Category: Lacemakers in the Low Countries

Legends of Lace – a new article

A performance of Geneviève Hennet de Goutel’s ‘The Miracle of the Bobbins’, by girls of the free (ie. Catholic) school of Pussaye, France, 1913.  Kindly supplied by www.pussayetsonpays.fr.

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 FabulaThe 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.

 Abstract

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

26 July in Flanders: ‘I wish every day could be Saint Anne’s Day’

‘Saint Anne and the Virgin Mary’, copy of work by Giovanni Antonio Galli, known as ‘lo Spadarino’. Sold at Christies in 2010.

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.

Jan-Frans Willems (1793-1846), ‘Father of the Flemish Movement’. Unknown C19 painter. From Wikipedia Commons.

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’.[1]  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.[2]

‘Het vlaamsche lied’ (Flemish song). Relief adorning Isidoor de Rudder’s monument to Jan-Frans Willems in Ghent.

 

‘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:
De provianden,
Koeken in manden,
De provianden
Dragen wy meê.
The provisions,
Cakes in baskets,
The provisions
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.[3]  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.[4]  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.

Edmond de Coussemaker (1805-76), lawyer, musician, folksong collector. Engraving by Isnard Desjardins, from the British Museum.

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.[5]

Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des Flamands de France (1856). Illustration depicting Saint Anne’s Day in the lace schools.

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.[6]

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.[7]

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.[8]  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.[9]  (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).[10]

 

The children from the Babelaarstraat lace school, Poperinge, run by Zoete Mène (Philomène) Matton (seen on the left), 1906.

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.[11]  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.[12]

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 how!
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:

Couthof Castle, near Poperinge, destination of local lacemakers on Saint Anne’s Day.

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!

 

Adeletje Deklerck making lace in the Bruges almshouse, August 1968. From Biekorf (1968)

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.[13]  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.

Le Petit Journal, supplement illustré, no. 1539, 20 June 1920 : ‘La Résurrection de la Dentelle des Flandres’. From Gallica.

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.[14]

Marguerite de Swarte (1874-1948), patron of the lace revival in Méteren

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.

Hélène Loozen, crowned lace mistress at Méteren, Saint Anne’s Day 1937. The lady with the pillow is Marie Delie, lace mistress of the school before the war and a well-known lacemaker.

 

 

[1] Ludo Steyn, Jan Frans Willems: Vader der Vlaamsche Beweging (Antwerp: De Bezige Bij, 2012).

[2] Jan-Frans Willems and Ferdinand Snellaert, Oude Vlaemsche Liederen ten deele met de melodieën (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1848), nos. 256-7.

[3] Jan Bols (ed.) Brieven aan Jan-Frans Willems (Ghent: A. Siffer, 1909), p. 452.

[4] 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.

[5] Edmond de Coussemaker, Chants populaires des flamands de France (Ghent: F. and E. Gyselynck, 1856), xii-xiii.

[6] Coussemaker, Chants populaires, pp. 307-19.

[7] Arreté, Maire de la ville de Bailleul, 2 juillet 1858

[8] Stéphane Lembré, ‘Les écoles de dentellières en France et Belgique des années 1850 aux années 1930’, Histoire de l’éducation 123 (2009): 55.

[9] Michel Le Calvé, Souvenir de Bailleul (Dunkerque: Westhoek, 1983), pp. 40-1.

[10] Eugène Cortyl, ‘La dentelle à Bailleul’, Bulletin du Comité flamand de France (1903) : 231.

[11] For information on ‘zoete Mène’ see https://westhoekverbeeldt.be/ontdek/detail/8d838922-bbc5-11e3-a56d-875083d05b38

[12] 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’.

[13] Magda Cafmeyer, ‘Oude Brugse spellewerksters vertellen: Adeletje in ‘t Godshuis’, Biekorf 69 (1968): 364-5.

[14] 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.

War Lace Project at Huddersfield University

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.

Wendy Wiertz (photo Romane Berti)

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.

Anonymous, Motive in needle lace with Belgian lion and the text ‘Belgium 1914’, 1914-1916. Needle lace, 5,5 x 7 cm. Amsterdam, Rijksmuseum, inv. nr. BK-NM-14367-167

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.

 

Did men make lace? A social investigation from the ‘Flanders Hell’.

‘Kantwerkers’ [male lacemakers], photograph by Charles Lefébure from ‘Door arm Vlaanderen’ by August De Winne (Ghent, 1903)

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.

‘Kantwerker’ [male lacemaker], photograph by Charles Lefébure from ‘Door arm Vlaanderen’ by August De Winne (Ghent, 1903)

“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?”

“Very willingly”.

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!

Poor people!

Emiel Jacques (1874-1937), ‘De Kantklossers’. Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

 

‘The Young Girl at the Window’: Mystic Realism from a Dead City

Léon Frédéric (1856-1940), ‘The Flemish Lacemaker’, 1907.

A post for a rather depressing winter.  Some Flemish literature is written in Dutch, and some is, or at least was, written in French.  Despite his name, Camille Lemonnier (1844-1913) identified as Flemish; yet, as was true of most of the Belgian upper classes at the time, his chosen mode of expression was French.  At the turn of the twentieth-century he was probably Belgium’s most famous author, and the most notorious in the country after his appearances before the courts for literary offences against public morality.  He was compared to Émile Zola not just for his social realism (or ‘naturalism’ as people termed Zola’s school) but also for his unabashed explorations of sexual desire, religious fervour and mental breakdown.  He was as frequently coupled with the French decadent writer Joris-Karl Huysmans.  In fact, Lemonnier embraced several literary fashions in turn, including symbolism.  But if one had to pigeon-hole him, perhaps one could locate him in the distinct Flemish school of turn-of-the-century ‘mystic realism’ which also includes Georges Rodenbach (1855-1898) and Émile Verhaeren (1855-1916).

Alfred Stevens (1823-1906), ‘Camille Lemonnier in the artist’s studio’, c. 1900. Fondation Roi           Baudoin, courtesy of Wikipedia Commons. Lemonnier was a great promoter of Belgian painters.

Lacemakers do not feature often in Lemonnier’s fiction, nor even in his non-fiction guides to his native country.  The one exception is his prose-poem ‘La jeune fille à la fenêtre’, which appeared in the Parisian radical literary review Gil Blas in January 1892.  The setting is Bruges – the ‘dead city’ of Rodenbach’s Bruges-la-Morte, a crumbling labyrinth of medieval relics, dissolving into the waters of its silent canals.  Here the past, with its vanished promises and enduring regrets, weighs so heavily on the present that it crushes all life, all hope.  The population’s only motive force is the monotonous repetition of Catholic rituals.

Karel Boom (1858-1939), ‘The Lacemaker’. Medievalism was one facet of the symbolist movement, in art as well as literature.

The heroine of Lemonnier’s poem is a young lacemaker who we observe alternately working on her pillow or pensively watching evening fall across the city.  Although the precise nature of her heartache is not specified, it is clear that she has loved and lost.  She is working on a bridal veil she will never wear.  The bridal veil is a common theme in the literature of lacemaking, harking back to the legends of the origins of lace, whether located in Venice (another aqueous ‘dead city’) or Flanders.  Only one year before, in 1891, a younger albeit more traditional French poet, Charles Fuster (1866-1929), had told a very similar story in his poem ‘La dentellière de Bruges’.  Fuster’s lacemaker is employed by very person on whom she has set her heart to make a veil for his bride: she dies, of consumption, just as she completes the task, and her lace instead serves as her shroud in a ‘wedding of the dead’ (a custom we have discussed in a previous blog).  It seems likely that Lemonnier knew Fuster’s poem not least because it was regularly performed on the stage as a dramatic monologue.

Henri Le Sidaner (1862-1939), ‘ A Canal in Bruges at Dusk’, Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Le Sidaner’s crepuscular townscapes capture some of the symbolist enthusiasm for the ‘dead city’.  Courtesy of ArtUK.

Death approaches Lemonnier’s lacemaker too, though the source of the danger is less clear.  The young working-class woman whose life-chances are cut short was a stock character of nineteenth-century literature – think of the Parisian seamstress Mimi in La Bohème.  But whereas social realists fulminated against the economic and sexual exploitation that caused these tragedies, symbolists luxuriated in their aesthetic possibilites, just as they relished the spectacle of the dead city (Rodenbach even campaigned against any modernisation of Bruges).  The church viewed through the lacemaker’s window is, as we have seen before in another blog post, a commonplace of nineteenth-century visual art.  But for the symbolist poet the exterior world is a projection of the protagonist’s interior, explicitly so in this poem where the young lacemaker’s heart is also a chapel, the mirror of the one she can see across the canal, and inhabited by the same sad and desperate characters who come to plead with the plaster saints.  Women’s suffering, infused into the making of lace, heightened the value of the lacemakers’ art for these fin-de-siècle writers.

Firmin Baes (1874-1943), ‘The Lacemaker’s Dream’.

Like Fuster’s poem, Lemonnier’s was also meant for the stage: the first performance of the monologue was given by Marguerite Rolland at the Salon des XX, an art exhibition, in Brussels in 1892.  Later it was set to music by the Belgian composer Eugène Samuel (1862-1942, better known as Samuel-Holeman after he added his dead wife’s name to his own in 1905), first as a simple piano accompaniment in 1903, then for an ensemble in 1906.  The piece remained quite popular both in Belgium and France through the first three decades of the twentieth century, but it has only been recorded once, in 2019, by the mezzo-soprano Pauline Claes, accompanied by Mathias Lecomte on piano and the Sturm und Klang ensemble.

The composer Eugène Samuel-Holeman, 1922.

Despite his fin-de-siècle celebrity, very little of Lemonnier’s work has been translated into English.  The translation offered below is our own, and we make no claims for its poetic qualities.  It is based on the version of the poem published in Lemonnier’s 1898 collection La petite femme de la mer.  The text utilized by Samuel-Holeman was a little different (and a translation of that is provided in the booklet accompanying the Sturm und Klang cd).

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE (THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW) BY CAMILLE LEMONNIER.

Par l’entre-bâillure des mousselines, à travers la vitre comme étamée d’un soir d’hiver, un canal s’aperçoit.  De l’autre côté du canal, les maisons sont bordées par un quai.  Une vieille arche de point, un peu au delà vers la gauche, érige un crucifix.  Il neige.  Dans la reculée, un chevet d’église s’ecorne, cassé par la perspective.

LA JEUNE FILLE A LA FENÈTRE, faisant de la dentelle.

Mes mains, mes petites mains, mes pâles mains jamais nuptiales, les avez-vous fait danser toute cette après-midi, les fuseaux!….  C’est ma triste vie qui, fil à fil, s’enroule autour des épingles d’or, et les fils sortent de mon coeur, les fils vont de mon coeur à mes doigts, les beaux fils couleur de neige qui retiennent mon coeur captif.

Mes soeurs, s’il ne vient pas, Celui que j’attends, vous enlèverez les épingles, vous détacherez la dentelle, vous l’éploierez sur la nuit de mes yeux…  Je l’ai commencée avec les fils de mai…  Il neigeait alors de l’aubépine, les soirs avaient des tuniques blanches de petites filles; dans l’église, les orgues du mois de Marie chantaient.  Et mon coeur aussi était une église où, derrière les vitraux sous la petite lampe, mon Jésus resplendissait.  Son sourire me regardait avec la forme de mon propre coeur; et je lavais doucement ses plaies avec des larmes qui n’avaient pas encore pris le goût du sel!

Mes mains, mes joyeuses mains jamais lasses, c’était mon voile de mariée qu’en ce temps vous fleurissiez de marguerites et d’étoiles…  Le prêtre a quitté la chapelle; l’enfant de choeur a éteint les cierges de l’autel; les orgues se sont tues dans les soirs.  L’hiver était venu; et j’ai continué mon beau voile avec des fils de neige.  Mes mains ont filé la neige qui tombait dans l’hiver de mon coeur, elles en ont fait le fil avec lequel maintenant s’achève le triste voile.

Mon coeur est une église où, après la messe, il passe des visages aux yeux vides comme des chambres de trépassés.  Des mères intercèdent à genoux pour leur enfant malade.  Une très vieille jeune fille porte son coeur dans ses doigts et l’offre aux Saintes miséricordes.

Je suis cette mère, Seigneur, intercédant pour mon amour malade, je suis cette vieille jeune fille, Seigneur!  Je remets entre vos mains l’offrande douloureuse de mon coeur inexaucé.  Dévidez-vous, les fuseaux!  Mes larmes à la longue ont durci de leurs cristaux le fil; la dentelle sous mes larmes s’est gelée en dures et brillantes fleurs de givre.

Dites, dites, mes soeurs, le voile, en l’éployant, sera-t-il pas assez long pour s’étendre de mon visage à mon coeur?

(Les cloches sonnent à l’église.  Elle regarde s’allumer les vitraux dans le choeur.  Des mantes noires passent sur le pont.)

Je les reconnais: ce sont toujours, depuis que je travaille à cette fenêtre, les mêmes visages de soir et de prières; l’hiver aussi a neigé sur ces âmes.  Mes espoirs, vous vous êtres usés comme les genoux qu’elles vont fléchir devant les autels…  Chaques soir, elles passent au tintement de la cloche dans leurs grands manteaux; elles se signent devant le crucifix; elles vont vers les cierges et les chants, comme des oiseaux battant de l’aile du côté des volières.  Mon coeur, comme elles, porte une sombre mante…  Mon coeur passe sur un pont, mon coeur va vers une chapelle dont le prêtre est mort il y a longtemps.  Nulle lampe ne brûle plus par delà les verrières, nul encens ne fume plus sous les voûtes; et cependant mon Jésus y est couché parmi l’or et les aromates.

Silence!  Mon coeur a frappé à la porte; la porte ne s’est pas ouverte, la porte jamais ne s’ouvrira.  Ah! sonnez, les cloches! sonnez, mes glas!  Mes prières connaissent une chapelle muette comme un tombeau.

(Elle a laissé retomber les bobines et rêve, les yeux distraits, perdus dans la neige qui floconne lentement.)

Nous étions alors autour de la table quatre petites soeurs.  Une est partie, un soir qu’il neigeait comme à présent; elle n’avait pas quinze ans.  Celle-là sans doute, dès le berceau, avait été fiancée à un beau jeune homme pâle dans la lune…  Et ensuite, la table est devenue trop grande pour les trois autres.  Annie! ma chère Annie, pourquoi ne suis-je pas couchée à votre place dans la petite bière où vos lys ont fleuri pour l’éternité?  J’étais l’aînée de nous; il n’eùt fallu qu’un peu plus de bois au cercueil…

Et tant qu’elles furent quatre, les soirs, dans le jardin, les petites soeurs dansaient une ronde en chantant: “Il était un beau prince, et ri et ri, petit rigodon…”  Ah! je ne veux plus chanter cela.  Une princesse au fond d’une tour espère la venue du beau prince…  Le beau prince a passé par le pays; il a passé devant la tour; la petite princesse est morte de chagrin parce que le beau prince n’a pas trouvé la clef de la tour…  Annie, ma chère Annie, est-ce-que quand il neige, ce ne sont pas les pleurs gelés des pâles jeunes filles qui tombent des étoiles – des pauvres jeunes filles pleurant le bel amant qui n’est pas venu?  Dites, bonne Annie, est-ce que ce n’est pas la charpie que des petites mains de jeunes filles effilent au fond des étoiles pour panser les blessures de celles qui sont demeurées?

(Une lampe s’allume dans une des maisons en face.)

La bonne dame tout à l’heure descendra son chien à la rue, elle le regardera un instant courir dans la neige; ensuite elle le rappellera.  Et, à travers la mince guipure blanche, je verrai la bonne dame passer l’eau sur son thé, ajouter quelques points à sa tapisserie… (Ah! toujours la même depuis de si longues années!)… puis s’endormir, son petit chien sur ses genoux: ils n’ont pas connu le poids léger d’une chair d’enfant.

(D’autres fenêtres s’allument.)

Ah!  Des lampes encore!  Des lampes comme des yeux rouges de pleurs!  Des lampes comme des regards d’aveugles derrière la vitre d’un hôpital!  De vieilles gens sans doute, des âmes lasses d’infinies résignations!  D’anciennes douleurs de jeunes filles regardant neiger le silence à travers le cloître de leur coeur.  “Il était un beau prince!  Et ri et ri, petit rigodon!”  Pourquoi la triste chanson me revient-elle surtout ce soir?  Pourquoi grelotte-t-elle à la porte comme un vieux pauvre chargé des reliques d’un autre âge?  Il y a si longtemps qu’elle est morte, la princesse: le beau prince sans doute n’en a jamais rien su…  Mes mains, séchez les pleurs de mes yeux.

(Sur le pont tout à coup quelqu’un apparaît, un homme don’t on n’aperçoit pas le visage à travers la neige et la nuit.  Il s’arrête près du crucifix et regarde du côté de la fenêtre.  Elle rit.)

Le voilà, mon prince Charmant…  Il y a six ans qu’il passe sur le pont, tous les soirs, à la même heure.  J’ignore son nom; je sais seulement qu’il a des cheveux blancs.  Il passe, il regarde; nous ne nous sommes jamais rien dit.  Mes soeurs l’appellent: l’ange des dernières pensées du jour.  Et ensuite ce n’est plus qu’une ombre au bout de ce canal…  Il s’en ira dans un instant comme il s’en est allé tous les autres soirs.

Ah! qui aurait dit, quand nous étions quatres petites soeurs chantant cette antique ballade, qu’un si vieux monsieur s’arrêterait devant ma tour et que je serais la princesse des espoirs qui ne doivent pas se réaliser!  Je ne tiens plus au monde pourtant que par cette charité d’un regard qui se tourne vers ma vitre…

(L’inconnu fait un geste et quitte le pont.)

Parti!  Et ce geste encore depuis six ans, ce geste dont toujours il semble se résigner et prendre à témoin le ciel de l’impossibilité de franchir la distance qui nous sépare…  Il n’y a cependant là qu’une flaque d’eau, il n’y a que des silences d’un peu d’eau qui dort!  Mon coeur est une maison au bord d’un canal, avec une fenêtre derrière laquelle veille mon amour et où se réfléchit le regret d’un passant.

(La nuit est entièrement tombée; une douceur de sommeil pèse sur la ville.  Là-bas, les hautes fenêtres de l’église se découpent, étincelantes.)

Seigneur, je mêle ma voix à celles de vos humbles servantes…  Seigneur, prenez en pitié ma longue peine…   Donnez-moi la force de continuer jusqu’au bout ce voile de mariée, afin que, n’ayant pu servir à ma vie, il serve au moins à ma bonne mort…  Et vous, mes mains, mes pauvres mains flétries, si, à force de vider les bobines, le fil venait à vous manquer, prenez les lins de mes cheveux, prenez à mes tempes les fils sur lesquels a neigé l’hiver.

(Elle ferme les rideaux, allume sa lampe et se remet à sa dentelle.)

A gap in the curtains reveals, through a window, frosted as on a winter’s evening, a canal.  The houses on the other side border on a quay.  To the left, the arch of an old bridge, and on it is erected a crucifix.  It is snowing, in the distance the apse of a dilapidated church is visible, distorted by the perspective.

THE YOUNG GIRL AT THE WINDOW, making lace.

My hands, my little hands, my pale hands, never a bride’s hands, you’ve kept the bobbins dancing all this afternoon!….  It’s my sad life that winds itself, thread by thread, around the golden pins, and the threads are drawn from my heart, the threads stretch from my heart to my fingers, the beautiful threads that hold my heart captive.

My sisters, if he doesn’t come, the One who I’ve been waiting for, you must pull out the pins, you must detach the lace, and you must spread over my darkened eyes…  I started it with the threads of May…  It was snowing then with hawthorn blossom, the evenings were full of little girls in white dresses; in the church, the organs sang the Month of Mary.  And my heart, too, was a church where, behind the stained-glass windows, under a little lamp, my Jesus was radiant.  He smiled at me with the true form of my own heart; and I gently washed his wounds with tears that had not yet acquired the taste of salt!

My hands, my joyous hands that are never tired, this was my bridal veil which, back then, you decorated with daisies and stars…  The priest has left the chapel; the choirboy has extinguished the candles on the altar; the organs are silent in the evenings.  Winter had come; and I still made my beautiful veil with snow-white threds.  My hands spun the snow that fell in the winter of my heart, they first made the thread with which they now complete the sad veil.

My heart is a church where, after mass, faces with blank eyes like the rooms of the dead pass by.  Mothers plead for their sick child.  An aged spinster carries her heart in her fingers and offers it to the merciful Saints.

I am that mother, Lord, pleading for my sick love, I am that old spinster, Lord!  I commit into your hands the sad offering of my unfulfilled heart.  Empty the bobbins!  My tears have long since hardened the thread into crystal; the lace has frozen under my tears into brilliant, callous frost flowers.

Tell me, tell me, my sisters, will the veil, when it is spread out, be long enough to reach from face to my heart?

(The church bells ring.  She watches as the stained-glass windows light up in the choir.  Cloaked figures cross the bridge.)

I know them, they’re always the same, ever since I’ve worked at this window, the same evening faces, the same prayers: winter has fallen on these souls too.  My hopes are as worn out as their knees inclined before the alters…  Every evening they pass by covered by their large cloaks as the bells ring; they make the sign of the cross before the crucifix; they flock towards candles and hymns like birds flapping beside their aviaries.  My heart crosses a bridge, my heart approaches a chapel where the priest died long ago.  No lamp burns behind the windows, no incense drifts under the vaults; and yet my Jesus lies amidst gold and sweet-smelling herbs.

Silence!  My heart knocked on the door, the door did not open, the door will never open.  Oh! ring out you bells! ring out my death knell!  My prayers know a chapel as silent as the grave.

(She lets the bobbins fall and dreams, her gaze distracted, lost in the snow falling slowly in flakes.)

There used to be four of us, four little sisters around a table.  One left, on an evening when it was snowing just like now; she wasn’t even fifteen.  No doubt she had been, since she was in her cradle, afianced to a handsome young man as pale as the moon…  And then the table became too big for the other three.  Annie! my darling Annie, why am I not lying in your place in the little bier where your lilies flower for all eternity.  I was the eldest; it would have only needed a little more wood for the coffin…

When there four, in the evenings, in the garden, the little sisters danced a round singing “There was a handsome prince, tee hee, little rigodon…”  Oh! I don’t want to sing that any more.  A princess hidden in a tower hopes for the arrival of a handsome prince…  The handsome prince passed close by; he passed right by the tower; the little princess died of heartache because the handsome prince did not discover the key to the tower…  Annie, my darling Annie, when it snows, aren’t those the frozen tears of pale young girls falling from the stars – the poor young girls crying for the handsome lover who never came?  Tell me, sweet Annie, isn’t it the little hands of young girls that spin the lint up there in the stars to bind the wounds of those who have been left behind?

(A lamp lights up in the house opposite.)

The good lady will soon come down with her dog into the street, she will watch him for a moment running around in the snow, then she’ll call him back.  Then, through the thin lace curtain, I will see that good lady pour hot water on her tea, add a few stiches to her tapestry… (Ah! always the same one these long years!)… then she’ll fall asleep, her little dog on her knees: they have never known the light weight of a child.

(Other windows light up.)

Ah!  More lamps!  Lamps like eyes red with weeping!  Lamps like the eyes of blind people behind hospital windows!  Old people, no doubt, their souls worn out by countless renunciations.  The timeworn sorrows of young girls watching the snow fall in silence through the cloister of their heart.  “There was a handsome prince! Tee hee, little rigodon!’  Why does that sad song haunt me this evening?  Why does it tremble at the door like an old beggar burdened with the relics of another age?  She died so long ago, the princess: the handsome prince doubtless never knew anything about it… My hands, wipe away the tears from my eyes.

(Suddenly someone appears on the bridge, a man whose face is indistinguishable through the snow and the gathering night.  He stops by the crucifix and looks up at the window.  She smiles.)

There he is, my prince Charming…  For six years he has crossed the bridge, every evening at the same time.  I don’t know his name; I only know he has silver hair.  He’s going past, he looks up; we’ve never exchanged a word.  My sisters call him: the angel of the day’s last thoughts.  And then he’s nothing more than a shadow at the end of the canal…  He’ll be gone in a moment just as he does every other evening.

Oh! who could have known, when we were four little sisters singing that outmoded ballad, that such an old gentleman would stop before my tower and that I would be the princess of hopes that can never be fulfilled!  I am indifferent to the world except for the kindness of that glance up towards my window…

(The unknown man makes a gesture and leaves the bridge.)

Gone! And that same gesture all these six years past, a gesture that seems to say he is resigned and takes Heaven as his witness to the impossibility of surmounting the distance that separates us…  Yet it’s nothing but a pool of water, there’s just silences and a little stretch of motionless water!  My heart is a house by the edge of a canal, with a window behind which my love keeps watch and in which are reflected the regrets of a passer-by.

(Night has fallen completely; a sweet sleep enfolds the town.  Further away, the high windows of the church stand out, glittering.)

O Lord, I entwine my voice with those of your humble servants…  O Lord, take pity on my long suffering…  Grant me the strength to finsh this wedding veil so that, never having served me in life, it will at least serve me in death…  And you, my hands, my poor jaded hands, if after you’ve emptied the bobbins, you lack thread, takes threads from my hair, take from my temples the threads on which winter has snowed.

(She closes the curtains, lights her lamp, and takes up her pillow again.)

 

The lace industry = a cottage industry. A representation of a lacemaker’s work environment

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.

In an album compiled by Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) between 1915 and 1919, a photograph depicts three generations of Belgian lacemakers working together at the beginning of the twentieth century, yet it might also be a staged montage. Belgium, Brussels, Art & History Museum. Photo: author.

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]

Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977) with umbrella, her husband Baron Josse Allard (1868-1931), their five children and their dogs. Photo: Wikiwand.

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
wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be

 

[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.

[iii] Ibid.

[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.

Praying for White Lace: The Feast of Our Lady of the Snows in Turnhout

‘The Miracle of the Snows’. Late C15, probably Flemish painting.

A very belated post for the Feast of Our Lady of the Snows, which fell on 5 August.  One of the Virgin Mary’s many titles, her legend is set in 4th century Rome, where a couple wanted to leave their fortune to the Virgin but had not decided how it should be spent.  At the height of summer, snow fell on the Esquiline Hill, and this miracle was taken as a sign that a church should be built there – what is now the Basilica of St Mary Major.  Until the fifteenth century Our Lady of the Snows was a largely Roman cult, but during the Counter-Reformation it spread across the Catholic world.

Our Lady of the Snows was much celebrated by lacemakers.  Some Bruges lacemakers said a daily prayer to her to keep their lace snow-white, as money would be deducted from their earnings if their lace was tarnished.[1]  (Historically lacemakers had several ways of making their lace as white as snow; some, such as the use of white lead, were incredibly damaging to their health.)  Lacemakers in the same city carried a gift of lace to the statue of Our Lady of the Snows in Bruges cathedral on her feast day.[2]  Brussels lacemakers had done the same until her chapel was pulled down during the French occupation of the city.[3]  However, we only know of two places where she was the patron of lacemakers: Almagro in central Spain – to which we hope to return – and Turnhout on the Belgian border with the Netherlands, which is our focus today.

The model lace school in the Klinkstraat, Turnhout, founded in 1910. Old Postcard.

Unlike other Flemish centres, the lace industry in Turnhout seems to have thrived into the first decades of the twentieth century.  According to the American visitor Charlotte Kellogg, half the female population of the city were involved in the trade, including 1,800 girls and young women enrolled in the numerous lace schools.[4]  The largest of these were the religious institutions run by the Sisters of the Sacred Heart and the Sisters of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the model school established in 1910 by Father Berraly, but there were also many smaller, private institutions with 30 to 50 lace apprentices.  Turnhout lacemakers graduated from the supposedly easier ‘Engelsche grond’ (point de Paris) to ‘halve slag’ (point de Lille) to the extremely fine and very expensive ‘Ijsgrond’ (point de Malines).  Perhaps it was this specialism in difficult laces that kept the handmade lace business buoyant in the region.  A Dutch socialist newspaper in 1910 complained that the women workers earned only 9-10 francs a week for 70-80 hours work, but compared with salaries in other centres in the west of Belgium this was comparatively high.[5]  The trainees in the lace schools earned much less, of course.  None the less, lacemakers in Turnhout had a strong sense of their own skill and worth, which found expression in their songs and in their patronal feastday celebrations.[6]

A lace school working in the open air. Turnhout postcard

As we’ve seen in previous posts about Saint Gregory’s in Geraardsbergen and Klein-Sacramentsdag in Ypres, the feastday celebrations were led by the lace schools rather than lacemakers more generally – indeed in Turnhout the day was named ‘domineeren’, that is the teachers’ holiday (akin to ‘dominie’ in Scots).  On the morning of the Saturday nearest to 5 August, the lace apprentices, in costumes covered with ribbons and paper streamers, formed rows behind a ceremonial arch likewise decorated with paper flowers and coloured, blown eggshells, from which was suspended a life-size effigy of a lacemaker at her pillow.  Each school, led by its mistress, then marched through the city, ‘singing, skipping, laughing and chattering’ as they went according to one witness, towards one of the numerous chapels and wayside shrines nearby.  The most popular was the chapel of Our Lady of the Snows (Onze Lieve Vrouw ter Sneeuw) in Oosthoven.

The chapel of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw ter Sneeuw in Oosthoven, near Turnhout

Here is one of the songs the lacemakers sang on their way:

Den dag is nu al aangekomen,
Den dag van O.L.V. Ter Sneeuw,
Hoe zullen wij dezen dag nu vieren,
Den dag dat wij nu feest genieten.
The day has now arrived,
The day of Our Lady of the Snows,
How shall we celebrate this day,
This day on which we enjoy a party.
Refrein: Het is maar voor de jonge jeugd,
De feest die wij nu vieren,
Dan roepen wij met een blij gemoed,
Dan gaan wij naar den doolhof toe.
Chorus: It’s only for the young,
The feast that we’re now celebrating,
Then we’ll shout with an eager heart,
Then we’ll go to ‘the Maze’ (a wilderness area near Oosthoven)
Als wij in den doolhof zijn gekomen,
Wat zullen wij dan eens gaan doen,
Wij zullen ons eigen goed gedragen,
En ons Meesteressen geerne zien.
As we come to the Maze,
What shall we do there,
We shall do ourselves some good,
And our mistresses see with pleasure.

Some schools visited the chapel of Onze-Lieve-Vrouw van Troost in Lokeren instead

After a brief ceremony at the chapel, where the lacemakers prayed to Our Lady of the Snows that their lace should always remain white, the group travelled on to one of the nearby country inns, such as ‘De Vrat’ which features in one song.  Here the mistress stood the workers a drink – beer for the older girls, sage milk for the younger – and many ‘mastellen’, a local type of cinnamon bun (which also is named in a song).

Mastellen in the oven. Eaten ‘without number’ by lacemakers on the feastday of Our Lady of the Snows

In return the lacemakers toasted their mistresses:

Vivat onze Meesteressen,
Zij hebben voor ons zooveel gedaan,
Zij hebben ons slagjes leeren maken,
En onze handjes laten gaan.
Long live our mistresses,
They have done so much for us,
They have taught us how to make stitches,
And let loose our hands.
Refrein: En zullen wij dan eens schoon palleeren,
En onze geldekens daaraan geven,
Als wij den druk der scholen zien,
Hoe wij de feest van de werksters zien.
Chorus: And then we shall doll ourselves up,
And spend our money,
As we see the schools busy,
That’s how we see the workers’ feastday.
Engelsche grond willen wij niet werken,
Dat is voor ons veel te gemijn,
Dat is maar voor de kleine kinderen,
Die eerst op ‘t werken gekomen zijn.
We don’t want to make ‘Point de Paris’,
That’s too base for us,
That’s more for the small children,
That’s the first work they do.
Wij kunnen allerhande kanten werken,
Zoowel ijsgrond als halve slag,
En daar een bloemeke in zetten,
Zoowel een rooske als eenen tak.
We can make all kinds of lace,
‘Point de Malines’ as much as ‘Point de Lille’
And set a flower in it,
A rose as easily as a sprig.
Wij hebben den naaam dat wij zijn lui werksters,
Wel lieve vrienden het is niet waar,
En komt dan Zaterdag’s eens kijken,
Of dat er een zonder cent zal gaan.
People say we’re lazy workers,
But friends that’s just not true,
Just come and have a look on Saturday,
Whether any of us is penniless.

But while the lacemakers celebrated their skill, as we have seen on other Flemish holidays they could also express frustrations with the demands the work placed upon them:

Een en dertig, twee en dertig,
drij, vier, vijf, zes, zeven en dertig!
Toujours,toujours
En mijnen boutenbak, mijnen boutenbak!
Toujours, toujours,
En mijnen boutenbak viel op den vloer!
One and thirty, two and thirty,
Three, four, five, six, seven and thirty!
Still, still
And my bobbin-case, my bobbin-case!
Still, still,
My bobbin-case lies on the floor!
Ongeneerd zoo zullen wij wezen,
ongeneerd zoo zullen wij zijn!
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen, vreugde rapen;
Laat ons, laat ons
vreugde rapen al onder ons!
Unabashed we shall become,
Unabashed we shall be,
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure, gather pleasure:
Let us, let us
Gather pleasure among us!

On the journey back to the city, the various schools taunted each other:

Al de scholen gaan te niet,
uitgenomen, uitgenomen,
al de scholen gaan te niet,
uitgenomen Lis Verwilt’es niet!
All the schools are rubbish,
Except, except,
All the schools are rubbish,
Except Lis Verwilt’s, that’s not!

But before they went home, there was one last symbolic act: the lacemakers’ burnt their festive arch and their lacemaker guy – a reprensentation of their teacher? – in a field, while singing:

En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verspeld
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve thrown away our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!
En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
En wij hebben onzen boog verbrand
in Oosthoven, op het veld!
And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, in Oosthoven!
And we’ve burnt our arch
In Oosthoven, on the field!

Most of these songs were first collected by Canon Jozef Jansen, a priest and also later Turnhout’s archivist.  He noted that the custom was already moribund in 1910.  However, when another priest-cum-local historian Jozef Nuyts wrote an account of the feastday in 1939, he could still find living witnesses to tell him about it, while the radio producer Pol Heyns was able to record schoolchilden in Turnhout singing several of the songs.  Links to these recordings are provided here:

Een-en-dertig, twee-en-dertig

Al de scholen gaan teniet

En we hebben een boog besteld

Pol Heyns (top right) on his radio car, from which he recorded songs all over Flanders. From the website https://schrijversgewijs.be/schrijvers/heyns-pol/

[1] M[agda] C[afmeyer], ‘Leerschool en spellewerkschool te St.-Kruis’, ‘t Beertje (1969): 20-48, 34.

[2] Rond den Heerd 5, no. 36 (July 1870): p. 282 ‘Dagwijzer’.  This cult is mentioned in Guido Gezelle’s poem ‘Spellewerkend zie ‘k u geerne’, to which we dedicated a previous post.

[3] Baron Otto von Reinsberg-Düringsfeld, Traditions et légendes de la Belgique: Descriptions des fêtes religieuses et civiles, usages, croyances et pratiques populaires des Belges anciens et modernes (Brussels, 1870), vol. 2, p. 74.

[4] Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium (New York, 1920), chap. 1.

[5] ‘Iets over huisarbeid’, De Proletarische Vrouw, 1 October 1910, p. 2.

[6] Most of the information in this post comes from two articles in the local historical journal: Jozef Jansen, ‘De kantvervaardiging in Turnhout: Haar geschiedenis en bewerking’, Taxandria 8 (1911), p. 117- 82; Jozef Nuyts, ‘Het Domineeren der Turnhoutsche Kantwerksters’, Annuaire de la Commission de la vieille chanson populaire (1939): 119-33.  A special issue of the journal Taxandria was dedicated to the Turnhout lace industry in 2003.

War Lace

For centuries, lace was primarily produced by the poor for the rich, who ornamented themselves and their dwellings with the luxury fabric. This was also true for Belgian lace, but nevertheless it was promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.

I am a postdoctoral researcher from KU Leuven (Leuven, Belgium) and currently an academic visitor at the Oxford Centre for European History (Oxford, United Kingdom). My research focuses on war lace, lace produced by Belgian lacemakers during the First World War. Some of these lace pieces refer directly to the conflict. They include names of people and places, inscriptions, dates, portraits and coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Nations, of the nine Belgian provinces or of the Belgian towns who suffered most during the German invasion. A few of the distinctive war laces have been designed by Belgian artists – such as Isidore De Rudder (1855-1943), Fernand Khnopff (1858-1921) and Juliette Wytsman-Trullemans (1866-1925) – whose exceptional laces have been studied for their iconography and their aesthetic quality, before being placed within the larger history of lace production in Belgium.[1] However, I am more interested to use war lace as a starting point to explore the relations between craft, women and humanitarian aid.

Juliette Wytsman (designer), Maison Daimeries-Petitjean (manufacturer and dealer), Monogrammed fan leaf with designer’s name, 1915-1916. Point de Gaze needle lace, 5 in x 17 in; 12.7 cm x 43.18 cm. Washington D.C., National Museum of American History.

In early August 1914, Belgium was violently invaded by German troops, who conquered the majority of the country and occupied it for the remainder of the war.[2] The years of occupation meant hunger and unemployment for the circa 7.5 million Belgian civilians.

The supply of food and its distribution became a problem almost immediately. The situation particularly deteriorated in the major cities and industrial areas.[3] In early September 1914, Brand Whitlock (1869-1934), the American minister to Brussels, noted: ‘Then we began to note a new phenomenon – new, at least, in Brussels – women begging in the street. Hunger, another of war’s companions, had come to town.’[4] Local and national initiatives were taken to relieve hunger and to avoid starvation, but they proved to be insufficient. Before the war, more than half of food consumed in Belgium had been imported.[5] This was now impossible, because the closure of the national borders and the installation of the Allied blockade cut Belgians off from the international food market. An international partner who could import food from abroad was sought and found in the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB), newly established for the purpose. The CRB was an American relief organisation founded and chaired by the engineer, businessman and later 31st U.S. President Herbert C. Hoover (1874-1964).[6] For more than fifty months, the CRB helped feed nearly ten million people, first in occupied Belgium and later also in occupied Northern France.  It collected one billion dollars and imported five million tons of food via the port of Rotterdam from where it was transported into the occupied areas. In Belgium their local partner, the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation (CN), distributed the food to the towns and municipalities.[7] In spite of these impressive numbers, the food supply and distribution was inadequate. This was especially the case during the second half of the war. After a visit to Brussels in September 1917, the Belgian Countess Henriette de Villermont (1855-1940) noted in her diary: ‘All the fat people have disappeared.’[8] Nevertheless, actual starvation was avoided during the entire war.

Herbert C. Hoover, the later 31st President of the U.S. (1874-1964). Wikipedia.

In addition to food aid, the CRB set up employment schemes, as did other philanthropists, charity organisations and local, regional and national authorities. The need was great: a large part of the Belgian population was hit by unemployment, because many industries remained closed during the occupation. As the Belgian historian Sophie De Schaepdrijver explains ‘The restrictions on imports of raw materials and the exportation of goods, the impossibility of commuting, the ban on communication between citizens of different municipalities, the requisitionings of material, the war taxes and fines, the closure of factories and workshops unwilling to work for the occupiers, and the dismantling of infrastructure, all paralysed honest activity.’[9] Creating employment benefitted not only the worker who once again had an income, but also the CRB’s food aid programme. Unemployed Belgians would receive their daily meal for free, but employed ones were enabled to buy their food. If more people could pay for their foodstuffs, the CRB had more money with which to purchase, import and distribute food.

Employment schemes were particularly concerned with the large sector of women who had been wage-dependent before the war, because they suffered the most from job scarcity. The schemes focussed on women’s activities in the home and they included childcare, cooking, sewing and lacemaking.[10] Before the war the Belgian lace industry had employed circa 50,000 women, who were now (or threatened to be) unemployed due to the shortage of raw materials as well as the dearth of clients: Belgian lace had always been an export product.[11] Associations that had already concerned themselves with lacemakers welfare before the war – they were a notoriously poorly paid group – continued to interest themselves, while new initiatives were introduced to support lacemakers. However, these proved inadequate as the Allied blockade prevented the import of thread and the export of lace from occupied Belgium.[12] The American-born Viscountess de Beughem, née Irone Hare (1885-1979), one of the core members of the pre-war Comité de la dentelle, brought the fate of the lacemakers in occupied Belgium to the attention of Herbert Hoover of the CRB.[13] Years later, she recalled in an interview how she had insisted on meeting Hoover during his visit to Brussels in January 1915. When she did meet him,

‘[h]e said, “It appears you have something to ask me.” And I said, “Indeed I have, Mr. Hoover, and it’s very important.”‘ The viscountess then explained to him the condition of the lacemakers. ‘So Mr. Hoover saw me through, and I thought – there was no reaction whatever. You know how he would sit without any expression. […] And he finally looked and said to me: “I will do what I can.” And during the whole war he brought in the thread on the canals, on the boats that brought in the flour, and took out the lace.’[14]

Unknown maker, Collar with attached tag, 1914-1918. Lace, bobbin lace, Brussels, Droschel, overall, lace: 57 in x 2 1/4 in; 144.78 cm x 5.715 cm. Washington D.C., National Museum of American History.

The lace was exported to the U.S. and Allied Countries with France and the United Kingdom as the other main destinations. There the many qualities of the fabric, the wide range of products, the reasonable prices, the renown of Belgian lace, the deplorable situation of the Belgian lacemaker – who nevertheless made the best of her hardship – were pointed out to the buyer.[15] The Little Paris Shop located at the Huntingdon Avenue in Boston used a mixture of these sales strategies in their advertisement of Belgian lace:

Belgian Laces made Belgium Famous. Queen Elizabeth of Belgium has under her protection the Belgian lace makers because the village folks, old and young, mothers and even men make an honest living by it. Belgian laces are durable, washable, wearable for Christenings, marriages, gifts, etc. just beautiful and many times precious. Belgium laces: have a souvenir of it. They are for all pockets from 25c up. Lace makers work in groups from 6a.m. to 7p.m. year after year; they spend their days in work, songs, talks and prayers. They are happy when there is plenty of work.[16]

The Belgian lacemaker quickly became the primary focus of the propaganda (as we have seen in a previous post on their place in First World War poetry). An example is a series of postcards showing Belgian lacemakers practising their craft in their war-ravaged surroundings.[17] One of these postcards depicts a well-fed young woman dressed in simple dark clothes and a white apron, industriously making bobbin lace. Working quietly and seemingly unaware of the viewer’s gaze, she sits in a field with in the background the ruins of a church on the left, a large cross in the middle and seemingly intact buildings on the right. The other postcards show the same type of imagery: female lacemakers of different ages who are well-nourished – thus demonstrating the success of the CRB’s food relief programme – who continue their work proving the heroic stoicism of Belgians living and labouring under the German occupation.  The women are pictured in or nearby their lace schools, homes and churches, as if to demonstrate the women’s commitment to their craft, their families and their faith.

Cliché des ‘Amies de la Dentelle,’ A Belgian woman making bobbin lace in front of a destroyed church, ca. 1920. U.S., Palo Alto, CA, Hoover Institution, Commission for Relief in Belgium records, box 640.

Lace had always been a luxury item. In general during times of war or hardship, the production of luxury goods is normally discouraged or even entirely abandoned. This was not the case with Belgian lace, though it was a question raised at the time. After the U.S. entered the First World War in April 1917, opposition increased to luxury expenditure: witness the article ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’, published in Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers on 4th October 1917:

One of the very latest features of Belgian relief in which the American authorities are just now interesting themselves, aims to enlist the patronage of American women for Belgian lace workers […] Thus to encourage luxury production in one quarter and discourage luxury production in general in the United States would manifestly be an inconsistent, if not incomprehensible attitude.[18]

Lawrence Sterne Stevens, Belgian Lace is not a luxury, 1914-1918. Belgium, Brussels, National Archives of Belgium.

This kind of criticism explains why the CRB issued a poster for use in the UK stating ‘Belgian Lace is not a Luxury’. The drawing above the caption immediately pointed the contemporary viewer to what really mattered: the destitute Belgian lacemaker who could only survive in her war-ravaged surroundings thanks to her craft and her international supporters. This strategy diverted attention from lace as a luxury item. Belgian lace was successfully promoted as a humanitarian textile during the First World War.

 

Wendy Wiertz, postdoctoral researcher KU Leuven | academic visitor Oxford Centre for European History

wendy.wiertz@kuleuven.be | wendy.wiertz@history.ox.ac.uk

[1] 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, ‘War and Peace. Lace designs by the Belgian Sculptor Isidore de Rudder (1855-1943)’, Bulletin van het Rijksmuseum 37: 2 (1989): pp. 73-90; Patricia Wardle, 75x Lace (Zwolle: Waanders, 2000), cat. nr. 75.

[2] Antoon Vrints, ‘“All the Butter in the Country Belongs to Us, Belgians”: Well-Being and Lower-Class National Identification in Belgium during the First World War’, in Maarten Van Ginderachter and Marnix Beyen (eds) Nationhood from Below. Europe in the Long Nineteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2012), p. 234; Sophie De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog. Het koninkrijk België tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog, 5th ed. (Antwerp/Amsterdam: Houtekiet/Atlas Contact, 2014), pp 13-125; Éliane Gubin and Catherine Jacques with the corporation of Claudine Marissal, Enclyclopédie d’histoire des femmes. Belgique, XIXe-XXe siècles (Brussels: Racine, 2018), pp. 266-73.

[3] Antoon Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization: Contentious Food Politics in Belgium during World War I’, European History Quarterly 45:1 (2015): 234-5; Giselle Nath, Brood willen we hebben! Honger, sociale politiek en protest tijdens de Eerste Wereldoorlog in België (Antwerp: Manteau, 2013), 45-63; De Schaepdrijver, De Groote Oorlog, 114-16.

[4] Brand Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative (New York: D. Appleton, 1919), vol. 1, p. 239.

[5] Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, 45.

[6] Herbert Hoover, The Memoirs of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York: Macmillan, 1951-52); George H. Nash, The Life of Herbert Hoover, 3 vols (New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1983-96); Kenneth Whyte, Hoover. An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2017).

[7] From the start of the food aid programme, the CRB sought publicize its activities through press coverage, posters, reports and overviews, while several American volunteer CRB collaborators wrote about their experiences in occupied Belgium during and shortly after the war. The latter include Tracy B. Kittredge, The History of the Commission for Relief in Belgium, 1914-1917 (London: Crowther and Goodman, 1920); Vernon L. Kellogg, Fighting Starvation in Belgium (Garden City [NY]: Doubleday, 1918); George I. Gay, The Commission for Relief in Belgium. Statistical Review of Relief Operations (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1925); Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, 3 vols (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959-61); These publications prioritized American perceptions and expectations of Belgian gratitude, which have sometimes been echoed uncritically by contemporary researchers: Tammy M. Proctor, Civilians in a World at War 1914-1918 (New York/London: New York University Press, 2010), pp. 189-92; Bruno Cabanes, The Great War and the Origins of Humanitarianism, 1918-1924 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2014), pp. 206-213; Barry Riley, The Political History of American Food Aid. An Uneasy Benevolence (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), pp. 12-32. Multilingual research on critical voices of national and local committees and of the targets of aid have countered this one-sided American view, adding to a more multifaceted view of CRB food aid in occupied Belgium: Sophie de Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort: the Comité National de Secours et d’Alimentation in Occupied Belgium, 1914-1918’, in Remembering Herbert Hoover and the Commission for Relief in Belgium (Brussels: Fondation Universitaire – Universitaire Stichting, 2006), 26-37; Nath, Brood willen we hebben!, pp. 45-63; Vrints, ‘Beyond Victimization’: 83-107.

[8] Belgium, private archives, diary of Countess Henriette de Villermont kept between 1884 and 1918: ‘4 septembre 1917, les grosses personnes ont disparu’.

[9] De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, p. 32.

[10] Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium. Turning Tragedy to Triumph (New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1917), pp. 127, 137-57, 167-78; De Schaepdrijver, ‘A Civilian War Effort’, pp. 24, 32-35; Éliane Gubin et al., ‘Women’s Mobilization for War (Belgium)’, in Ute Daniel et al (eds) 1914-1918-online. International Encyclopedia of the First World War, Freie Universität Berlin, Berlin 2016-09-21; Gubin and Jacques, Encyclopédie d’histoire des femmes en Belgique, 19e et 20e siècle, pp. 266-73; 577-79.

[11] The number of 45,000 to 50,000 are commonly cited. Yet, Isabel Anderson, author of The Spell of Belgium, wrote ‘[w]here a generation ago one hundred and fifty thousand women were employed, in 1910 there were barely twenty thousand.’ Isabel Anderson, The Spell of Belgium, 5th ed. (Boston: The Page Company, 1922), p. 149. There might have been more lacemakers as for many women, the craft was not a fulltime occupation. Therefore, they did not define themselves as lacemakers in the census. Nonetheless, the number of lacemakers diminished drastically in the second half of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth centuries. See also David Hopkin, ‘Working, Singing, and Telling in the 19th-Century Flemish Pillow-Lace Industry’, Textile 18:1 (2020): 55.

[12] Martine Bruggeman, Lace in Flanders. History and Contemporary Art (Tielt: Lannoo, 2018), pp. 88-9.

[13] The Viscountess de Beughem was one of the core members of the CD alongside Countess Élisabeth d’Oultremont (1867-1971), lady-in-waiting to the Belgian Queen Elisabeth; Baroness Josse Allard, née Marie-Antoinette Calley Saint-Paul de Sinçay (1881-1977), an amateur artist and wife of a banker; 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. Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, pp. 549-50; Evelyn McMillan, ‘War, Lace, and Survival in Belgium During World War I’, PieceWork Spring (2020): pp. 47-8.

[14] U.S., West Branch IA, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, oral history interview with Vicomtesse de Beughem by Raymond Henle, director, 16 November 1966, at 3945 Connecticut Avenue, N.W., Washington D.C. This story was also mentioned by Herbert Hoover in the first volume of his publication An American Epic. Herbert Hoover, An American Epic, vol. 1 Introduction. The Relief of Belgium and Northern France 1914-1930 (Chicago: Henry Regnery, 1959), pp. 410-11. The British were especially reluctant to open the blockade for the trade of Belgian lace. They feared the Germans, who had erected their own lace agency, the Spitzen-Zentrale, might succeed in their efforts to control a revived Belgian lace industry. Kellogg, Women of Belgium, p. 160; Whitlock, Belgium. A Personal Narrative, vol. 1, p. 419; Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium, pp. 120-23; Marguerite Coppens, Kant uit het Koningshuis, exhibition catalogue Brussels, Bank Brussel Lambert (Brussel: Weissenburch, 1990), pp. 116-19.

[15] Jennifer D. Keene, ‘Americans Respond. Perspectives on the Global War, 1914-1917‘, Geschichte und Gesellschaft 40 (2014): pp. 266-86.

[16] Private collection.

[17] U.S., Palo Alto, CA, Hoover Institution, Commission for Relief in Belgium records, box 640: series of postcards.

[18] ‘How fare the luxuries in war-time?’ Printer’s Ink. A New York Journal for Advertisers, 4 October 1917.

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