It is a picturesque sight among all that which some of our Flemish and Brabant villages present in the hottest hours of a fine summer day. The men are in the fields, and yet, along the roads bordered by the great poplars bent by the winter winds, in the courtyards of the farms, under the shades of the orchards, in front of the small houses enclosed by tiny gardens, and even on the thresholds of those humble chapels which tell the passer-by of the spirit of faith of a simple and strong race, there reigns the activity of bees at work. Hundreds of women are there, sitting in small groups, bent over large cloth tiles and waving blackened wooden spindles with singular ardour. Under their fingers, the diaphanous fabric appears which will soon become the ornament, delicate among all, of happy Beauty; old and young, mothers and daughters, all are making lace. The sun puts gold in the foliage and makes the whiteness of the low houses with green shutters burst; it illuminates the red roofs and blossoms softly on the mossy thatches. With its warm rays it caresses the rosy, animated cheeks of the little lace-makers and gives a little of its cheerfulness to the thin, pale faces of the old women; it plays between the nimble fingers, on the blue fabric of the tiles and on the whiteness of the laces; it makes the copper pins that support the impalpable weft shine. And, in this feast for the eyes, the rustling of the spindles, thousands of which clash, is like a very soft and monotonous music,
a continuous rustle, a kind of dull and discreet accompaniment to the peculiar laughter of the young and the cackling of the old.
Tireless and skilful, these women pass on from generation to generation a trade that is in their blood, so to speak, and there is hardly a village in Flanders where one does not find at least a few of them perpetuating the memory of a memorable tradition.
Seeing them like this, unconscious and hard-working artists, bearing without complaint a harsh and simple life, from which well-being is almost always excluded, trained in the trade from the tenderest age to extreme old age, one understands that the tradition which attaches them to lacemaking is one of those traditions which are part of the history of a race, one feels that several centuries ago things must not have been different in the Flemish countryside and that in remote times, other women, the ancestors of these women, produced with the same valour fabrics similar to those made today; We go back to those brilliant times when our laces enjoyed such a reputation that the use of them had become general in all the courts of Europe, and we relive in our minds five hundred years of a glorious past for the industry of our provinces.
But it is not only because of its origins that lace is an essentially Belgian industry; it still occupies a considerable place in our country today. The main livelihood of nearly 50,000 workers, a marvellous art which has hardly changed in its forms, Belgian lace is spread over all the markets of the world and has remained for us an appreciable source of profit and glory. Our laces are superior to all those of foreign countries because of the beauty of their manufacture and the variety of their products; they confer on Belgium a de facto monopoly which our national self-respect and the concern for our prosperity require us to preserve.
The Liège Exhibition drew attention to this most interesting branch of Belgian activity, and the "Lace Palace", with the marvellous displays assembled there by some of our best manufacturers, will remain among the most captivating souvenirs of our World's Fair.
The description of this delightful exhibition is the main object of the following pages. Before going into it, I will ask the reader's permission to remind him of a few features of the history and present-day organisation of our lacemaking industry. Moreover, this will not be a departure from the framework of this study: was not the exhibition of the Lace Palace a resurrection of the past and a suggestive revelation of a present full of promises?
The origin of bobbin lace has remained obscure. An English author says that the workers who made the first "passements" placed their skeins of thread in the hands of a man and used his fingers as pegs to interlace and twist the threads. Using two men, they could weave twenty threads at a time. Which country replaced this primitive method with the tile, pins and spindles?
There is every reason to believe that it was Italy or Flanders, but there are no arguments to decide between the two countries, although the balance seems to be in favour of Flanders; one thing is certain: before the end of the fifteenth century, no document is known to prove the existence of lace.
Both Bruges and Venice invoke graceful legends to claim the paternity of this charming art; they support their claims on a few more authentic documents, such as paintings in which figures are depicted wearing lace; but so rare and fragile are these means of proof that one cannot attach much importance to them; the oldest document we possess is a painting by Hans Memlinc before 1489 and which the Louvre preserves among its masterpieces.
As for needle lace, it is certain that it originates from a particular kind of embroidery, the "à jour" or "à fonds clairs" embroidery, which was very popular in the fifteenth and especially in the sixteenth centuries in Flanders and Italy. After the Crusades, the luxury of fine linen had been introduced into Europe. One started to embroider the fabric and, to remove from this embroidery its cold and monotonous aspect, one spared days or light backgrounds there.
Embroidery was done with cut stitches, i.e. by cutting the fabric in certain spaces reserved between the embroidered parts; embroidery was also done with drawn threads, i.e. by removing certain threads from the fabric and keeping only the threads necessary to support and connect the stitches of the embroidery.
The transition between these various types of embroidery and needle lace was a natural one. At the beginning of the 16th century, more or less boldly cut borders began to be added to these embroidered works, which required a new working method to be executed. In these borders, there is no longer any canvas to support the embroidery stitches; the edges are cut out, jagged, and they are worked in the air, independently of a pre-existing fabric. This is what the Venetian Antonio Tagliente calls the punto in aere (stitch in the air). It is likely that the country of origin of needle lace was Italy. It is from Venice that most of the pattern books for lace come from, including the oldest known. It is also in the city of the lagoons that the luxury of needle lace was born and that its manufacture acquired the most rapid and considerable extension.
Whatever the origins of this most delicate of women's arts, we now know that by the end of the 15th century, lacemaking was part of women's education in the Netherlands, and Charles V ordered that lace be taught in schools and convents.
The Belgian provinces of the Netherlands became, after a short time, a most active centre for the manufacture and trade of lace. The Flemish workers, in particular, had no equal in bobbin lace. The raw material was found locally: it was almost always the finest linen, although lace was also made with gold and silver threads. The designs, which at first resembled the gothic scrolls used in Venice, soon separated themselves from the Italian types and made judicious borrowings from the local flora. These improvements gave Flanders the rightful reputation of being the main centre of spindle work.
In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the ordinary background of bobbin laces, at that time the most widespread in the Belgian provinces, was almost always a varied and compact background composed of small dots (snow background), barrettes, crosses and various kinds of seedlings; on this irregular background, flowers and broad scrolls stood out in matt, and these laces were heavy and opaque, although of a marvellous finesse. They were also made in Mechelen, Binche, Brussels, Valenciennes, Ghent, Ypres and throughout Flanders. During the second half of the 18th century, changes were introduced into the making of our laces; each important centre made a few modifications, and these varieties - branches from a common stock - became more and more accentuated and localised. In Brussels, lace is made in separate pieces, which are linked together by very rich stitches and days; large ruffles crossed by scrolls or interlacing (Brabant rivers), decorated with flowers, sometimes with characters, of very majestic aspect, are made in needlepoint or in bobbin guipure; Antwerp keeps the snow backgrounds, but decorates them with vases or flower pots (pottekant); Bruges produces beautiful guipures, reminiscent of the classical style of the Italian Renaissance, executed entirely with spindles, more rarely with a needle, and whose scrolls are linked together by bridles furnished with picots.
The 18th century brought a radical transformation in lace fashion:
The network replaces the guipure and the irregular backgrounds, and the lace - needle as well as spindle - takes on a vaporous aspect, in perfect accord with the frivolity of the time. The network, which used to be called réseuil, became the regular name for all the meshes; the name of the region which produced each special form of these meshes was added to it, and this is how we still say today: réseau de Bruxelles, de Malines, de Valenciennes, de Lille, de Chantilly, etc.
Originally, the Brussels network was made with a needle; later, it was made with spindles and consisted of strips joined together (drochel), on which the "flowers" worked separately were applied; this is the origin of the English stitch.
The Malines lace, with its hexagonal mesh, became the most flexible of the bobbin laces; its flowers are surrounded by a thin cordonet which gives them relief. Valenciennes has at first a double mesh network; this network itself soon gives way to a finer network, with round or square meshes, and, while the square mesh has its principal centres in Valenciennes, Ghent and Ypres, Courtrai and Bruges devote themselves to the manufacture of the round mesh. Orammont borrows its black lace with an irregular network from Chantilly; Lille and Arras adopt a network reminiscent of that of Mechelen. The guipures without network, which were later qualified as duchesse, continued to be made in the Bruges region. Only the products of Binche keep all the characteristics of the primitive Flemish lace, its supple and majestic scrolls, its marvellous snow backgrounds, of an inimitable finesse.
The French Revolution, by abolishing the privileges and the old court life, by ruining the nobility and the Church and by establishing an egalitarian regime which suppressed luxury and its raison d'être, dealt a mortal blow to the lace industry. This was the signal for a momentary decline of most Belgian lace. After the Directoire, Napoleon managed to revive our lace industry for a few years. But from 1815 to 1817, it was again in the doldrums, as a result of political events, and, until around 1840, production in Belgium - as elsewhere - followed a downward trend. The invention of the mechanical tulle in 1819, by bringing about the suppression of the hand-made network in Brussels lace, provoked a profound modification of the industry; the latter underwent a new crisis when the first machine laces appeared in 1851; the Valenciennes, the Malines, and later the black laces were terribly threatened by the competition of the mechanical products. Fashion, finally, with its continuous variations, tends, in its turn, to dethrone the laces from their privileged situation; by it Malines and Valenciennes, formerly so famous, are particularly affected in their prestige, and it was not long ago, some ten years ago, that the tradition of the stitch of Binche was not completely lost.
However, since 1840, the use of hand lace has again become more or less general and, with alternating ups and downs, has not ceased to be accepted by fashion. Belgium, let us note with legitimate pride, has once again become the main centre of lace making, and, while in other countries the industry has died or is only beginning to recover, our country has preserved the traditions of fine work and continues to supply the whole world with the most varied laces.
It is true that the decrease in true luxury has not helped the production of our laces; men no longer wear them; women often wear fake ones; the very beautiful pieces are the prerogative of the courts and also of the rare women who have a taste for true elegance and the means to afford it. But if the old lace market and its choice clientele have disappeared, on the other hand the outlets have spread, mainly in America; any woman in a relatively well-to-do situation wears a little real lace; it can even be said that the invention of mechanical lace has had the good side of spreading the taste for handmade lace more widely in all classes. It is also true that the perpetual evolution of fashion and the too general search for inexpensive articles tend more and more to acclimatise the ordinary products on the market. But our best manufacturers understand, especially in recent years, that it is a matter of life and death for lace to retain its character as a luxury article. If certain genres which are not in great demand are in decline, such as Valenciennes, others are progressing, such as needlepoint and Brussels application. The technique of these laces is improving and sometimes rivals the wonders of past times. The style of most of our modern
The style of most of our modern laces has itself made appreciable progress and, if it is not, in general, at the height of the productions of the XVIIth century, it must be recognized however that the designs of today most often exceed in beauty those of the time of Louis XV and the Empire.
The manufacture of lace is widespread in all the provinces of Belgium, except the province of Liege. The two Flanders are the main seat of this industry. In fact, out of a total of 47,571 lace makers, as recorded by the 1906 industrial census, West Flanders has 25,547 lace makers, and East Flanders has no less than 18,199. In Brabant 1,419 people are employed in lacemaking, in the province of Antwerp 1,701; in the other provinces the number of workers is insignificant.
I do not have enough space to describe the different types of lace currently made in Belgium. Our workers execute most of the known stitches, and the technique of these has hardly changed for a century. The needle stitches - Brussels stitch or gaze stitch, Venice stitch, rose stitch, Burano, Argentan, Alençon - are made in Brabant and in the regions of Dendermonde, Wetteren, Sottegem and Aalst. Valenciennes and Duchesse, the most widespread bobbin laces, are very common in both Flanders; in Bruges, Binche and Flanders stitch (primitive Valenciennes) are also made; in Turnhout, Mechelen and Paris stitch; in Grammont, the
In Turnhout, the Malines and the Paris stitch; in Grammont, the Chantilly, in black, white and colours, and the Blonde or Spanish lace; in the north of Ghent, in Saint-Trond and in Turnhout, the Lille stitch; in the south of East Flanders and in Brabant, the Brussels application with the spindles and the needle and the English stitch are made; the torchon and the ordinary guipure are found almost everywhere.
The making of most of these laces is very complicated. Three essential organs contribute to it: the worker, the commercial entrepreneur and the intermediary, - factor or convent.
Let us quickly examine the role of these various cogs.
The purely agricultural centres constitute the normal environment for the actual making of lace. For, on the one hand, sparsely inhabited places are resistant to this industry, which needs agglomerations to develop; and, on the other hand, where an industry accessible to women competes with lace, the latter tends to disappear. Flanders, an eminently agricultural region, has always presented very favourable conditions for the expansion of the lace industry. The lace is made at home and its manufacture does not require that anything be changed in the arrangements of the house occupied by the worker. The installation is very simple. The worker sits in the family room, usually in front of the only window of her modest fireplace, with her back to the stove where the humble household meal is cooked. She usually works alone or surrounded by her daughters; sometimes a few neighbours get together and chat while handling the bobbins or the needle. When evening comes, the lacemaker places a lamp on the table, and in front of the lamp a carafe full of water, intended to soften the light and concentrate its rays on the work in progress. When the neighbours gather for the vigil, each of them brings her jug; they stand in a circle and place the jugs all around the table.
The division of labour, especially since the manufacture of large pieces on the mechanical network, has created two categories of workers: on the one hand, the lace-makers, i.e. the workers who make the body of the lace; on the other hand, certain more specialised workers, responsible for the preparation, completion and assembly of the lace. A certain number of the latter work in the workshops and under the direct supervision of their employers; quite frequently they are paid by the day.
As for the lacemakers themselves, they are paid by the piece. Wives or daughters of workers, these workers are prodigiously active. Many of them work all day long and do nothing else but lace: they are mainly young girls and also old women who do not have a household. From morning to evening, they are seen bent over their work, tireless and not even interrupted when a visitor crosses the threshold. Most often their day is twelve hours long, but many lacemakers work until one or two o'clock in the afternoon and only stop to have a quick meal. Their only distraction is their snuffbox, the old wooden or leather one, hung by a narrow strap on a nail near the window; and it is also the traditional cup of coffee, taken at dusk, and frequently accompanied by a quarter of an hour's rest. For married women, lacemaking is a secondary occupation, which they carry out outside their usual occupations, to increase their resources a little or simply to avoid being idle. However, some women, especially among the good workers, work after as well as before their marriage, from twelve to fourteen hours a day, and they entrust their children or their husband with the material care of the household, for which they are sometimes the main breadwinner. In some villages, the men, unable to work in the fields during the winter, also make lace for a few months each year. The 1896 census recorded 114 men making lace in Belgium; during the off-season, their number reaches several hundred.
Driven out of the cities by big industry, lace has nevertheless been maintained in a small number of urban centres, notably in Bruges, Ypres and Turnhout.
In Bruges in particular, it is still quite lively, since in 1896 there were 3,394 workers and several flourishing schools. During the summer, the streets are full of lacemakers.
They can be seen in long lines in front of the almost black brick houses and the leprous gables, living memories of the Bruges of the Middle Ages, or gathered in small silent groups along the canals where the white swans move slowly in the greenish water, or grouped together in the grassy impasses of the centre of the city, around the ancient and unforgettable ensemble formed by the Dyver quay, the Gruuthuze hotel and the Notre-Dame church. However, this permanence of the lace industry in Bruges should not be surprising; large-scale industry is still in its infancy in this city and seems likely to remain so; there was therefore no reason for the people of Bruges to abandon the lace-making tradition.
In addition, the extension taken in the cities by the large industry is not the only cause of the localization of the lace in the countryside. A no less important factor in this exodus is the increasingly marked centralisation of production in Brussels.
The 1896 census shows 130 lace factories for the whole country; 67 were established in West Flanders, 41 in Brussels. Most of the large manufacturers, especially those who make complicated needlepoint or appliqué pieces, reside in the capital. Those in the provinces are almost all much less important and their number is tending to decrease, while that of the Brussels companies is only increasing.
The provincial manufacturers generally only make the lace produced by the region in which they live; almost all of them work for the traders in the capital; a few also supply the foreign market in modest proportions. The large Brussels firms make all types of lace; their only important outlets are the foreign wholesale houses, such as the Louvre and the Bon Marché in Paris; in their eyes, the Belgian market counts for very little. The division of labour has made their role particularly complicated.
It is up to the manufacturer to choose the design; it is up to him to decide how this design will be executed in lace. The great manufacturer has a choice of several types, and such is the variety of resources at his disposal that the various existing stitches can be compared to the multiple tones of a palette; only, while the painter renders his idea with colours, the lace maker has only values at his disposal. He uses the needlepoint to mark the relief and the accentuation of the flowers; he uses the bobbin lace to render the fading of the contours; the lights are indicated by the matt parts of the lace; the shades by the openings
the shadows by the openings between the lights, the midtones by the gauze and the various backgrounds. The judicious use of these various values is of considerable importance, and their determination cannot be left to the worker, whose function is purely mechanical. A mediocre design, when happily combined in lace, will sometimes become presentable, just as an unfortunate arrangement of the various parts of the work to be executed will cause a beautiful design to lose all its character.
The interpretation of the design is therefore the object of careful study by the manufacturer, and this function has acquired a special importance since the invention of mechanical tulle has made large lace pieces with complicated designs commonplace, and since fantasy has brought several different laces into play in the making of one such piece.
It is still up to the manufacturer to choose the people who will make the lace whose design is thus prepared. Most often he addresses himself to an intermediary. If he is a large manufacturer and deals with several types of lace, he is in contact with many brokers and he distributes the work among them according to their speciality and their aptitudes. He gives them his instructions, sometimes gives them an advance on the agreed price, so that they have enough to pay their workers; later he will receive the lace made by the intermediary's hands. It will then remain for him to prepare the work, to assemble and to apply the separate pieces: delicate work, which the manufacturer most often has carried out in his workshop and under his eyes, by very specialised workers, true lace artists.
Generally speaking, it can be said that the large manufacturers have no relationship with the workforce; some of them are in direct contact with their workers: these are those who live in the provinces, and among them I like to mention the most important of the Belgian manufacturers, Mrs. Minne-Dansaert, who herself runs her workshops in Haeltert-Eeckent with the competence that we know. - But most manufacturers do not even know the workers; they do not control the way they make the lace, the wages they are paid, or the apprenticeship.
These functions are abandoned, in the majority of cases, to factors or brokers, established in the countryside, in lace-making centres; these have become the almost obligatory intermediaries between the manufacturer and the worker, especially since the centralisation of the industry in Brussels. This is undoubtedly a regrettable situation, especially from a social point of view, because the broker, acting for profit and without a view to the future, tends to lower the remuneration of the workforce to the strict minimum, and, on the other hand, he is too inclined to increase the production of common articles, to do nothing to encourage the professional skills of his workers, in short, to spoil the production.
Fortunately, there is another category of intermediaries, and these have the most fortunate influence on the training of lace-makers and on the direction of the industry: I am referring to the convents of women.
Their function is twofold: they deal with both apprenticeship and manufacturing.
In Belgium there are about 160 schools for the teaching of lacemaking; more than three quarters of these schools are run by convents; most of them were founded in the first half of the 19th century. Around 1840, pauperism was beginning to desolate Flanders; lacemaking was mainly practised by old women and the apprenticeship was given almost exclusively by lay mistresses, in deplorable conditions of healthiness. It was the parish priests of our rural parishes who were the first to call upon nuns to create and direct new schools. This call was heard and soon bore fruit. Although the art of lacemaking had long ceased to be the prerogative of convents, it was still known to a good number of nuns, who were themselves former lacemakers; in congregations where no one knew lacemaking, expert workers were brought in to teach the children, and from among these pupils nuns were later recruited who became teachers in their turn. The number of convents that opened a school or a workshop at that time multiplied: they are the ones that continue to teach the daughters of Flemish farmers how to make lace; in short, it is thanks to them that the tradition of this exquisite art is perpetuated. While
the secular lacemaking schools disappeared one after the other, the congregational establishments were maintained or even tended to increase. The religious schools alone have the confidence of the populations; their undeniable material superiority and the guarantees of moral security which they offer are sufficient to explain this difference in favour. Without them our lace industry would soon have died.
As intermediaries between the manufacturers and the workers, the convents also show themselves equal to their task. Most of the congregational schools have a workshop where the student workers who have passed the first stages of their apprenticeship work; in addition, the convents generally give work to their former students who live at home. In this respect, the economic function of these intermediaries is much the same as that of the brokers mentioned above. But what gives this organisation its value is its stability, the very principle of the institution. The convent's aim is not to earn money and acquire a fortune, but to provide a trade for the children entrusted to it and to give work to women who would otherwise be unemployed.
In all the centres where the lace industry has retained its vitality, it is to the presence of a convent that we owe it. If the convent disappears or ceases to be involved in lace making, the industry is left to vegetate. In several centres, the convents have created the industry from scratch: such is, for example, the case of the Brabant village of Liedekerke, where lace was absolutely unknown a few years ago.
There is a reason for the dominant position of the Congregational workshops. First of all, as we have just seen, it is through them that the tradition of lacemaking is maintained, since the nuns are almost the only ones to teach its manufacture. The workers who, as children, learnt lace-making at the convent, continue to have confidence in the school's management; they usually remain there until they are 18 or 20 years old and, quite frequently, until they marry. In some convents, particularly in Bruges, old girls are allowed to attend the workhouse as long as they wish, and one sometimes sees, next to the tile of a greying worker, the tile of a cute 9-year-old lacemaker. Then the convent pays, in general, better than the postman, because, if the daily wage of its pupils is not higher, the working day is, on the other hand, less long; moreover, the mistress of the workhouse maintains more cordial and more regular relations with the workers. Sometimes the factors are forced to increase the pay of their workers so as not to remain too obviously below what the convent gives. Finally, the convents maintain among their pupils the traditions of artistic lace, and for this especially they cannot be praised too highly, for the future of our lace trade and the hope of keeping this industry in the country are unquestionably based on the beauty of the manufacture.
It is especially in the manufacture of large pieces in needlepoint and in the application of Brussels that the convents triumph. This is why manufacturers prefer to place their largest orders with them. For these large pieces, unity in the making of the various pieces intended to be joined or applied is essential. Nowhere is this unity better achieved than in the convents, where the workers work together, under the same direction, on a piece of work that has been distributed among them according to their abilities. Moreover, unlike the lacemakers established at home, the workers here do not cease to be students. Under the guidance of the
of the teacher, all of them, even the best, continue to learn and make constant progress.
For all these reasons, and also because of the honesty and accuracy of the convent mistresses, the manufacturers greatly appreciate this category of intermediaries.
They almost always maintain excellent relations with the convents; they have a vested interest in this and are well aware of it. Indeed, the future of our lace industry is perhaps linked to the development of their sphere of action.
After a prolonged crisis, the effects of which are still being felt in some regions, Belgian lace has taken a decisive step towards progress in recent years. If certain laces, too badly treated by fashion, are more and more abandoned, - such as Valenciennes, - on the other hand, in most of the other genres, our great manufacturers have succeeded in raising the technique to a point where any competition from mechanical products becomes impossible. The designs, on the other hand, have been perfected and are more and more characterised by happy research into style. In addition to a marked return to the old models, new stitches, lace mixtures and original motifs borrowed from nature have multiplied in recent times. Fashion itself has bowed to this development and lace has never been more in favour with the great Parisian couturiers. But of all the recent manifestations of this lace revival, none has had the significance and impact of the Belgian lace exhibition in Liège. It has been said that the latter was the highlight of our World's Pair; considering only the number of visitors to the Palais de la Femme, it was at least one of its great successes. It was the first exhibition of its kind; this trial run was a master stroke, and the Belgian Government is to be congratulated for setting the organisers in motion, no less than the exhibitors who responded to its call.
The idea for the exhibition dates back to the spring of 1904. A Committee for the patronage of the Belgian lace industry had just been formed in Brussels, under the honorary presidency of HRH Princess Albert of Belgium and the effective presidency of Countess John d'Oultremont. The Committee decided, in agreement with Mr. Francotte, Minister of Industry and Labour, to organise an exhibition of Belgian lace in Liège; a few months later, it instituted a double international competition of hand lace and of design for hand lace. The exhibition and the competition were set up in one of the wings of the pretty pavilion reserved for women's arts.
The setting was exquisite. To house the imponderable splendours due to the work of the spindles and the needle, one could not have dreamt of anything better than this delicate Louis XVI palace, with its grey, white and pink marble facades; the exhibition room, with its graceful columns, its white walls, its very sober ornamentation, was dazzlingly clear; the laces, behind their lacquered display cases, stood out marvellously in the simplicity of the decor.
The exhibition itself justified both the grace of the setting and the favour of the public.
The overall impression confirmed, from both the technical and artistic points of view, what I said earlier about the present direction of the industry; the careful examination of the individual displays enabled the visitors to form an idea of most of our lace types and to appreciate the characteristic merits of our principal manufacturers.
The exhibitors were twelve in number.
I think I can place in the first rank Mrs. Jenny Minne-Dansaert, who obtained the Grand Prix. The perfection of the work, the finesse of execution of all the objects sent, the rendering of the nuances and their infinite variety put this exhibition beyond compare; one has never done better and it seems to me difficult to raise the technique of lace higher.
Mrs. Minne has made a speciality of needlepoint: Brussels, Venice, Burano, Alençon, Argentan, and of laces with bobbins related to the Brussels stitch: application, duchess, England. All these laces, as I said above, are executed under her eyes and under her exclusive direction. It is she who trains her pupils, she who distributes the work among her workers, always taking into account their special aptitudes, and she who presides over the remuneration of the workforce. A certain number of workers, the most specialised and the finest, are employed in Mrs. Minne's workshops in Haeltert-Eeckent; the others work at home in the immediate vicinity; some are employed in the school-workshop of Sainte-Anne, directed by the Sisters: all are in direct contact with the manufacturer.
The advantages of this organisation are invaluable: the social economy section has recognised its value from a professional and educational point of view by awarding its initiator a special Grand Prix. There is no doubt, on the other hand, that the method followed by Mrs. Minne-Dansaert has greatly contributed to the development among her workers of the extraordinary manual skills which distinguish them. From these points of view, we cannot overemphasise the opportunity that the residence of the great manufacturers in the production centres presents for the future of our lace industry.
From an artistic point of view, Mrs. Minne has also obtained very happy results. Some creations of a very modern taste, designed by Mrs. Minne or by young farmers whom she trained, are simply exquisite. Let us note in particular a delicious little fan in Eeckent stitch (a new variety of needlepoint), two other fans in Brussels - thistles and turnstones, an extremely rich dress, too rich even, in Eeckent - geranium-liar and pelargonium, a very delicate wedding veil, in appliqué, needlepoint and duchess. However, I prefer reproductions of lace or old patterns to these original compositions:
Mrs. Minne has exhibited a large number of them: it is here that she excels. I would like to mention, at random, several ruffles in Louis XIV and Renaissance Venice, an admirable piece in Argentan, made for the Blanc collection, other pieces intended for the Lescure collection, a large ruffle in rose stitch, of an inimitable finesse, and a pair of stockings made for the Saint-Gall museum, representing lovers playing in the air, marvellous in their fade and lightness.
The exhibition of Mr. Georges Martin (out of competition) is also remarkable in many ways. The characteristic of this house is the extreme variety of lace types: needlepoint, Valenciênnes, application, duchess, Chantilly are represented by choice pieces. A dress of great allure - a mixture of Venice and bobbin appliqué - attracted all eyes by the beauty of the lines, the elegance of the decoration. In Colbert stitch - a kind of Venice with large reliefs - an admirable shuttlecock, one of the most important pieces of the exhibition. Some of the fans - one in particular, in Valenciennes and point - are of a charming design. The large Chantilly shuttlecock is heavier, although it is very well made. On the other hand, I admired without restriction a superb needlepoint scarf - bamboo stems and peach blossoms, of original composition, another pretty scarf in appliqué, a small flounce in Brabant lace, of refined taste, a pretty berthe in Flemish guipure, a collar and a table runner in Venice, irreproachable in execution.
Very interesting is the exhibition of the Maison Stern (silver medal). A dress and a veil 'en application', made a little too early, stand out for their lightness of design. Many beautiful pieces in classic Brussels stitch, finely executed, in particular an apron, a berthe, a flounce and a fan, in the Louis XVI style. A magnificent set in England, several handkerchiefs in the same stitch, enhanced with needlepoint days, a handkerchief in duchess - wisteria, of a charming composition.
Mrs. Nathalie Fermon (honorary diploma), Mr. Lavalette (out of competition) and Mr. Van de Velde-Geurs complete the series of Brussels stitch makers. The superior workmanship of the first two has long been known: Mr. Fermon is brilliantly represented by a wedding veil in needlepoint, unfortunately of a rather heavy design, by magnificent samples of old Brabant types and a beautiful front of a dress in Venice. M. Lavalette exhibited ruffles in Brussels stitch and Flanders guipure, of good quality, some nice examples from Burano and England; his capital piece is a large ruffle in mixed Brussels stitch from Venice. The dress in Alençon from the House of Van de Velde and, even better, his handkerchiefs and fans in English stitch give a very favourable idea of the manufacture in the Ninove area.
Mr. Lava (Grand Prix) has acquired a great reputation in table linen enhanced with lace and embroidery inlays; the Liège Exhibition could only strengthen this reputation. The large Louis XVI tablecloth from this manufacturer, a piece of meticulous execution and elegant design, was rightly admired. I prefer, however, his embroidered windows on tulle and stitch, of such a rich composition, his Venetian under-bowls and, above all, a table centrepiece of magnificent character, decorated with the figure of Solomon. The activity and the spirit of initiative of Mr. Lava must be commended: through him a vogue has been given in Belgium to a relatively little practised genre, and already we see Mr. Charlet taking the same path and obtaining a silver medal for his lace for curtains and blinds; moreover, Mr. Lava has introduced the manufacture of embroidery on tulle in several regions of Flanders where Valenciennes was no longer sufficiently remunerative for the workers. Such attempts are highly commendable, because to try to go against the current, against fashion and without taking into account the progress of mechanical imitation, is to lead the industry into a dead end: it is better to orient it in a new direction, while maintaining its artistic character.
Does this mean that any lace that is no longer popular with the public should be allowed to wither? No, it does not. A genre that has been neglected today can be revived tomorrow:
We have seen this for the lace of Binche, whose manufacture, which was almost lost, is again in honour. From this point of view, one can only congratulate M^e Ohys-Bruyneel and the House of Lepage-De Paepe for keeping the Belgian Chantilly alive. The exhibition of these two Grammont houses, veterans of a manufacturing process that is in terrible competition with the machine, is a fine demonstration of valour, and we must be grateful to the jury for having awarded each of them a medal of honour. - Will this effort succeed? One would not dare to assure it; perhaps it is too disinterested for that; in any case, it deserves more than a success of esteem. The two displays are remarkable, moreover, for the finesse of the workmanship and the artistic character of most of the objects exhibited. Mrs Qhys' Louis XVI dress and flounce, and Mr Lepage's delightful fans and parasol are all first-rate pieces. Interesting innovations from both of these manufacturers should be noted: in particular, the beautiful white Chantilly collars, with a completely original design.
The important participation of Stroobant-Bogaerts (Grand Prix) filled a gap. No manufacturer of Valenciennes, Bruges, Binche or Mechelen lace had taken part in the Exhibition. Mr. Stroobant brought together in his showcase all these absent genres, which did not prevent him from showing us, in addition, some pretty examples of needlepoint and some of the artful guipures, so carefully made, of which the company has made a speciality. Valenciennes and Binche are represented by small pieces; on the other hand, the showcase contains treasures in fine Malines - ruffles, handkerchiefs, admirable finery - in Lille stitch and Paris stitch. There are also some very beautiful reproductions of old lace, particularly 16th century passements.
It remains for me to say a word about the two international competitions: an interesting attempt, but which did not have the significance that the organisers might have expected.
The conditions of the competitions limited the participants to two objects: a fan and a bodice set. This was too little to give an adequate idea of a certain manufacture, and the foreign competitors in particular must have felt their inferiority on this point; let us add that the artistic inspiration was perhaps too narrowly vinculated by the kind of subjects imposed and their limited number.
Having made this observation, I would like to point out some choice pieces. In the lace competition, a beautiful fan in Alençon, by Mr. Martin, a bodice trim by Mrs. Minne-Dansaert, two samples of a matching berthe and fan, executed by the Cooperative Society of Bologna Emilia Ars. These three competitors were awarded the gold medal. I note, in the case of the first, the realistic character of the composition, - a bouquet of flowers au naturel, judiciously shaded; in the case of Mrs. Minne, the exquisite delicacy of the arrangement: her berthe is in needlepoint and adorned with pendants - roses in relief with upright petals, in stitch or with spindles; one could not imagine a more elegant adornment, nor one more apt to emphasize the size. This competitor's fan, a real tour de force in terms of execution, is beautifully arranged, but the whole is rather massive and lacks style. As for the Italian Cooperative's shipment, it is distinguished above all by the marvellous stylisation of the subject:
the motif of the two pieces is a peacock standing out against a background of geometric-looking foliage, reminiscent of the old cut points; the execution is splendidly sharp, the whole outstanding.
Also worth mentioning: from the House of Stroobant, a very pretty fan in Malines, with a central medallion representing the bust of Queen Marie-Louise; from the Royal School of Burano, a fine berthe in old Venetian style, a pretty collar in stitch by M. Jesurum. Quite a lot of lace executed in coloured silks, an innovation that has not yet produced any successful results.
The lace design competition gave rise to some interesting creations.
Let us note, in particular, the beautiful projects which won the gold medal for M. Van Cutsem, the most famous of our current designers; a good fan by M. William Pegg (England); another, charming, by our compatriot M"^ Rosa Vaerwyck; pretty drawings by Mrs. Hilda Starck (Sweden); an elegant polychrome collar by Mrs. the Countess of Brazzà-Savorgnan (Italy).
The Liège Exhibition has proved that Belgian lace is worthy of its past; it is up to our manufacturers to ensure that the future remains equal to the present. They only have to want it: as long as our laces keep their perfection of execution and their highly artistic character, they will be assured of success. Let us hope that the examples given in this sense by the exhibitors of 1905 will become widespread, and we will see new progress being made; there is nothing better, from this point of view, than frequent exhibitions, more complete than that of Liège, which would bring together the houses of the capital and the manufacturers of the provinces and would make the so numerous varieties of our lace industry even better known.
It has been shown, on the other hand, that our laces do not have to fear competition from foreign products, and this would be a sufficient reason to reserve a more prominent place for them in our future exhibitions; but there is another, more peremptory reason: it is good, in fact, to maintain the emulation of our manufacturers by the spectacle of what is done elsewhere. Several countries, and Italy in particular, have made astonishing progress in recent years; the Liège Exhibition did not provide an adequate picture of this progress; this gap will hopefully be filled soon.
It is up to Belgium to assert its lace-making primacy by making a wide-ranging appeal to all lace-producing countries; seeing what has been achieved beyond our borders, Belgian manufacturers will be all the more encouraged to raise the level of the most charming of our art industries.
©Livre d'Or de l'Exposition Universelle de Liège 1905