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.