Dating back all the way to the 15th and 16th century, lace making in Belgium is intrinsic and integral to the cultural heritage of the country. Intricate, graceful and sophisticated, the unique feature of authentic Belgium lace is that it is totally handmade and made largely with bobbins, needle pins and other techniques. Known earlier as Flemish lace, Ghent, Antwerp, Bruges and Brussels were the main centres of lace making. A valuable commodity, lace was considered an asset and even mentioned in the property list of the rich and wealthy. Often made by women of the middle and lower classes to gain extra income, the art of lace making was anonymous with no indication or signature of the maker.
Over the years, scores of patterns were created along with various techniques known as Fairy point, Rosealine, Duchesse and the like. By the 1800s more than 150,000 women were involved in this craft. The mid 1900s saw a steady decline in the art of lace making as women preferred to work in factories that paid more wages. However, in the present day, there has been a steady ‘lace renaissance’ in the country with several institutes, museums and workshops working towards the objective of preserving this handicraft for the present and future generations.
An insight into Belgium lace
The Fashion and Lace museum located in the city centre of Brussels is a great place to learn about the history, evolution and heritage of lace making in Belgium. A must visit if you are a fan of all things handmade and delicate, this unique museum in Brussels provides an insight into this unique craft that has been synonymous with the Flanders region.
Founded in 1977, the museum spread across 3 floors, has several interesting displays of lace and textiles from the yesteryears, has information about the nuances of lace making as well as hosts temporary exhibitions. While handmade linen was initially used to produce lace, the linen used later became mechanized.
The first part of the displays is related to the manufacturing process and one can see the how the bobbins were placed on a pillow on whose surface the pattern is predefined. The holes on the pillow indicate where the pins are inserted and by the successive movements of the bobbin, the decorative mesh was created. The different kinds of pillows used for different kinds of laces are also on display. For e.g. square pillows are used for continuous thread and cut thread bobbin lace while round pillows are used for part lace. The techniques by which individual motifs were joined in part lace through ‘picote’ bars, round mesh and ‘drochel’ (a hexagonal mesh) is also depicted.
The step by step process of manufacturing needle point laces are also depicted. The different kinds of lace based on the technique, material, colours and motifs are displayed and the same has also been categorized based on their place of origin (Mechlin, Brussels etc).
The museum also gives visitors an idea of how this craft took birth and its evolution including the dynamics of the production chain led by the merchant manufacturer, designer, pattern maker and finally the workers. The diversification of Belgium lace from the 19th to 20th century which gave rise to the mixed lace is also shown. The intricacies and the techniques behind the crafting of the ‘point de rose’ and ‘Duchess lace’ are noteworthy and explained in detail.
Lace as an item of luxury and the multiple ways in which it is used both as an element of sophistication and an object of art whether on a French coat, knee breaches or an evening skirt is portrayed in a display case. Another display case known as the ‘Cabinet of curiosities’ display an usual collection of objects all related to lace in one way or the other. Paintings depicting how men and women chose to use lace in their cuffs, collars, stocks and then jabots to enhance their attires are yet other engaging displays in the museum.
This article was originally published in The Tribune here.