Back in 2018 we posted a blog piece on this website about the Flemish priest Constant Duvillers and the songs he wrote for use in the lace-school he set up in the parish of Middelburg, East Flanders, in the 1840s. We’ve extended the analysis and quoted more of the songs in a recent article: David Hopkin, ‘Lace Songs and Culture Wars: A Nineteenth-Century Flemish Village Soap Opera’, Folk Music Journal 12 (2024): 92-116. Unlike some other recent articles mentioned on this site, this one is not available open access. But if anyone would like a copy please just email David at email@example.com
Category: Belgian lace
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.
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
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.
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.
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!
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.