs. There was no lack of suggestions from the other guests. The thinner lady was advised to wind the lace garments, and other pliable goods, in bands round her person, which, if artfully done, would, if possible, improve her figure as well as keep her warm on her journey; care, of course, to be taken not to be so stout as to excite the suspicions of the customs officials. Lady smugglers are now much handicapped by their narrow skirts; neat things in Paris shoes could formerly be negotiated beneath the ample garments of a past fashion. In the days of the bustle I heard of a clock being carried inside that aid to beauty, and it would have passed the customs unnoticed had not the ticking excited suspicion. The soles of boots were rubbed on the pavement to make believe that they had been worn, even water-colour stains were hinted at, as being easily washed out, and would help to pass some parasols.
A German described a scene he had witnessed at the frontier of his country. There were three passengers beside himself in his compartment, two ladies and a gentleman. The former expressed their fears as to the way they had hid their lace, and the latter assured them that if they folded it carefully it could all be pinned inside their hats, and that the customs officials would not look there. They did as instructed, and on arriving at the frontier an official entered the compartment to examine the hand baggage. Everyone said that they had nothing to declare, and a superficial look at the ladies’ hand-bags satisfied the officer, who after this was about to examine a portmanteau of the male passengers. But imagine the horror of the ladies when they saw their pretended friend touch his head with his finger and with a wink of the eye point to their hats. The official at once ordered the ladies to take them off, and, on discovering the lace, they had to follow him to the customs office, where they were mulcted in a fine and the lace was confiscated. After they had all safely passed the frontier, the man who had acted so strangely, to say the least of it, begged the ladies to allow him to recoup them to the amount of their fine, and as for the lace, he said, ‘You are welcome to six times what you have lost.’ Then opening his portmanteau he said, ‘Take what you want — the mean trick I played on you has enabled me to smuggle more than a thousand pounds’ worth of lace through the customs.’
Lacemakers could still be found working on their pillows under the arcades and on the beaches of Santa Margherita and Portofino in the 1930s and 1940s, as can be seen in these newsreels from Istituto Luce. Alongside the women are displays of their product, still attracting the rich and fashionable visitors to the Italian coast.
(The works by Carr, Lees, Tyndale and Florence Weber are all freely available on Internet Archive.)
 Florence G. Weber, ‘Lacemakers’, The Craftsman 4:6 (1903): 486.
 On this history see Lauren Arrington, The Poets of Rapallo: How Mussolini’s Italy Shaped British, Irish, and US Writers (Oxford, 2021)
 Handbook for Travellers in Northern Italy 4th edition (London, 1853), p. 143.
 Dudley Costello, Piedmont and Italy, from the Alps to the Tiber (London, 1861), p. 100.
 Ross Balzaretti, ‘Victorian Travellers, Apennine Landscapes and the Development of Cultural Heritage in Eastern Liguria, c. 1875-1914’, History 96:4 (2011): 436-58.
 Frederic Lees, Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (Boston, 1913), pp. 275-6.
 Alice Comyns Carr, ‘The Lace Weaver’, in North Italian Folk (London, 1878), pp. 97-103.
 Frederic Lees, Wanderings on the Italian Riviera (Boston, 1913), pp. 276-7.
 Walter Tyndale, An Artist in the Riviera (New York, 1915), pp. 65-7.
We’ve been on a bit of a lace grand tour over the last year – Catalonia, Val d’Aoste, Liguria, Idrija, Annaberg – mostly visiting museums with collections of lace and their enthusiastic curators such as the one at Arenys de Mar. One thing we’ve noticed in our wanderings is the large number of public monuments dedicated to lacemakers. We’ve encountered one before on this site, albeit only in passing, at the base of Eugène Deplechin’s monument to the songwriter Alexander Desrousseaux in Lille. Another French statue can be found outside the railway station in Issoire. There several in Italy, at least three in Portugal, and a couple in Brazil. But there seems to be a particular concentration in Catalonia where we’ve counted nine. Here’s our list, in order of the year they were erected (where known).
Looking at the dates, it would seem that the lacemaker is a fairly recent monumental addition to the urban landscape, with the majority only erected in the twenty-first century. However, in at least one case her story goes back considerably further. This is the statue in Arenys de Mar, once a significant port but now primarily a seaside town about 40 kilometres north of Barcelona. This is the only statue to which we can give a name: she is Agnès and her story helps explain the prominence of monumental lacemakers in the region.
The origins of ‘Agnès the lacemaker’ lie in a poem composed in 1885 by Manuel Ribot i Serra (1859-1925). Ribot was the librarian and archivist of Sabadell, a burgeoning industrial city close to Barcelona. He was also a poet and playwright, and a participant in the Catalan language and cultural revival of the second half of the nineteenth century, which goes under the general title ‘La Renaixença’. A key institution of the Catalan revival was the regular ‘jocs florals’ [floral games], poetry competitions akin to an eisteddfod. In July 1885 Arenys de Mar, which was fast becoming a favourite holiday resort for the Catalan middle classes, hosted some floral games in which Ribot competed. The theme for his poem ‘La Puntaire’ [the lacemaker] was suggested to him by a friend, Marià Castells i Diumeró (1834-1903), who was a lace merchant in Arenys. The Castells family business was at the forefront of the renewal of handmade lace as a luxury product in nineteenth-century Spain, and the firm’s products are well represented in the local museum’s collection of lace. Ribot’s work went on to win the ‘flor natural’ for the best love poem.
Agnès’ story, however, is not necessarily a great advert for the lace industry. She was betrothed to a sailor who, to make his fortune, sets off for Cuba (then part of the Spanish Empire) with promises of fidelity. She waits and weeps by the shore. Five years later the sailor returns from ‘America’, rich but married. His ‘American’ wife orders a christening gown from Agnès who, to support her blind mother, is obliged to accept the commission. (Although this is not tackled directly in the poem, through his marriage the sailor has also forsaken his language community, for the ‘American’ would have been a Spanish-speaker.) On the day of the baptism Agnès, worn out by poverty and heartache, dies. The poem offers a twist on the theme of the lovelorn lacemaker who makes a bridal veil for her rival which becomes her own burial shroud. Recurring lines in the poem – ‘a fent les puntes pels rics / perquè ella és pobra’ [making lace for the rich / because she is poor] – also echo sentiments that we have encountered before in the literature of lace, for instance in the play Elisa de Kantwerkster by Frans Carrein.
Ribot’s poem would have many afterlives. Set to an existing melody – ‘Els contrabandistes’ [the smugglers; the same tune is also used for the famous Catalan carol ‘El cant dels ocells’, the song of the birds] – it would become a popular as a song. But Agnès’ fame really took off nearly half a century after her initial outing, when the poem became the basis for a popular novel by Lluis Almerich i Sallarés (1882-1952), who wrote under the pseudonym ‘Clovis Eimeric’. Eimeric’s La Puntaire (the lacemaker, 1926) drew on Ribot’s storyline and even included the poem in the book. It was not only Eimeric’s greatest success as a novelist, it was also one of the most widely read books in Catalan in the inter-war period. It was immediately converted into a Catalan language stage play by numerous imitators. The best known (and occasionally revived) was La Puntaire de la costa [the lacemaker of the coast] by Tomàs Ribas i Julià (1894-1949). However, there were other versions by Ramon Campmany (1899-1992), Salvador Bonavia I Panyella (1907-59), Lluis Milla i Gacio (1865-1946) and Joaquim Montero I Delgado (1869-1942). Although they go by slightly different titles, all of these authors acknowledged their debt to Ribot (and sometimes to Eimeric). Eimeric himself, I believe, also dramatized the work. In 1928 there was even a film La Puntaire, directed by José Claramunt. Eimeric wrote a sequel, and this too (or alternative sequels) would be turned into stage plays.
It was this success that inspired the sculptor Cèsar Cabanes i Badosa (1885-1952) to produce a statue based of Agnès. Cabanes was born in Arenys and, though he then lived in the city of Terrassa near Barcelona, he retained close ties to the seaside town. He mounted an exhibition there in 1929 where he displayed a terracotta model of ‘Agnès, la puntaire’. He chose to depict the poem’s first lines:
|A la voreta del mar,
l’Agnès se’n va a treballar,
quan l’alba apunta;
i sos ulls, en plor desfet,
va mullant lo coixinet
on fa la punta.
|By the edge of the sea
Agnes goes to work
As dawn breaks;
And her eyes weep uncontrollably,
Dampening the pillow
On which she makes lace.
The figurine was clearly admired because the Town Council commissioned another sculptor, Josep Miret, to complete a version in marble, intending to erect it in a public ceremony on 9 July 1930, the festival of Arenys de Mar’s patron, Saint Zeno. However, due to a change in local government, the plan was shelved and then forgotten during the civil war and its aftermath.
It was not until 1957 that the Council returned to the project, only to discover that, in the meantime, Miret had used the marble for another statue. And so the plan languished again until 2001 when a local initiative, ‘L’Associació Amics de la Puntaire’ [the Society of Friends of the Lacemaker], decided to raise funds to translate the statue into bronze.
Agnès was finally erected on 16 March 2003, the feast of Saint Ursula, yet another patron of lacemakers. And this is where we found her, looking out to sea and waiting for her sailor lover, in October 2021.
Even at the time of her greatest success there were critics of the vogue for lovelorn lacemakers. In the magazine The actor and playwright Enric Lluelles attacked the several play versions that were then (August 1930) competing with each other in town and village theatres across the province. The lacemaker represented a downtrodden, passive version of Catalan womanhood, a martyr for love. Although he approved of bringing drama to the people, in their own language, if it offered only a sentimental and weak ideal of the people, then it would do more harm than good. It was time, he wrote, to create a new version of the working-class Catalan woman ‘with a firm, resolute and well-balanced character, and to replace these seven tearful lacemakers with lacemakers of flesh and blood, healthy and radiant, their skin tanned by the rays of the sun and the salt seas of the Mediterranean, who work at their pillows with relaxed eyes and laughter on their lips’.
While the fashion for lacemaker statues in Catalonia must owe something to the lingering impact of Ribot’s and Eimeric’s ‘Agnès’, we suspect the sculptors also intended to convey something of this ‘flesh and blood’ lacemaker, one who suffered no doubt, but who also survived, and passed on her craft to the next generation. It’s noticeable, for example, that all the other statues imagine the lacemaker at work, a more tangible contribution to Catalan society, economy and culture than the tears of Cabanes’ ‘Agnès’.
 On the Castells family see the exhibition catalogue Els Castells, Uns Randers Modernistes, Museu Arenys de Mar, 2007.
 For the full text see: https://sites.google.com/site/puntairesdelavalldecans/retrats-de-puntaires/poemes/la-puntaire
 Núria Pi I Vendrell, Bibliogafia de la novel.la sentimental publicada en Català, entre 1924 i 1938 (Barcelona, 1986), p. 83.
 This information is taken from the exhibition catalogue, Cèsar Cabanes Badosa: Retorn a casa (Museu d’Arenys de Mar, 2010).
 Enric Lluelles, ‘Set Puntaires’, Mirador : setmanari de literatura, art i política, 21 August, 1930, p. 5.
This one day symposium will by held at the Maison Française d’Oxford on Friday 7 October, from 915 to 5:00. It is organized by David Hopkin (Oxford) and Juliet Simpson (Coventry) and supported by the John Fell Fund, University of Oxford. And while not dedicated to lace per se, lace features quite a bit, hence we’ve included information about it on this site.
The imagined Flemish city was the antithesis of the teeming metropolis of modernist invention, it was a world of enclosed gardens, silent squares and still waters, where nameless figures disappeared through secret doors; a world of reflections and glimpses, in which gothic traceries, convent grills and lace veils concealed as much as they revealed. This was also an uncanny world, offering portals to the Catholic realm of miracles, the glorious Flemish medieval past, and the city of the dead. Here social realist concern for the lives of the poor combined with the spiritual yearning of the fin-de-siècle. This vision of the city inspired artists and writers, but it also influenced urban planners and social campaigners, who looked forward by looking back to craft guilds, enclosed communities and urban autonomy.
|Marnix Beyen (Antwerp): Reverberating Silence: The Carillon as a Multisensorial Symbol of Flemish/Belgian Urbanity
Juliet Simpson (Coventry): Liminal Legends: Rematerializing Another Flanders in Life and Art
|Maria Golovteeva (St Andrews): Dentelle de Bruges
David Hopkin (Oxford): A ‘Dying Art’ and the Flemish Movement: The Example of Mechelen Lace
|Dominique Bauer (KU Leuven): ‘Dès que nous exprimons quelque chose’: Time, Surface and Interiority in Belgian Fin-de-Siècle Culture
Stijn Paredis (KU Leuven): Le Secret Schumannien: Schumann, Music, and Brussels’ Symbolism
|Hans Vandevoorde (VU Brussel): Small Cities in and as Prose Poems in Flemish Dutch Literature
Claire Moran (QU Belfast): Behind the Nets. Veiled Windows and Modernist Ideologies in Fin-de-Siècle Belgian Art and Literature
In our series on lacemakers’ holidays we have yet to fully cover the ‘Broquelet’, the ‘Feast of the Bobbin’ held in Lille on and around 9 May. This date marks the ‘translation of Saint Nicholas’, that is the transfer of his relics from Myra in what is now Turkey to Bari in Italy, and it is known as ‘Summer Saint Nicholas’ to distinguish it from the saint’s other feastday on 6 December. The Broquelet, which could last a week or more, was the major holiday for the city’s working women at the end of the eighteenth century, when Lille was home to 15,000 lacemakers. Their pleasures are celebrated in a painting by François Watteau, dating from around 1800.
We’ll return to the Broquelet in a future post: today we’re just considering how Nicholas became the lacemakers’ patron saint. Nicholas is, of course, Santa Claus, and so is a patron of children generally. Children, and specifically the girls who attended Lille’s lace schools, were participants in the Broquelet – they can be seen in the foreground of Watteau’s painting, presenting a branch of hawthorn to their teacher. However, in Catholic culture in general Nicholas is more associated with boys than with girls. Across north-eastern France, and in the Low Countries, parishes organized their youth into single-sex companies dedicated to Saint Nicholas for boys, and Saint Catherine the girls. These associations were carried over into schools in the nineteenth century, which continued to mark their respective feastdays of 6 December and 25 November. And as we know Saint Catherine was a patron of lacemakers, and her feast was a lacemakers’ holiday in parts of the English Midlands and Antwerp province.
So how did Nicholas come to take on this role in the case of Lille’s lacemakers? There is almost no official documentation concerning the Broquelet, and none of the chroniclers who attended the festival offer a clear answer. By and large it was only incorporated trades – that is occupations which were represented by a guild — that held masses, paraded through the city and celebrated holidays; but lacemaking was a ‘free trade’ (as were most female-dominated occupations), and so it possessed no guild structure. One possibility, then, is that the lacemakers simply joined in, and then took over, a feast originally celebrated by one of Lille’s male guilds. Watteau’s painting offers some corroboration of this theory, because in front of the float carrying the lacemakers’ giant bobbin is a carriage on top of which sit two male workers – ‘filtiers’ [linen spinners] – carrying the flag of their confraternity which features Saint Nicholas performing one of his more famous miracles, the resurrection of three murdered children whose bodies had been left in a butcher’s brine tub.
However, there is another possible connection, and it relates to another of Saint Nicholas’s miracles. According to the most widely read hagiography of the medieval period, Jacobus de Voragine’s Golden Legend, as a young man (and not yet a cleric) Nicholas had a neighbour, a man of noble birth who had fallen into poverty. This nobleman had three daughters whom he intended to prostitute in order that he might survive from the money they earned. To avert this fate, Nicholas threw a lump of gold through the family’s window at night on three separate occasions. Each lump was sufficient to provide one of the daughters with a dowry.
In early modern Catholic Europe, the skills of lacemaking were taught in the institutions of the ‘great confinement’ of the poor, such as orphanages and workhouses, precisely because it would provide young women with a livelihood and thus save them from becoming prostitutes. The same logic was invoked well into the nineteenth century. When in 1841 the Mayor of Valenciennes appealed to Maria Amalia, Queen of the French, to support the re-establishment of a lace school in his town, he claimed that the project ‘would be of the highest moral value by teaching lacemaking to young girls whose poverty, in most cases, dooms to prostitution, the first of the vices that misery brings in its train.’
However, are there stronger connections between Saint Nicholas and lacemaking than a general desire to keep young women off the streets? In Valenciennes Museum of Fine Arts (currently closed) there is a painting that originally hung in the town’s Saint Nicholas church. It depicts Saint Nicholas in the act of throwing the gold through his neighbour’s window. Inside we see the father and his three despairing daughters, one of whom is sitting a lace pillow. The painting is by Henri de Vermay (active 1612-1642), the second artist of that name, and the last in dynasty of painters from the nearby city of Cambrai. The Vermays of Cambrai were possibly descendants of the Dutch painter Jan Cornelisz Vermeyen (c. 1504-1559).
This is not the only painting from the period that depicts the beneficiaries of Saint Nicholas’s charity as lacemakers. The Amsterdam Museum of Our Lord in the Attic has another representation of the charity of Saint Nicholas by Vermay’s better-known Antwerp contemporary Cornelis de Vos (1584-1651), in which two of the daughters can be seen working at lace pillows, while the third is busy with embroidery.
Paintings are only indirect evidence, but it seems that, in the Flemish-French borderlands, an association had become established in the seventeenth century between Saint Nicholas, his patronage of marriageable women, and lacemaking as a recourse of the poor. This was the same period in which lace schools were being established in towns like Valenciennes and, possibly, Lille. Although the history lacemaking in Lille is very obscure, it seems plausible that this same association of ideas explains why Lille’s lacemakers took Saint Nicholas to be their patron saint.
 Archives Départementales du Nord, M 581-13: Commerce et Industries: Spécialités, Dentelles, letter dated 14 September 1841.
 The only source of information on the Vermay dynasty I have been able to discover is a pamphlet by Achille Durieux, Les peintres Vermay (Cambrai: J. Renaut, 1880).
A year ago we posted a Catalan song about the Annunciation in which the archangel Gabriel appears to the Virgin Mary while she sits working in a lace-school, with her companions Susannah and Pauleta. That song was popular in the lace and sewing schools run by female teaching orders in Catalonia. The newly established active orders of nuns that were springing up all over Europe in the nineteenth century were keen on the apocryphal legends about the childhood and youth of the Virgin, and in particular the time she spent, supposedly, crafting textiles for the Temple of Jerusalem.
In medieval and early modern visual representations of the Annunciation, these legends are invoked through the presence of the basket of white linen that is often depicted at Mary’s side as she receives the Angel’s message. Artists clearly thought of Mary as an embroiderer. Did any think of her as a lacemaker?
It’s taken us a while but we have discovered one painting which features Mary with a lace pillow. It’s dated to 1603, and it’s by the Florentine artist Alessandro Allori (1535-1607). It can now be found in the Galleria dell’Accademia di Firenze. It came to the Galleria from the Medici’s villa di Castello, though it’s not clear whether the Medici family were the original patrons for this work.
Allori had painted annunciations before, and included the more traditional basket of linen to embroider (there’s one in the Galleria’s collection, from 1577-8). So the lace pillow, with its eight bobbins containing gold thread, is definitely a departure. It’s also an unusual picture because the Virgin is not facing the angel Gabriel but towards the viewer. These peculiarities have led one art historian to suggest this was not originally designed for display in a church, but for the rooms of an aristocratic lady, where it would have formed part of her private devotions.
On the symbolism of the basket of linen in portrayals of the Annunciation, see Marlène Albert-Llorca, ‘Les fils de la Vierge. Broderie et dentelle dans l’éducation des jeunes filles’, L’Homme 35:133 (1995): 99-122.
Frieda Sorber, Wim Mertens, Marguerite Coppens et al. P.LACE.S – Looking Through Flemish Lace. Tielt: Lannoo, 2021, 256 pp.
P.LACE.S – Looking Through Flemish Lace highlights the socio-economic and artistic importance of the lace that was, over centuries, created and traded in Antwerp. The book argues that, from the mid-sixteenth to the mid-eighteenth century, Antwerp played a leading role in the creation and distribution of lace. However – in contrast to other cities of the Low Countries, such as Brussels or Mechelen – Antwerp’s name was not attached to any particular type of lace. This lack of name branding is, according to the book’s authors, one of the main reasons why Antwerp has been largely neglected in publications on lace.
P.LACE.S aims to reveal how Flemish lace was prominent in fashion, interior design and religion, and that Antwerp, the largest city in the Flemish-speaking half of Belgium, played an important role in its production and commerce. The authors bring together and contextualise historical lace, paintings and archival documents from both European and American collections. In addition, this book seeks to present the history of lace in a dialogue with contemporary, often high-tech fashion creations that specifically refer to lace either in form or concept.
The dialogue between past and present is expressed on the front cover showing the 2017 Glitch dress by the Dutch fashion designer Iris van Herpen, in collaboration with architect Philip Beesley, and a detail of a band of bobbin lace dating from the first half of the eighteenth century (Ill. 1). The former is depicted visually, while the latter is displayed in relief. The interplay between the visual and the tactile evokes a textile which intrigues both the eye and the body.
The book corresponds to the exhibition P.LACE.S – Looking Through Antwerp Lace that ran between 25 September 2021 until 9 January 2022 in MoMu, the Antwerp fashion museum, as well as in four other historical locations – or ‘places’ – in the city that highlight the production, trade and consumption of lace.
The production and socio-economic aspects of lace were represented in the Maagdenhuis Museum where, at an earlier epoch, the girls’ orphanage of the city was located. The orphanage included a workshop where the girls learned sewing and lacemaking (Ill. 2).
The international trade and the commercial importance of lace was the focal point at the Plantin-Moretus Museum, the original home, workshop and outlet of the Plantin-Moretus family of master printers. One of the world’s oldest archives on the lace trade is kept there. Its holdings provide an insight in the lace and linen trade of the young daughters of Christopher Plantin (1520-1589), whose customers supplied, among others, the French court.
At the St Charles Borromeo Church and the Snijders & Rockox House the spotlight was on the consumption of lace. The Catholic Church in general was an important consumer of lace ever since the textile originated. That explains too why the St Charles Borromeo Church houses an important collection of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lace. A large part of this collection reflects local creation, enabling an overview of Antwerp lace production and its style evolutions. Another important group of lace consumers were members of the elite for whom lace contributed to the display of their higher status. Such consumers were represented in the Snijders & Rockox House, located in the former homes of the Baroque painter Frans Snijders (1579-1657) and the Antwerp mayor Nicolaas Rockox (1560-1640), the latter belonging to the economic and political elite of the city.
The book P.LACE.S embeds the stories and objects that were displayed at MoMu and the four other locations in a larger history of Flemish lace with an emphasis on Antwerp’s role in its production and trade. After the foreword and the introduction, the book’s content is structured in fourteen chapters that can be divided into four groups, linked by their content.
Five chapters provide a history of lace from its origins to today. These are 1, 6, 10, 11 and 14, and are predominantly written by Frieda Sorber, the former conservator of MoMu. In the first chapter, she explores the origins of lace. Then she delves into the early development of respectively bobbin and needle lace, before drawing attention to the tools needed for lace production. Sorber masterfully connects the many relations between lace and other textile crafts, but she demands from the reader a substantial knowledge of the most important stitches and techniques. Luckily the internet is there for those new to lace who want to follow her trajectory. Sorber’s lifelong engagement with both the study and practice of lacemaking comes to the fore in her discussion of the tools. Through tracing the origins, development and distribution of bobbins, lace pillows, designs, pins and needles across countries, classes and related handicrafts from the Middle Ages to the present, Sorber demonstrates how better and finer tools directly contributed to the evolution of lace as we know it.
Chapter 6, written by Wim Mertens, one of the exhibition curators, concentrates on international lace flows through an examination of the Antwerp entrepreneur Jan Michiel Melijn’s business relations with England in the late seventeenth century. This case study confirms how international trade, including that of lace, was based on mutual trust. The study of Melijn’s correspondence shows how he used his network to set up a lace trade in 1681 and subsequently gained the confidence of local suppliers and new overseas business contacts. He continued the lace trade by providing what the client wished against good prices until war in the Low Countries in the last decade of the century damaged the economy and caused prosperity to wane.
Chapter 10, again by Frieda Sorber, describes how Antwerp missed the boat when the development of part lace in Brussels and Brabant took off from the mid-seventeenth century. Antwerp did not follow this development as local lacemakers and producers probably preferred the known techniques and felt no economic need to innovate. However, Sorber argues in chapter 11 that Antwerp did continue its production and trade by gradually tapping into new markets. After 1750, the city focused on the Dutch niche market and probably on those in parts of Denmark and Germany. But, as she rightly admits, more research is needed to substantiate her hypothesis that there was a lively trade in Flemish lace towards the United Provinces, while the extent of exports to the Danish and German markets remains unknown.
Romy Cockx, one of the exhibition’s curators, also authors Chapter 14, the last historical chapter, in which she seeks to illustrate the parallels between historical lace and contemporary fashion that refer to lace in form and concept. By illuminating visual parallels between needle and bobbin lace as new textile techniques in the sixteenth century and computer-controlled production processes such as laser cutting and 3D printing in the early-twenty-first century, the chapter convincingly demonstrates how lace still inspires today (Ill. 3).
Besides the chronological history of lace production and trade, with their emphasis on Antwerp, four chapters, all written by Wim Mertens, concentrate on specific clothing and household items in lace. Chapter 2 focuses on shirts, albs and rochets, chapter 5 on collars and cravats, chapter 7 on headwear and coiffures and chapter 9 on linen for the lying-in room. In all these chapters, Mertens explores the emergence, evolution, and sometimes the disappearance of such garments. In addition, he pays attention to the way these items were kept and used by persons of different ages, classes and genders (Ill. 4).
Chapter 3 centres on the Brussels and Geneva archdukes’ coverlets, created in the first quarter of the seventeenth century for the archdukes Albrecht and Isabella, rulers of the Spanish Netherlands. Ria Cooreman, responsible for the textile collection at the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, executes an iconographical study of the Brussels coverlet (Ill. 5). By connecting the various scenes depicted in lace with contemporary engravings, she is able to propose a more precise date for its creation. Nora Andries follows up with a technical study of how the coverlet was made. Frieda Sorber ends the chapter with some afterthoughts on both coverlets.
Chapter 3 sets the tone for the remaining chapters which highlight the diverse methods used to investigate lace. In chapter 4, Marguerite Coppens, former curator of the lace collection in the Royal Museums of Art and History in Brussels, attempts to reconstruct Antwerp’s lace industry between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries by consulting archives, written sources and publications. This approach permits her to discover the people involved in Antwerp’s lace manufacture and distribution, while she also shows how the local lace production met the needs of a global market.
In chapter 8, Ina Vanden Berghe describes the technical aspects of materials used in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century lace. Her results are based on fibre analysis executed on samples pieces of lace from MoMu. This analysis demonstrates, among other things, that cotton was already used in Flemish lace in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, much earlier than hitherto thought.
Chapter 12, written by Frieda Sorber, looks at lace in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century doll’s houses as a way to investigate the use of lace in clothing and interiors. The short chapter zooms briefly in on the Puppenstadt, a miniature town called ‘Mon Plaisir’ assembled by Auguste Dorothea von Schwarzburg-Arnstadt, Princess of Schwarzburg-Sondershausen (1666-1751), but it might have benefitted from a comparison with the Dutch doll’s houses (Ill. 6).
In chapter 13, Wim Mertens provides an overview of the style evolutions in Flemish lace from the late sixteenth- to the mid-eighteenth centuries and concentrates on the floral motif. The evolvement of the motif is embedded into a wider context, considering the production, trade and changes in taste.
Although the individual authors often only apply a singular methodology, the book in its entirety displays a wide range of both traditional and new research methods that push forward our knowledge and understanding of the history of Flemish lace. Their collective efforts transcend the announced methodology of simply bringing together and contextualising historical lace, paintings and archival documents from both European and American collections.
The book is richly illustrated with high-quality photographs of historical lace – regularly accompanied by close-ups – as well as works of art that include lace, archival documents and contemporary fashion creations. Additionally, several illustrations of the latter are depicted throughout the book. They ought to stimulate the dialogue between historical lace and contemporary fashion items with references to lace. Yet to my mind this approach doesn’t quite work as hoped, as the chapters seldom draw direct parallels between laces from the past and high-end fashion items of today, leaving the reader to carry this dialogue mostly on her own.
In conclusion, P.LACE.S – Looking Through Flemish Lace is a rich addition to the history of Flemish lace, filling a lacuna through its focus on the role of Antwerp in the lace production and trade. Its methodology proves how a multidisciplinary approach is beneficial to our knowledge and understanding of this history. At the same time, the book identifies several sites for further investigation, opening up a future for exciting discoveries.
Dr Wendy Wiertz is a senior research fellow at the University of Huddersfield. In her current project, supported by a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship, she focuses on the humanitarian organisations who saved the renowned Belgian lace industry in the First World War, while simultaneously ensuring the wartime employment of Belgian lacemakers in German-occupied Belgium and among Belgian refugees in Holland, France and the UK. The produced lace became known as war lace, as its unique iconography referred directly to the conflict.
Most of the literature we’ve featured on this site has offered a critique of the conditions in which lacemakers’ worked, their poverty and the dangers – such as sexual predation – to which they were exposed. The ‘real’ did not match the ‘ideal’, to take the terms used by Charlotte Yonge in The Clever Woman of the Family. However, another comparison writers invoked was that between domestic labour on the one hand, and the factory on the other. In order to understand why so many people invested so much in preserving the domestic lace industry, we need to know not only what they were for but also what they were against. James Francis Hollings (1806-1862) makes this contrast between the ideal of domestic labour and the factory Moloch explicit in his poem ‘The Lace Maker’, published in the Christian journal The Amulet in 1835, and which is reproduced below.
Hollings subverts the assumption that one gets more conservative with age. In his twenties, when he wrote this poem, he was a Tory, committed to the landed interest. In the poem, the squire in his hall protects the simple rustics around him, while they labour cheerfully in his fields without desire for any change in their situation. There is no social antagonism in this fantasy, nor ambition, nor indulgence: each rank supplies the other with all its wants and needs. Hollings makes the lacemaker his symbol for this idealized past: her work hardly counts as labour because it is so much part of the natural order. Her mother keeps the young lace maker from harm, while the lord of the manor assures the health and wellbeing of the community at large. Her domestic manufacture is accompanied by song, by conversation, by gossip, and thus the day (which is like all other days) passes happily.
But all this was before the spinning mill: now the young woman is enclosed in the factory, without access to fresh air and sunlight. But the threat is as much to her moral as her physical health, or rather the two go together. The promiscuity of the factory encourages vice, crime even, leading her onto early death. The suffering of factory girls is compared directly to that of slaves in the new world: chattel slavery had been abolished in the British Empire the previous year but, as Hollings clearly knew, European critics were unimpressed by this act of emancipation when so many Britons were shackled to a new form of captivity. The poem ends with an appeal to the leisured classes to liberate the imprisoned factory maid.
Whether Hollings remained such an enthusiast for bobbin lace, and lacemakers I don’t know, but his political views became more radical as he grew older. He moved to Leicester in 1837 as a schoolteacher, and at first involved himself in historical, archaeological and literary activities. But in 1849 he married Sarah Biggs, from a leading hosiery family which was noted for its Chartist politics. Her brothers John and William Biggs were, at various times, councillors, lord mayors of Leicester, and MPs in the House of Commons (John for Leicester, William for the Isle of Wight). They campaigned for compulsory state education and banning child labour in factories, among other things. Under the influence of his wife and brothers-in-law, Hollings embraced radical politics, as well as a new career as editor of the Leicestershire Mercury.
When this poem appeared in 1835, it was accompanied by an engraving of a painting by James Inskipp – ‘A Girl Making Lace’ – which was in the Lansdowne collection in Bowood House. It illustrates perfectly Hollings’ moral, with the young woman making lace in her cottage home while her mother spins by the fire. This is precisely the domestic idyll that Hollings was trying to invoke, and revive.
The Lace Maker, by James Francis Hollings, The Amulet 10 (1835), pp. 141-4.
THERE was a time — although departed long,
It lives but on the page of ancient song
When staid simplicity, and guileless mirth,
Dwelt unmolested on our peaceful earth.
As yet to life’s more sheltered walks unknown,
Ambition strove in distant courts alone;
And feverish luxury held remote its state;
And pomp to few unbarred its blazoned gate.
In ancient halls, his fitting place of rest,
Dwelt hoar Fidelity, an honoured guest;
And gentle Courtesy, with winning power;
And Humour, Proteus of the cheerful hour.
No emulative pride, with vain display,
Forestalled to-morrow’s gifts to sate to-day;
Yet rank to each a welcome could afford,
And sweet contentment graced the liberal board.
Then stood the mansion, as for centuries past,
Its walls had felt the sunbeam and the blast,
With circling groves, and lawn, for pleasaunce made,
And shielded portal casting far its shade:
Home of one race; nor destined to obey
From year to year a new possessor’s sway:
Nor far remote, as scattered in repose,
The modest hamlet’s quiet roofs arose,
Swart toil’s abodes, and such as to invite
Meek peace by day, and dreamless rest by night.
How lightly then, while cares and wants were few,
The hours of industry unheeded flew!
When mists yet wreathed the path of morning grey,
Abroad the sturdy peasant took his way;
Yet left not, sheltered in his walls behind,
The listless hand or uncontriving mind.
Soon as the murmuring bee its toils begun,
And dew-drops glistened in the mounting sun
The wheels’ low sound amidst the quiet shade
Announced the matron at her busy trade;
While, early trained to labour, at her side ,
Her graceful task the cottage maiden plied
Well-skilled to weave, with studded pillow set,
In meshes intricate, the snow-white net;
And, o’er its verge, as if disporting, spread,
To guide in varying forms, the filmy thread.
Thus stole the day unweariedly along,
From silence rescued by the voice of song,
Or converse, staid and simple, as beseems
The even tenour of the rustic’s themes
Tales of departed strife, or festal gay,
The pomp of annual wake or bridal day,
Of slighted presage, ominous and true,
Or spectre, seen beside the churchyard yew;
How in past times of dark distrust and fear,
Tempests and clouds had marred the smiling year,
And mildew seared the crops with midnight stroke,
Or fiery levin cleft the forest oak;
Whose wheat looked fairest from the upland glade;
Who ruled in vestries; who the market swayed;
And whose the voice which, on the day of rest,
The choir in anthems old acknowledged best.
Few are those scenes of cheerful labour now.
With downcast look and melancholy brow,
In factories pent, where dim the sunlight steals
O’er shifting frames, and strife of maddened wheels;
From morn’s pale glance till glimmering day declines,
The graceful form of childhood droops and pines,
Toil’s sickly thrall! and, from its hapless birth,
Barred from that wealth ordained for all on earth.
Unfelt the breathings of the wind which brings
Joy in its voice and freshness on its wings;
Unseen those hues of splendour which adorn
The glowing eve, or pageantry of morn;
Unmarked each rolling season’s course, or known
By different grades of bitterness alone;
But known too well the taint, which inly spread,
Pollutes life’s waters at their fountain-head;
Temptation’s wiles, and crime’s soon-quickened seed,
In whispered counsel, or in witnessed deed;
Affection’s blight; blind error’s stubborn will;
Want, first, nor least, prolific source of ill;
And, last, that wan disease, which day by day
Distorts and wastes, but far too stern to slay;
Despair’s vain wish of quick release denies,
And links with pain each moment as it flies.
Oh, ye! who, nursed in golden hours, possess
The power, but bounded by the will, to bless;
Who know, by consciousness long felt, how dear
The voice of childhood to a parent’s ear;
Say, in a land unknown to slavery’s tread,
Why weeps the infant at a fate more dread?
Why, while on shores remote deliverance stands,
And the riven fetter falls from Afric’s hands,
Domestic bondage? and, than bondage worse,
Life’s dawn exposed to sin’s contagious curse?
Why, in that atmosphere of guilt and shame,
Does virgin innocence forget its name?
Why, from the sense of harsh oppression wrung,
Dwells execration on the lisping tongue?
And why, where busy commerce holds her reign,
Does fancy view a Syrian Moloch’s fane?
Reply; and, when to truth’s keen quest denied,
Such evil lurks no more our hearths beside,
Then shall the care whose exercise secures
Another’s seed, a blessing bring on yours;
Then may our prayers, indeed, at Mercy’s throne,
For helpless orphancy and youth made known
Each peaceful Sabbath to the approving skies,
Mixed with no guilt of mockery arise;
And foreign calumny confuted flee;
And Britain vaunt, in truth, her name — THE FREE!
On James Francis Hollings see the following websites:
On the Biggs’ family and its radical politics see
R.H. Evans, ‘The Biggs Family of Leicester’, Transactions of the Leicestershire Archaeological and Historical Society 48 (1972-3): 29-38.
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.
We’ve talked on this site about several lace legends, the legend of Queen Catherine, the legend of Argentan lace, the legend of Serena of Bruges… David’s article ‘Legends of Lace: Commerce and Ideology in Narratives of Women’s Domestic Craft Production’, which covers these and other lace legends (including the ‘miracle of the bobbins’ depicted above) has just been published in the folklore journal Fabula. The article appears to be on open access at the moment so if people are interested they can read it and download it for themselves. The abstract for the article is reproduced below.
Although a relatively recent invention (c. 1500), many legends have accumulated around the origins of lace, more than have been recorded for other crafts. Almost every region involved in pillow or needle lace had its own origin story: I will concentrate on those circulating in Italy, Catalonia, France, Belgium and England. Lacemaking was a poorly paid, dispersed and overwhelmingly female occupation, but none the less it had a strong craft tradition, including the celebration of particular saints’ feastdays. The legends drew on elements of this work culture, and especially the strong connections to royal courts and the Catholic Church, but they did not originate among lacemakers themselves. Rather they were authored by persons – lace merchants and other patrons – who in the nineteenth century took on the task of defending homemade lace in its drawn-out conflict with machine-made alternatives. Legends first circulated in print, in lace histories, newspapers and magazines, before transferring to other media such as the stage, historical pageants, even the visual arts. More recently they have continued to propagate on the web. While not originally oral naratives, they behave much like legends in oral storytelling environments: they are usually unsourced; they accumulate and shed motifs; they are adapted to new circumstances and audiences. They were told with the intention of creating a special status for handmade lace, and to mobilize protectors and consumers.
Keywords: Lace, legends, craft, patronage, gender, Bruges, Le Puy, Argentan, Saint Catherine
Lacemaking saints? There are some but – given the close ties between lacemaking, female religious orders and the Catholic Church – perhaps not as many as one might have expected.
A lacemaker who was (and is) considered saintly, indeed was beatified by Pope John-Paul II in 1996, is the blessed Catherine Jarrige, known in her lifetime and after her death as Catinon-Menette. Catinon is a diminutive of Catherine in the Oc dialect of the Auvergne, while menette is a popular term for a devout woman, or specifically a sister in one of the numerous tertiary orders found in the region. The word may derive from ‘moine’ [monk] from which one gets ‘moinette’, little or female monk, and thus ‘menette’. Menettes were akin to the ‘béates’ of the Velay and the ‘beguines’ of Flanders: while they took vows, they were not enclosed but lived in the world, practicing their vocation among the laity. Tertiary orders of this kind were involved in making lace and teaching lacemaking in many regions.
Most of our information about Catherine Jarrige comes from a biography written by abbé Jean-Baptiste Serres who, as a boy, witnessed her funeral and in later life interviewed many people who had known her. She was born in 1754 into a poor peasant family in Doumis, in the highlands around the gorges of the Dordogne. Her education was minimal: she was hired out to other farms as a shepherdess from the age of nine (she told some stories about the tricks that children played while supposedly guarding their animals). When and how she learnt lacemaking we don’t know, but according to Serres, the occupation fitted with her plans for a pious life. We do know that she was already established as a lacemaker in the town of Mauriac in 1774. Lacemaking was a major industry in the region in the eighteenth century when, according to a local doctor, ‘this trade was the unique subsistence for the daughters of the labouring classes in Aurillac, Saint-Flour, Mauriac, Murât, and several of the country parishes’. While the industry declined with the French Revolution, and was in a parlous state at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the prefect of the Department of the Cantal was able to report that there were still 1000 lacemakers in Aurillac, 800 in Murat, 400 in Saint-Flour and 300 in Mauriac. However, as was the case of nearby Tulle, the industry did not long survive the dislocations of the period, and by the mid nineteenth century it had disappeared completely.
In Mauriac, where she would spend the rest of her life sharing a home with her sister, Catherine joined the tertiary order of Saint Dominic. From then on, her life seems to have been entirely dedicated to feeding the poor, watching over the sick, bringing comfort to prisoners, and preparing the dead for burial. Given her total commitment to these tasks, and given her complete abnegation (when people gave her food or clothing for herself, she handed it straight on to some other unfortunate), it seems likely that that lacemaking did not occupy a huge part of her life. Serres barely mentions it. None the less, in judicial documents of the revolutionary period, she is referred to as a lacemaker.
The Revolution was the epic of Catherine’s life: along with other tertiaries such as Françoise Maury, also a lacemaker, she organized a veritable resistance network. The Revolutionary authorities (the ‘patriots’ in the language of the time) persecuted the Catholic Church before outlawing it completely. From 1792 priests and other religious who refused to swear an oath to uphold the new constitution faced deportation. From March 1793 non-juring priests found on the territory of France could be executed. Some fled abroad, but others took to the woods and mountains, or found shelter with supporters, and continued to hold mass, give confession, baptize and marry the faithful. If they were caught they might imprisoned, or transported to French Guyana, or guillotined. Catherine carried messages to priests in hiding, she brought them food or warnings of patrols and roundups. As priests were in danger of their life if caught with religious material, she carried sacred vessels for them to covert religious ceremonies held in barns, private rooms and sometimes in the open air. These, along with religious writings, she concealed in leather (later metal) containers under her skirts. She hid two priests in Mauriac for eighteen months, bringing them babies to baptize, alerting them to the dying who required last unction, serving as witness at clandestine weddings and godmother at christenings. When priests or nuns were arrested she visited them in prison, and when one, abbé Filhol, was led to execution she accompanied him on his way to the scaffold.
Both her convictions and her actions seem to have been common knowledge in region. She was challenged by gendarmes and national guardsmen on dozens of occasions, questioned and even brought to court several times, but she came through the maelstrom relatively unscathed. For example, on the night of 12 Thermidor Year 2 of the Republic (30 July 1794) she went to warn some priests of an impending search. On her return in the early hours of the following day, she was arrested by National Guardsmen ‘soaked the skin and in a state that showed she had made a long journey’. Arrested and brought before the Committee of Surveillance, she was accused, alongside Françoise Maury, of being ‘fanatics without limits, plotters with refractory priests, declared enemies of the Revolution, of liberty, of equality and of the Republic, and who in contempt of all laws, hide and conceal refractory priests, they provide them with means to live, and they use every means to protect them from the penalties that the law has pronounced against them.’ On this occasion, news of the fall of Robespierre (on 27 July), may have helped save the two menettes.
Cyrielle Forses, from whose masters thesis we have borrowed this quotation, argues that misogyny prevented the authorities from taking Jarrige seriously: in the new Revolutionary world only men’s words and actions had weight, women were excluded from the rights of citizenship. Yet elsewhere in France this did not prevent the authorities from imprisoning and executing women for far less serious crimes than Jarrige’s. Serres offers at least two other explanations. In his general characterisation of the menette, he alternates between portraying her as a ‘holy fool’, ‘she was the poorest and most ignorant, she stumbled as she read, she couldn’t even make the signs of the alphabet’ – and a cunning, artful peasant, constantly able to pull the wool over the patriots’ eyes, not least by playing the idiot. One time she was stopped carrying a pyx (a container for wafers or, as the authorities put it, ‘a box in which Papists keep their God’). Asked what it was she replied, ‘for tobacco’. In Auvergne as elsewhere, lacemakers were famous snuff users and so the response seemed satisfactory. (She used the same skills – audacity, verbal wit, and a certain slyness – to cajole the rich citizens of Mauriac into giving to the poor.) The other reason was that at least some self-declared ‘Patriots’ retained sympathies for her cause, including at least one gendarme brigadier who were able to pass messages to Jarrige. Serres notes that several revolutionaries none the less chose to be married by a Catholic priest, and have their children baptised.
The period of persecution lasted, with some periods of détente, nearly ten years, and Jarrige’s activities through this whole period read like a spy novel with disguises, secret signs, camouflaged hideouts, and many near misses. All of which seems quite a long way from making lace, except that when priests were on the move they sometimes disguised themselves as lace dealers; an ideal deception because of course such dealers had every reason to move about the countryside, meeting their dispersed workforce, and carrying their produce to market.
Jarrige’s reputation for saintliness was well established in Mauriac long before her death in 1836. According to contemporary accounts, the entire townsfolk, rich and poor, turned out for her funeral, and people literally fought to obtain a piece of her clothing as a relic. Her memory is still honoured in the region today, as witnessed by this statue which we saw, last week, in the Church of Our Lady of the Snows in Aurillac.
 Abbé J.-B. Serres, La Catinon-Menette (Clermont-Ferrand: Mont-Louis, 1864). Available online at www.gallica.fr.
 Jean Joseph de Brieude, Topographie médicale de la Haute-Auvergne (Aurillac: Picut, 1821; first published 1782/3), p. 116.
 Pierre Wirth, ‘La “fièvre statistique” et les premières enquêtes économiques dans le Cantal (suite)’, Revue de la Haute-Auvergne 37 (1961), p. 271-2.
 Cyrielle Forses, Des paroles et des actes : les Résistances à la Révolution et à l’Empire dans le Cantal (1791-1815) (Mémoire de maîtrise, Université de Toulouse, 2017), p. 62. Available online at http://dante.univ-tlse2.fr/3434/. In an appendix, Forses includes other documents relating to this case.
At a conference on ‘Objects of Poverty’ recently we heard an excellent talk by Laura Burnett, doctoral student at the University of Exeter, on mid seventeenth-century trade tokens. We were inspired to write a piece on the representation of lace and lacemakers on these tokens, but we find our colleagues at LaceNews have beaten us to it, with two detailed surveys of the use of tokens in the lace trade.
None the less, we can’t let the topic drop completely.
This halfpenny token was issued by the Overseers of the Poor for the town of Saint Neots (then in Huntingdonshire, now in Cambridgeshire), on the edge of the East Midlands lace districts. It is not dated, but according to Laura Burnett it is probably a late example of this kind of coinage, from the 1660s or early 1670s. Such tokens came into widespread use in the aftermath of the English Civil War and during the reign of Charles II, due to a shortage of small denomination coins. This lack particularly affected the poor who were most likely to receive and to spend small amounts of money, and who were also the least able to obtain credit. Both private suppliers – such as bakers, grocers and publicans – and municipal authorities such as Poor Law overseers – stepped in to overcome this supply side problem. Tokens could be used locally as an alternative to coins.
Tokens were mostly manufactured in London by craftsmen associated with the Mint. However, the range of images they carry – coats of arms, landmarks, other occupations – shows that the clients must have supplied both the text and the image to be used to make the stamp. This St. Neots’ token appears to show two lacemakers working on a pillow, similar to pillows used in the East Midlands region until the twentieth century. It is interesting, then, that even in the seventeenth century, lacemaking was an occupation associated with poverty.
So here’s our question, is this the earliest visual representation of an English lacemaker? If you know of any representation that predates this token, please do let us know.
If you happen to be in reach of Brioude, France, this coming weekend 18-19 September, we can recommend a visit to the Hôtel de la Dentelle where Éric Desgrugillers will be giving a talk and concert, on both the Saturday and Sunday at 2.30pm, about the songs sung by lacemakers in the Haute-Loire. This event is part of the annual French festival ‘les journées du patrimoine’. In particular Éric will examine the repertoire of one lacemaker, Virginie Granouillet, known as ‘La Baracande’. Virginie was born in 1878 in Mans, a hamlet adjacent to the village of Roche-en-Régnier which perches high above the Loire valley. Unable to read or write, she worked as a lacemaker from her childhood into her eighties. Jean Dumas, a professor of Italian at Clermont-Ferrand University, recorded 178 songs from Virginie between 1958 and 1961, the year before her death. (Jean came from Vorey, another lacemaking village on the Loire.) Virginie probably knew many more – as Jean put to one side her religious songs and songs in the local dialect of Occitan.
If, like us, you’re unable to get to Brioude this weekend, you can still hear 146 of Virginie’s songs, as well as some of her conversations with Jean, as they are available on the Base inter-régionale ‘Patrimoine oral‘. (In theory they are also accessible on the website ‘Portail du patrimoine oral‘, but in our experience this is less reliable.) Jean’s many other recordings of singing lacemakers, such as Virginie’s neighbour Marie Soulier, are available on the same website. Éric has also written a book – Des chansons tissées aux fuseaux [songs woven with bobbins] – which includes a CD of Virginie’s songs.
Saint Anne’s day falls on 26 July. As we know, lace has many patron saints but, in West Flanders, Saint Anne was particularly fêted. According to the apocryphal gospels Anne was the mother of Mary. It was she who dedicated Mary to the service of the Temple where the future Mother of God wove the veil which, as we have seen, is a textile of some importance in the legendary history of lace. In Catholic iconography Anne is usually depicted teaching Mary to read the scriptures, but sometimes she is shown training her daughter in needlework, weaving and embroidery; Mary was exercising these domestic skills at the very moment she was visited by the angel Gabriel, hence the basket of linen beside her in depictions of the Annunciation. Anne was, therefore, a suitable patron for seamstresses and everyone involved in the needle trades, whose skills and heritage were passed on from mother to daughter. Flemish lacemakers were more likely to be trained in lace schools than at home, but these too provided a female-led pedagogical environment. In Bruges, Poperinge and Bailleul, lace schools celebrated Saint Anne’s Day.
We know of this tradition indirectly, from the attempts to record lacemakers’ songs. The first person to draw attention to the lacemakers’ musical cult of Saint Anne was the philologist Jan-Frans Willems (1793-1846), known as ‘the Father of the Flemish Movement’. Willems sought to defend the imperilled position of Dutch within the new Belgian state by demonstrating that it too was a literary language with a noble history, but he also emphasised the moral qualities of one’s ‘mother-tongue’. Knowledge and traditions – culture in other words – were passed on from mother to her nursing child. One of the primary vehicles for both literary and popular traditions were songs. Songs had taken on a huge significance as expressions of national thought and feeling in the romantic period. Willems’ final – indeed posthumous – publication was Oude Vlaemsche Liederen ten deele met de melodieën (Old Flemish Songs, some with melodies), which was completed in 1848 by his friend Ferdinand Snellaert (1809-1872). At the very end of this volume Snellaert included two lacemakers’ songs in honour of Saint Anne.
|‘t Is van dage Sint Anna-dag,
Wy kijken al near den klaren dag,
En wy kleên ons metter spoed,
Om te gaen ter kerke toe.
Als de misse wierd gedaen
Wy zijn al blijde van deure te gaen.
Josephus is gekomen al hier
Met zijnen wagen en zijn bastier:
|Today is Saint Anna’s day,
We look out for sunrise,
And we dress ourselves with haste,
To go to church.
As soon as the mass is over
We are glad to get outside.
Josephus is already there
With his wagon and its cover:
Koeken in manden,
Dragen wy meê.
Cakes in baskets,
We’ll take with us.
|Die willen met onzen wagen meêgaen
Moeten ‘t geheel jaer hen mestdag doen;
En die ‘t niet en hebben gedaen,
Moeten ‘t huis blijven en niet meêgaen.
|Those that want to go in our wagon
Must have completed their daily tasks
through the whole year;
And those who haven’t,
Must stay at home and not come along.
|Sint Anna-dag is deure,
‘k Ben mijn geldetje kwijt;
Nu zit ik hier en treure
Met kleinen appetijt.
‘K En heb geen zin van werken,
Het werken doet my pijn;
‘k Wilde dat ‘t heele dagen
Sint Anna mogte zijn.
|Saint Anna’s Day is done
I’ve spent all my money;
Now I sit here and lament
With little appetite.
I’m not in the mood for work,
Work makes me miserable;
I wish that every day
Could be Saint Anna’s.
|De schoolvrouw komt te vragen :
Wel duiv’l hebt gy geen zin ?
Een perkment in acht dagen
Is dat geen schoon gewin?
Mijn kussen aen de galge,
Mijn boutjes aen ‘t perlorin.
‘k Wilde dat ‘t heele dagen
Sint Anna mogte zijn.
|The school mistress comes and asks:
Hell’s bells, you’re not in the mood?
A pattern in eight days
Is that not a decent wage?
My cushion to the gallows,
My bobbins to the pillory.
I wish that every day
Could be Saint Anna’s.
These two songs had been sent to Willems in October 1841 by Edmond de Coussemaker, a lawyer, musician and a fellow enthusiast for all things medieval, who wrote to him from the Flemish-speaking corner of France known as the Westhoek. Although then living in Douai, Coussemaker had collected the Saint-Anne songs from the lace schools of his native Bailleul (or Belle to give the town its Flemish name). In 1852, Coussemaker was moved to start collecting songs again, prompted by the new French government’s sudden enthusiasm for folk music, and its simultaneous desire to eradicate regional languages such as Flemish, which was banned from French schools in January 1853. Shortly afterwards Coussemaker would help found, and then lead, the Comité flamand de France (The Flemish Committee of France) whose motto was Moedertael en Vaderland (Mother-tongue and Fatherland). Coussemaker was not a Flemish nationalist, but he wanted to celebrate the Flemish contribution to French history and culture, and to demonstrate that Flemings too had a literature and a language worth preserving. His most important contribution in this undertaking was his 1856 volume of Chants populaires des Flamands de France (Folksongs of French Flanders). This contains a whole section dedicated to ‘Sinte-Anna-liedjes’, including both the two given above and five more, together with a short description of the festivities arranged in the lace schools that day.
According to Coussemaker, Saint Anne’s Day was,
for the young women who attend the lace schools, just as it was for women of every age who shared this occupation, a feast that was celebrated with every sign of joy. It was a veritable holiday in which the popular muse takes a large part. The evening before Saint Anne’s Day, the schools and workrooms are decorated with flowers and garlands. Early the next morning, all the young women, dressed in their best clothes, come to wish a happy holiday to their lace mistress; then they take themselves to the church, singing all the while. After having heard the mass in honour of their holy patron, they return to the school where a breakfast of cakes is served. The meal over, they get ready for a trip by wagon or coach to a nearby town or village. Sometimes the pleasure-trip goes as far as Dunkirk. Every July one sees, in the streets of Dunkirk or at the seaside, groups of young women from Bailleul, who are recognizeable from the equal simplicity of their dress and their manners. If the weather proves inclement, they pass the day at the school, dancing and singing.
Some of the songs associated with this holiday directly honour Saint Anne, but most concentrate on the associated festivities. From these songs we learn that the lacemakers got up early, drank coffee, went two by two from the laceschool to the church to offer candles to their patron. When in the country they played ‘tir du roy’ (a verticle archery game) and danced with the villagers. But the songs also acknowledge the fleeting nature of lacemakers’ pleasures.
|Jonge dochter, en wilt niet treuren,
‘t Is Sint’ Anna die komt aen;
En ‘t zal nog wel eens gebeuren,
En den dag die zal vergaen.
Laet ons dansen, laet ons springen,
Laet ons maken groot plaisier.
En dat met contentement,
Zoo een leven, zoo een eind’.
|Young woman, don’t be sad,
Saint Anna’s Day is coming.
She’ll soon be here
And then the day will be gone.
Let us dance, let us jump,
Let us enjoy ourselves
As much as we can;
Such a life, such an end.
|En Sint’ Anna die gaet deure,
Zy ga naer een ander land:
Eu wy zitten hier en treuren
Met ons geldjen heel van kant.
En wy zitten in de kamer
Met ons kussen op de knien.
Is dat niet een groot verdriet?
Geerne werken en doen ik niet.
|Saint Anne has departed;
She’s gone to another country.
We sit here and lament
All our money is gone.
Here we sit in the workroom
With our cushions on our knees.
Isn’t it a great pity?
I don’t want to work anymore.
Despite Coussemaker’s reference to the ‘simplicity’ of Saint Anne’s celebrations, there is evidence that things could get out of hand. In 1858, when Bailleul contained ten or more lace schools and almost the entire female population of the town was engaged in lacemaking, the mayor complained about disorders in the street and stipulated that from then on
dances and public merrymaking in the street cannot take place except on the days specially reserved for the celebration of this holiday, and should only include women and children, and no men. These entertainments should not begin before 7 in the morning, nor continue after 8:30 at night.
Such official restrictions may have restrained the celebrations, but a more important factor was the decline of domestic lacemaking; by the first decade of the twentieth century there was only one lace school still functioning, which had just 30 apprentices. Yet they continued to honour Saint Anne’s day. The girls who attended the school run by Euphrasie Roelandt went to mass on that day, and then returned to the school for cakes and hot chocolate. Then the teacher was crowned by her pupils: an enormous floral crown was slowly lowered onto her head while they sang a hymn to ‘Moeder Anna’ [a song present in Coussemaker’s collection]. The identification between the mother of the mother of God and the educator could not be more obvious. Madame Roelandt rewarded each pupil with a five-centime piece. In the afternoon the party walked up to a local beauty spot, the Mont Noir, to hold a picnic. (Mont Noir, or Zwarteberg, was the family demesne of the novelist Marguerite Yourcenar, who has something to say about lacemakers in her memoirs.) In previous years the girls from the lace-schools had also honoured the lace merchants on this day, by dancing round-dances outside their houses (probably in hope of a financial reward).
Sometimes lacemakers from Bailleul and the surrounding villages met up with their fellows from Poperinge, a few miles away over the border in Belgium. Again, our knowledge of events there largely depends on folksong collectors. We have already consulted Albert Blyau’s collection of songs for information on Kleinsacramentsdag, the Ypres lacemakers’ holiday, but he also attended the lace school run by ‘zoete Mène’ (Philomène Delporte, b. 1845) in the Babbelaarstraat in nearby Poperinge, where they celebrated Saint Anne’s instead. Blyau’s ‘Sint-Annaliedjes’ have relatively little to say about lacemakers’ religious life, but rather concentrate on the fun they intend to have. The repertoire contains a large number of soldiers’ songs because, for working women mired in poverty and domestic responsibilities, the soldier’s life represented an ideal of minimum labour with maximum personal autonomy. In popular culture generally soldiers were compounded with the nobility as a leisured, feckless class, which is what lacemakers aspired to be on their holiday. Some songs also poked fun at ‘kwezels’, a nickname for ostentatiously devout older women, precisely the kind of person who might run a lace-school. In some ways Saint Anne’s celebrations were, like Saint Gregory’s Day in Geraardsbergen or Our-Lady-of-the-Snows in Turnhout, directed at the lace mistresses who might receive floral tributes or other acknowledgements of gratitude from their pupils, but these songs suggest an undertow of resentment.
In Poperinge the festivities lasted two days: the first consisted of an outing to a nearby park but the highlight was the second day, when they went to the seaside. The programme is laid out in one of their songs.
|Courage, kinders al te saam,
En Sint-Anna die komt aan !
Wij zullen vroolijk spelen,
En wat dan!
‘t En zal ons niet vervelen :
En wat dink je daarvan ?
|Come on children all together,
And Saint Anna is coming!
We will play merrily
And we won’t be bored:
And what do you think of that?
|Onze sneuklaar is verkocht
En ons geld is thuis gebrocht.
Wij zullen taarten bakken,…
Van peren en van appels :…
|Our snacks have been bought
And we’ve brought our money home.
We will bake tarts,
From pears and apples.
|Alles is zeer wel bereid
Tegen dezen blijden tijd.
De koeken en de hespe, …
‘t Is alles van het beste : …
|Everything is very well prepared
For this happy time.
The cakes and the ham,
It’s all the best quality
|Eer wij van den tafel gaan,
Wij zijn van alles wel voldaan,
Van éten en van drink en,…
Van tappen en van schinken, …
|Before we leave the table
We’ll be absolutely full
Of eating and drinking,
Drinks from the tap and the jug.
|Maar als den eersten dag komt aan,
‘t Is om naar ‘t Koethof toe te gaan.
Wij zullen vroolijk wandelen, …
Van ‘t eene naar het ·andere: …
|And when the first day comes,
It’s off we go to the Koethof [Castle Couthof, near Poperinge].
We will wander merrily,
From one thing to another.
|Maar als den tweeden dag komt aan,
‘t Is om naar Duinkerk toe te gaan.
Wij zeggen ‘t zonder liegen, …
De scherrebank zal vliegen : …
|But when the second day comes,
It’s off we go to Dunkirk.
We say it without lying,
The charabanc will fly.
|Maar als wij in Duinkerk zijn,
Wij zullen stil. en zedig zijn;
Wij zull’n met goede manieren, …
Onze feestdag wel vieren : …
|But when we get to Dunkirk,
We will be quiet and modest;
We will be well mannered
Celebrating our holiday:
The last claim to quiet and modesty may be ironic, given the other song they sang boasted of their ability to make noise. This song, which has been recorded by the Belgian folk groups Sidus and Kotjesvolk, is a powerful expression of local and craft pride, as lacemakers collectively took over the streets of Dunkirk for the day. However, the boast that they made lots of money should be taken with a pinch of salt.
|De kinders van de Babbelaarsstrate
Zoûn zoo geern naar Duinkerke gaan,
Om da’ n-hunder dust te laven
En naar Duinkerk toe te gaan.
Zoete merronton, merronton, merronteine !
Zoete merronton, de postiljon !
|The children from Babbelaarstrate
Really want to go to Dunkirk
And there to quench their thirst
And to go to Dunkirk.
|En wij zull’n de koetsen pareeren
Met de bloemptjes zoet en schoon,
En ons ook wel defendeeren,
G’lijk den keizer op zijn troon.
Zoete merronton, etc.
|And we will decorate the coaches
With sweet, beautiful flowers
And we’ll stand up for ourselves,
Like the emperor on his throne.
|En wij zull’n al omdermeest schreeuwen :
“Vivan van Sint-Annadag !”
En ons ook wel defendeeren :
‘t Is de spellewerkige’s feestdag !
|And we will loudly cry
Long Live Saint Anna’s Day.
And we’ll stand up for ourselves:
It is the lacemakers’ holiday.
|Maar als wij in Duinkerke komen,
En wij rijen al door de stad;
Iedereen zal buiten komen
En zal zeggen : “Wat is dat ?”
|But as we come into Dunkirk
And we ride right through the town
Everyone will rush outside
And they’ll say: ‘What’s going on?’
|“ ‘t Zijn de Poperingschenaren,
Die daar komen met geweld;
En ze werken heele jaren,
En ze winnen vele geld !”
|It’s the girls from Poperinge,
And their coming out in force;
And they work the whole year,
And they earn lots of money!
The strongest concentration of lacemakers in Bruges lived in the parish of Saint Anne, but we have less information about Saint Anne’s Day celebrations there, suggesting that they may have been a fairly modern innovation. Most of what we know depends on the oral history interviews undertaken in the 1960s by the folklorist Magda Cafmeyer with old lacemakers resident in the city’s almshouses. For instance Adeletje Deklerk explained that the young women in the lace school saved one or two centimes a week which they put together to pay for the wagon and cakes, but that for three weeks before they worked solidly on earning some drinking money. As at Poperinge it was a two-day holiday. On the second day there was a prize-giving ceremony in the school itself. But the main event was on the first day, when the the lacemakers took a horse-drawn charabanc trip to Gistel and the shrine of Saint Godelieve (the pious wife of an abusive and, finally, murderous husband – a story familiar in many forms to lacemakers). While on the way, they sang:
|Wij zijn bijeen en we trekken naar Sint Annetje,
wij gaan op zoek al achter een ander mannetje,
wij zijn bijeen
en we zullen niet meer scheen,
wij zijn gezworen kameraden
en ze zien’ aan onze trein (bis)
dat we van Sint Anne zijn (bis)
|We’re all together and we’re off to Saint Anne’s
We’re looking out for another man,
We’re all together
And we’ll never part no more,
We’re sworn comrades
And they can see from our verve
That we’re from [the parish of] Saint Anne.
The camaraderie of the lacemakers, their sense of collective identity, both local and occupational (which sometimes included, and sometimes excluded, the nuns who accompanied them on the trip) comes across strongly in these songs.
After the First World War there was a concerted attempt to revive lacemaking and its associated customs in Bailleul and the surrounding region. The town was almost totally destroyed during the Ludendorff Offensive in the spring of 1918 but when a visiting American philanthropist, Richard Nelson Cromwell, toured the region in 1919, he was moved by the sight of lacemakers working among the ruins. His support for the French charity ‘Retour au foyer’ (Back to the hearth) underwrote the establishment of lace schools in Bailleul and nearby Méteren and Saint-Jans-Cappel. The underlying philosophy was that the traditions and values interrupted by the war should be renewed, including a proper gender order. Lacemaking would enable women to contribute to the household budget without leaving their homes. The charity not only funded the schools but also undertook the sale of their produce in Lille and Paris.
Part of this ‘return’ involved reviving Saint Anne’s Day celebrations. In 1921 the local organiser in Méteren, Marguerite de Swarte (1874-1948), wrote to the charity’s president Paul Dislère to explain how the children had passed the day.
On the day before, our young workers and brought in armlods of flowers with which they made garlands to decorate both the front and the interior of the school. A [lace-maker’s] chair, a pillow, a support and an aune [used to measure lace] were festooned with flowers, you would think it was a flower festival. In the evening, after work, the local lacemakers came to admire the charming school which reminded them of the holidays of yesteryear, they enjoyed themselves with the children and brought to mind the old Flemish songs… The following morning our children, and all the lacemakers of Méteren, went to mass in honour of Saint Anne, then they returned to the school, singing their old songs. There a meal of Flemish cakes and chocolate awaited them, which they enjoyed very much. Then a bus came to take them to Ypres… There they had a cold lunch of ham sandwiches, Flemish cake, pears and beer, and they walked among the ruins. At 3:00pm they went on to Poperinge, to visit the lace school, and with the fifty young lacemakers they shared more local specialities, bars of chocolate and beer. Then there were songs and round-dances in the school playground, until at 7:00pm the happy band climbed back aboard the bus to return to Méteren via Saint-Jans-Cappel.
Saint Anne celebrations continued throughout the interwar period, and there is even a picture of the crowning of the Méteren lace mistress, Hélène Loozen, in 1936, surrounded by the garlanded tools of the lacemaker’s trade.
 Ludo Steyn, Jan Frans Willems: Vader der Vlaamsche Beweging (Antwerp: De Bezige Bij, 2012).
 Jan-Frans Willems and Ferdinand Snellaert, Oude Vlaemsche Liederen ten deele met de melodieën (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1848), nos. 256-7.
 Jan Bols (ed.) Brieven aan Jan-Frans Willems (Ghent: A. Siffer, 1909), p. 452.
 Stefaan Top, ‘Chants populaires des flamands de France (1856): A Contribution to Comparative Folksong Research, France/Belgium : Flanders’ in James Porter (ed.) Ballads and Boundaries: Narrative Singing in an Intercultural Context (Los Angeles: UCLA, 1995), pp. 315-24.
 Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des flamands de France (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1856), xii-xiii.
 Coussemaker, Chants populaires, pp. 307-19.
 Arreté, Maire de la ville de Bailleul, 2 juillet 1858
 Stéphane Lembré, ‘Les écoles de dentellières en France et Belgique des années 1850 aux années 1930’, Histoire de l’éducation 123 (2009): 55.
 Michel Le Calvé, Souvenir de Bailleul (Dunkerque: Westhoek, 1983), pp. 40-1.
 Eugène Cortyl, ‘La dentelle à Bailleul’, Bulletin du Comité flamand de France (1903) : 231.
 For information on ‘zoete Mène’ see https://westhoekverbeeldt.be/ontdek/detail/8d838922-bbc5-11e3-a56d-875083d05b38
 Albert Blyau and Marcellus Tasseel, Iepersch Oud-Liedboek (Brussels: Commission royale du folklore, 1962), pp. 237-318 : ‘Het boek der Klein-Sacramentdagliedjes en Sint-Annaliedjes’. See, especially, no. 124 ‘Sint-Annadag’ and no. 125 ‘De Kinders van de Babbelaarsstrate’.
 Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Oude Brugse spellewerksters vertellen: Adeletje in ‘t Godshuis’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 364-5.
 The story of the lace revival in Méteren and Bailleul is well told on the Méteren village website: https://meteren.pagesperso-orange.fr/IV.1%20Dentelles-%20Accueil%20et%20presentation.htm as well as in the catalogue of the exhibition Bailleul en dentelles: Exposition, 27 juin-15 octobre 1992 (Bailleul: Musée Benoît de Puydt, 1992). Both quote the letter from Marguerite de Swarte.
Dr Wendy Wiertz, a guest contributor to this site, has been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie fellowship to continue her research on war lace. She’ll be taking her fellowship this autumn at the University of Huddersfield.
In her project Re-making the World: Women, Humanitarian Agencies and Handicrafts Programmes, Wendy focuses on humanitarian organisations who supported the renowned Belgian lace industry during the First World War. Lacemaking is an important part of Belgium’s cultural heritage, but the industry was in danger of disappearing forever in the war years: demand for the luxury handmade fabric plummeted, while the supply of materials was interrupted. Thousands of lacemakers faced unemployment. In response, humanitarian organisations developed lace-aid schemes with a twofold goal: saving an imperilled European tradition and ensuring the wartime employment of Belgian lacemakers, often women who supported themselves and their families. The schemes were highly successful, bringing unprecedented publicity to the industry and employing more than 50,000 women in German-occupied Belgium and among Belgian refugees in Holland, France and the UK. The lace they made became known as ‘war lace’, as its unique iconography sometimes referred directly to the conflict.
Through the example of war lace, Wendy aims to uncover the origins of humanitarian organisations attempts to preserve cultural heritage, while also examining what these programmes did for female emancipation and artistic expression. To achieve this, she will use a combination of archival, collection and practice-led inquiry that will take her to Belgium, the Netherlands, France, the UK and the United States.
In historical sources almost all the commercial lacemakers one encounters were women. But did men not make lace? It’s a question we’ve often been asked, and the answer is yes – but how many it’s hard to say. Occasionally one discovers evidence of men making lace, but these reports usually concern periods of high demand when wages were very good, or periods when male-dominated industries had collapsed (such as the Breton herring fishing industry at the beginning of the twentieth century), and lace was introduced as a makeshift way for the unemployed to earn a living. But it’s likely, not least because lacemaking was so clearly identified as women’s work, that official reports undercount the number of men who made lace on either a full-time or a part-time basis.
August De Winne (1865-1935, sometimes written Dewinne) was certainly shocked to discover that, in 1902 in Belgium, some men worked as lacemakers. De Winne was a journalist for the Socialist newspaper Le Peuple. The socialist movement was growing in Belgium in the period, but it had achieved greater success in the industrial towns of French-speaking Wallonia than in Flanders where the political influence of the Catholic Church still held sway. In 1901 De Winne set out to discover the true conditions of the working population of Flanders, and the reasons behind their political attitudes. He particularly focused on the rural, inland regions of east and west Flanders which came to be known in the first decade of the twentieth century as ‘The Flanders Hell’, characterised by overpopulation, underemployment, poverty and misery. Here villagers did not work in factories, but laboured in their cottages at ‘sweated trades’ such as weaving, spinning, basket-making, rabbit-rearing (for fur rather than meat) and, of course, lace-making. The collected articles were published as A travers les Flandres in 1902, and then again in 1903 in an extended Dutch language edition as Door arm Vlaanderen – ‘through poor Flanders’. The title is an echo of an earlier novel of social protest, Arm Vlaanderen, by Reimond Stijns (1850-1905) and Isidoor Teirlinck (1851-1934). That novel was set during the first ‘School War’ which, as we know, directly concerned the lace schools.
The section below, focusing on male lacemakers, only figures in the Dutch edition. De Winne’s interest had been piqued by a report on lacemaking in Belgium by Pierre Verhaegen. This was the first really serious Belgian study of workers’ conditions and pay in the industry, and although De Winne considered Verhaegen to be too close to the Catholic Church, he nonetheless thought his information was reliable. Both De Winne and Verhaegen quote figures from the industrial census of 1896 which recorded that there were 47,571 lacemakers in Belgium, of which just 117 were men. But was that an underestimate?
Two other persons are named in the text: Charles Beerblock (1854-1914), a socialist activist from Lokeren; and Charles Lefébure (1862-1943), an engineer and amateur photographer who had accompanied De Winne and documented the social conditions he encountered on his visits. If you’re looking for Miere on a map, note that it is now spelt Mere.
“So it is true, there are men in Flanders who make lace?” I asked Beerblock.
“It was news to me. I discovered it from Monsieur Verhaegen’s report. I went with Monsieur Lefébure to meet the lacemakers from around Aalst; he took several lovely photographs. Would you like to go back there together?”
On a lovely spring morning we made our way to Meire, a small township of about 3,500 inhabitants, in an out-of-the-way corner of Aalst district, beyond the main lines of communication, just on the local railway to Ronse.
The town appears rather sweet and charming, bathed as it is in light and warmth. The road, lined with small, very neat houses, meanders gracefully through the smiling fields. The buds are sprouting on the hedges. The houses are hidden behind a curtain of trees.
What a delightful spot!
We enter a house. Potatoes are boiling away on a Leuven stove. The tall fireplace is covered with very rough religious prints. And to think that this is the picture that poor folk have of the Mother of God and of the saints! Is there really any difference between this crude religion and idolatry?
The mother, a little old woman, chats to a neighbor who has two children hanging from her skirt. By the window in a low chair sits an old man in a silk cap, a long beard like an apostle hangs down to his chest, in front of him a lace pillow.
At first, as I watch him turning the bobbins with his stiff hands, I find him a little ridiculous, but then I feel pity for this dignified old man, thus obliged to do women’s work, children’s work.
The mother stops chattering, the father and the young girls have turned to look at us. Beerblock is known here. He has come to show M. Lefébure’s beautiful photos. He takes them out of a large folder and displays them to the simple people. They marvel, utter cries of joy and surprise. “Look father! Look mother!” the young girls shout. “That’s John ‘the Frenchman’, that’s big Theresa, that’s Mary’s house!”
“How wonderful they are!”
We ask:“Old man, how long have you followed this occupation?”
“Since the age of six, sir. I have never done anything else and am now sixty years old.”
“What do you earn? How many hours a day do you work?”
“My wages vary between 70 centimes and 1 franc per day for 11 and 12 hours of work.”
“What would you say were the average earnings for the women of the village?”
“That depends both on the type of work and also on the skill of the workers. My daughters earn 1 franc a day for 12 to 13 hours of work. But a few steps further on from here lives a lace-worker who sits at her chair from 6:30 in the morning until 8 in the evening, with an hour of rest at noon. At the end of the week she will have earned just 3.80 francs.”
The amount earned in this house and in other houses in Meire is similar to that reported by Verhaegen. Here are some other figures quoted by that clerical writer: 1 franc per day for 13½ hours of work; 85 centimes for 10 hours; 64 centimes for 12 hours; 75 centimes for 8 hours; 48 centimes for 10 hours; 96 centimes for 13½ hours, and so on.
They are the figures for women’s earnings. Verhaegen only mentions a single male lacemaker, who was paid 70 centimes a day for 11 hours of work.
We leave the house in the company of the neighbour with her two children.
“They are good people, but under the thumb of the Church” she whispers to us when we have come a little way.
“Are there any villagers who are not of that persuasion?”
“People here have all kinds of convictions, sir: Catholics, Liberals, Christian Democrats and Socialists.” She adds, not without pride, “My husband is a Socialist. He’s employed at the gas works in Brussels, where he earns 4 francs a day.”
“That’s better than making lace.”
“Certainly, but it’s not an easy life nonetheless. My husband has to leave at 3.45 in the morning, and gets to Brussels at 5am. In winter, when the works only open at 7am, he has to hang around for two hours, wandering through the streets or sitting in a bar. In the evening he gets back at 8.30. No, it’s no picnic his life!”
We say goodbye to the good woman. Beerblock tells me that about 40 gas workers, roadmen and masons live here, who travel to the capital every day. Those employed in the gas works have alternating shifts – one week of day work followed by one week of night work. They prefer night work because the day trains provide better connection, so less time is lost.
Three hundred “Frenchmen” also live in Meire, so called because during the harvest season they go to France to find work. Some of these migrants also make lace during the winter. The same is true of the agricultural workers and the brickmakers who live in the village. We met some in the other houses we visited.
According to the industrial census [conducted in 1896], there are 114 men in Flanders who make lace, but Verhaegen thinks, with good reason, that the number of those who engage in this type of work in their free time, for whom it is an additional source of income, is much larger.
In Meire we also saw a number of boys sitting next to their mothers or sisters and who, like them, were working with bobbins. “It keeps them quiet” say the good people of the region.
Does a child actually need to play, to run about, to have fun, to go to school, to breathe the air, to strengthen his muscles, in order to develop? Why?
Later, as a man, he’ll become a farmer or a brick maker; maybe he’ll travel along the roads of France looking for work or he’ll sit in front of a lace cushion for thirteen hours a day. On Sunday he’ll first pray and then get drunk on gin.Work, prayer, and generating more members of their unfortunate race, that is the whole destiny of these men and women, and the destiny of the children of Flanders!
Amanda Boyd, working on behalf of the Windrose Rural Media Trust, has put together a short video, based around some footage of a lacemaker working in Malmsbury, Wiltshire, in the 1960s. You can see the video here. Amanda is a singer and song collector herself, which is one reason that topic looms large in the commentary. We don’t know much about Wiltshire lacemakers, but we’re happy to learn more.
For several centuries the Flemish lace industry was a cottage industry. Different generations worked together in their home. In this way, girls got an early grasp of the craft. They could also learn it in the numerous lace schools. After their training, they could choose to work in lace workshops rather than at home, but that was rare. Most girls, now adolescents, returned home to produce lace in the companionship of their female relatives.
During a visit to the Art & History Museum in Brussels, I was shown an album containing a black-and-white photograph. The photograph depicts three generations of lacemakers working indoors at the beginning of the twentieth century: an elderly woman and two girls are sitting in the front, while two young women have taken their place behind the girls. All except the youngest girl produce bobbin lace. They do so by sitting behind a lacemaker’s ‘horse’ (‘chevalet’ in French, ‘staantje’ in Dutch, though for all lace equipment there are a variety of local names), a specially constructed wooden stand, that is adjustable in height and contains a drawer. On top of this horse, the lacemakers have placed a lace pillow or cushion (‘carreau’ in French or ‘kussen’ in Dutch), to which they have attached a ‘pricking’ (‘patron’ or ‘piqué’ in French, ‘perkament’ in Dutch), a pattern drawn on parchment or card. The women replicate the pricking through the use of an even number of threads ranging from eight to more than a thousand. These threads are looped over pins arranged at the top of the pricking and wound at its lower end around a bobbin (‘fuseau’ in French, ‘klosje’ or ’boutje’ in Dutch). The elderly woman and the oldest child use a limited number of bobbins, while the two young women each seem to use around a hundred bobbins as is visible from the stacked bobbins on one or both sides of their cushions. All four of them cross over or twist the threads to produce lace. Thin strips of the textile are indeed visible on the cushions of the elderly woman and the eldest child. The work of the two young women cannot be seen as they sit behind the two girls. The youngest of the two girls doesn’t make lace, but ensures all the bobbins are full of thread. She takes care of this task with the help of a spinning wheel and a bobbin winder (a ‘dévidoir or ‘bobinoir’, or ‘kloswinder’ in Dutch). After the spools are wound with thread, she puts them in a box at her feet.
The five women work indoors, where on dark days a lit candle is placed behind a spherical water carafe or ‘flash’ (seen on the left, known as an ‘ordinaal’ in Dutch) to provide concentrated light. During the summer, the lacemakers work outside in the bright sunlight. At the end of the working day, they carefully wrap their product in blue paper – or in a white cloth as in this case – and put it in the drawer under their lace pillow. In this way, the textile remains snow-white, which is extremely important if it is to receive a good price. The use of bobbins also contributes to the whiteness of the lace as the lacemakers can manipulate the thread without touching it. The lacemakers even take additional measures to prevent any discolouration of the thread: they regularly wash their hands, put an apron over their clothes and keep their surroundings spotless in order to secure their payment in money or kind.
A closer look to the interior not only reveals the lacemakers’ commitment to their craft. It also proves their dedication to such virtues as ‘cleanliness, industry, family responsibility and domestic stability’.[i] At the left, the unlit hearth – complete with a decorated cast-iron fire back, trammel hook, typical blue-and-white Delft tiles and a curtain – functions as the traditional association between women and domesticity. The old grandfather clock registers the many hours the lacemakers industriously devote to their craft, while Christ casts a divine eye over their labours from his wall pedestal above the women and their work. A linen cupboard is placed against the right wall, storing the housewares and leaving no clutter. In short, the whole interior, including the white-chalked walls and the scrubbed terracotta floor, is presented as an examplar of cleanliness – the pride of every housewife.
At first sight, the photograph seems a snapshot from reality, yet it might also be a staged montage. There are a few clues to support that idea. First of all, the women sit in such a way that each nicely dressed individual is clearly visible for viewers. In addition, they have displayed all tools necessary for lacemaking. Even the water carafe and footwarmer are allocated a place, although they are not required in the clearly lit and seemingly warm room. A closer examination of the fireplace, the terracotta floor and white-chalked walls shows that they are without a sign of usage, suggesting a newly-built or reconstructed interior.
The homes of lacemakers were regularly reconstructed in the context of exhibitions focusing on home industries, including the lace industry. These exhibitions flourished in Europe during the first decade of the twentieth century. The first exhibition on home industries opened its doors in Berlin in March 1904, followed by further iterations in cities including London, Frankfurt-am-Main, Zurich and Amsterdam. Belgium followed and mounted three similar exhibitions before the First World War: Brussels and Ghent both organised one during the World Exhibitions in 1910 and 1913. Antwerp held one in 1913.[ii]
Just like those held abroad, the Belgian exhibitions both advertised the produced goods while simultaneously highlighting the labour conditions endured by home workers. These conditions were clarified through information on the number of workers in these industries, the hours they worked and the income they received, while workers practised their profession in the reconstructed homes, demonstrating to visitors the production process. Even though the workers put on their best clothes and the reconstructed buildings were in a much better state than the original ones, the visitors realised how precarious were the labour conditions in the home industries. The 1906 exhibition in London was even called the ‘The Sweated Industries Exhibition.’[iii] Everywhere, the initiators of such exhibitions were opposed to ‘the sweating system’ and strongly desired to ameliorate the workers’ conditions. But on the whole they were not opposed to the home industries as such. Especially for women and girls, the home was depicted as a safe, moral and desirable workplace. This idea is also propagated in the photograph of the three generations of lacemakers. Together they represent the past, present and future of the craft practised in domestic surroundings.
Even though, we cannot be completely certain if the photograph depicting three generations of lacemakers was staged or not, its current location does hint that it did serve both economic and ideological purposes. The image was inserted in an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919. The Baroness was an amateur artist, wife of the banker Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), and most importantly one of the core members of the Comité de la Dentelle [Lace Committee].[iv] The committee had been founded in Antwerp in 1909 as the Kantbloemen [Lace flowers]. Less than a year later, it moved to Brussels and changed its name to the Amies de la Dentelle [The Friends of Lace], before becoming the Comité de la Dentelle during the first months of the First World War.[v]
During the war years, the Lace Committee was primarily concerned about the survival of the Belgian handmade lace industry.[vi] Originally, the association, like its equivalents in other countries founded around the turn of the century, had aimed to revive the Belgian lace industry and to improve the fate of the overwhelmingly female workers. Its members were all philanthropists, predominantly women from nobility and the bourgeoisie like the aforementioned Baroness Josse Allard. Benefactors in other countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland took similar actions in order to preserve their local production of handmade lace.[vii]
In Belgium and elsewhere, the production of handmade lace suffered from the ever-growing menace of the machine-made lace industry. In just a few decades after its invention in the early-nineteenth century, machine-made lace looked just as attractive as ‘true lace’. Additionally, it was considerably cheaper, because it could be produced much faster. In order to compete, the already low wages of handmade lacemakers were cut. Many women subsequently left their bobbins and cushions in order to work in the newly built factories. In half a century, the number of Belgian lacemakers diminished from 150,000 in 1850 to just 50,000 in 1900.[viii] Those who continued to make lace, were compelled to produce more for the same price. The lacemakers became impoverished, while the laces’ quality deteriorated.[ix]
In the years following their foundation, the members of the Lace Committee, then still called the Amies de la Dentelle, developed plans to revive the Belgian handmade lace industry while also working to improve the lacemakers’ situation. They mainly sought to increase the quality of lace and the attractiveness of lace designs, thus creating demand for lacemakers’ produce. These goals were to be obtained by improving the training in lace schools and by commissioning new drawings, preferably by artists.[x] (An earlier post concerning The Irish Homestead’s ‘Lace Designs’ Series (1900-1902) focuses on the newly designed patterns aimed to revive the Irish handmade lace industry in the early years of the twentieth century, a comparable enterprise.) The members of the Lace Committee did not focus on the commercial aspects of the enterprise, such as demanding a higher and fairer price from the consumer, organising trade unions or negotiating with lace dealers and factories. Marguerite Coppens, the former curator of the Art & History Museum textile collection in Brussels, somewhat ironically stated: ‘The importance of sales was not denied, but deliberately obscured so as not to provoke manufacturers. Moreover, the ladies patronesses did not like to get involved in “the sale”.’[xi]
However, the existence of the album in which the photograph is inserted, proves these ladies patronesses did get involved in ‘the sale’, that is the commercial aspects of production. The album consists of photographs and drawings of lace samples accompanied by a short description and the price. The album thus functioned as a portfolio that was shown to potential buyers who could choose from a wide range of products and designs. The former included bedcovers, tablecloths, fans, umbrellas, doilies, handkerchiefs and lace by the yard. Most designs depicted characters from fairy tales, bucolic scenes, animals, mythical figures and, above all, flowers. Today, the wartime-produced lace is especially remembered for a much smaller, though highly publicised, number of designs that referred directly to the conflict. These were called ‘war lace’ and included names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces and the martyred cities of Belgium. (The blog post war lace recounts how a luxury fabric as lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.)
The black-and-white photograph of the three generations of lacemakers working indoors in the early twentieth century was meant to convince potential buyers of the importance – moral as much as economic – of their purchase. Every franc they spent would contribute to the revival of the Belgian lace industry and improve the lacemakers’ situation. But, at the same time, the photograph, and the album as a whole, demonstrate the Lace Committee’s nostalgia for an imagined past. A past in which they believed lacemaking had been economically viable and permitted women to work in their homes, where they committed themselves to their craft, their family and their household.
The Belgian lace industry continued to decline in the first half of the twentieth century. Many lacemakers were compelled to leave their bobbins and their homes for opportunities elsewhere. Since then, the album and the photograph serve as witness to the last generation of commercial lacemakers, and as a testimony to the efforts undertaken by the Baroness Allard, the Lace Committee and other philanthropists to revive the Belgian lace industry as a thriving cottage industry.
Wendy Wiertz, research fellow KU Leuven
[i] David Hopkin, Voices of the People in Nineteenth-Century France, Cambridge Social and Cultural Histories (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), p. 215.
[ii] Anne Askenasi-Neuckens and Hubert Galle, Les derniers ouvriers libres : Le travail à domicile en Belgique (Brussels: Tournesol Conseils sa/ Éditions Luc Pire, 2000), 43-69.
[iv] Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; and Mrs Louis Kefer-Mali, née Marie Mali (1855-1927), an expert on the history of lace, wife of a musician and sister of the Belgian Consul-General in New York. Mrs Brand Whitlock, née Ella Brainerd (1876-1942), who was married to the American minister to Belgium, was appointed as honorary chair. Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1919), vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020), pp. 2-3.
[v] The Lace Committee executed their plans during the First World War. Patricia Wardle, ‘War and Peace: Lace Designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943),’ Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989), pp. 73-90; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exh. cat. Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussels: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 109-16; Marguerite Coppens, ‘Les commandes dentellières de l’Union patriotique des femmes belges et du Comité de la dentelle à Fernand Khnopff,’ Revue belge d’Archéologie et d’Histoire de l’art 64 (1995), pp. 71-84; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace, exh. cat., Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75; Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), p. 87.
[vi] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph, 4th ed. (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917), pp. 158-66; Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium. A Book of Belgian Lace, Lace-Workers, Lace-Schools and Lace-Villages (New York/ London: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920); Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit België van de zestiende eeuw tot heden. Een keuze van de Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis te Brussel, exh. cat., Antwerp, Volkskundemuseum (Brussels: Koninklijke Musea voor Kunst en Geschiedenis, 1981), p. 119, cat. nrs. 85-88; Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 116-32, cat. nrs. 62-76, 77a, 79-82; Martine Bruggeman, L’Europe de la dentelle. Un aperçu historique depuis les originaires de la dentelle jusqu’à l’entre-deux-guerre, exh. cat., Bruges, Arenthuis/ Lille, Musée de l’Hospice Comtesse (Bruges: Stichting Kunstboek, 1997), pp. 140-43; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 22-3, 87-97; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle (Paris: Racine, 2018), pp. 577-79.
[vii] Geoff Spenceley, ‘The Lace Associations: Philanthropic Movements to Preserve the Production of Hand-Made Lace in Late Victorian and Edwardian England,’ Victorian Studies 16, 4 (1973): pp. 433-52.
[viii] These numbers are estimates. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry,’ Textile 18:1 (2020), p. 55.
[ix] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 11-5; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 68-9.
[x] Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, pp. 16-8, 109-13; Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art, pp. 87f.
[xi] The original text in Dutch is: ‘Het belang van de verkoop wordt niet ontkend, maar bewust verdoezeld om de fabrikanten niet te provoceren. Bovendien laten de dames patronessen zich niet graag in met “de verkoop”.’ Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, p. 112.