Lace History 01

Article about: The Birthplace of Lace by Wim J. Lauriks, as published in LACE Magazine international #49 Spring 1999,

wpe22.jpg (27180 bytes) "Of many Arts, one surpasses all.  For the maiden seated at her work flashes the smooth balls and thousand threads into the circle, ... and from this, her amusement, makes as much profit as a man earns by the sweat of his brow, and no maiden ever complains, at even, of the length of the day.  The issue is a fine web, which feeds the pride of the whole globe; which surrounds with its fine border cloaks and tuckers, and shows grandly round the throats and hands of Kings."               - Jacob Van Eyck, 1651.

The above statement was made three hundred and forty-eight years ago by the Flemish Master of oil painting, yet it still reflects perfectly what lacemaking is all about. It is a work of art, fun to make, and something to be proud of. It is also a unique way for a "maiden" to make an honest living, and as such, lacemaking as an industry on a larger scale is unprecedented and unique in women's history.

I have always been intrigued by the interaction between economical circumstances and social life. Lacemaking is a premier example of an industry that was influenced by the social and political life between 1500's and 1920's in Flanders (since 1830 covering the northern half of Belgium) Italy, Holland, France, Spain and England.

The Early Beginnings

The constant drive to make clothing more attractive is responsible for the creation of the finest and most costly trimming we now call classic lace. Those first steps were taken in the land of the Pharaohs, who used flax cloth decorated with colored threads and worked them in geometric designs. The ancient Greeks and Romans would ornament their togas with colors or gold. A new garment needed no ornament about the immediate edge, but as it became worn and frayed, the threads had to be twisted and stitched together. Lace is derived from the twisting techniques used in decoration of the fringe ends of woven fabric. In Flanders, lace is called "kant" meaning border or edge. The birthplaces of lacemaking are generally recognized as Flanders and Italy.

From the twelfth century onward, Flanders consisted of a group of city-states in which most aspects of daily life were safely structured. The cities were organized by groups of artisans who shared the same occupation. These powerful organizations were called "Guilds" and their representatives made the rules. Cities like Bruges, Ghent, Antwerp and to a lesser extent also Brussels, accumulated a lot of wealth by growing flax, turning it into linen thread and linen fabric: the most precious and finest material for clothing at that time. The more wealthy they became the more the surrounding states wanted to conquer and annex those cities.

So it happened that Joan of Navarre visited Bruges in 1300 and jealously questioned her husband the King of France, Philip IV, nicknamed The Fair (1268-1314), how it was possible that all the women on the streets in Flanders were better dressed than she was. Being a man of action, Philip promptly sent his tax collectors to the cities, but the Flemish burgers chased them away. In anger for his wounded pride, he sent over an army consisting mainly of the nobles of France under the command of Robert of Artois, Joan’s uncle, to teach those Flemish peasants a lesson.

wpe6B.jpg (12453 bytes)Seal of Philip IV The French army was defeated on July 11th, 1302 in the infamous "Battle of the Golden Spurs" - today this date still marks the national holiday of the Federal State of Flanders. The huge expenditure of this defeat prompted Philip IV to look for other ways to refill his money chests. He started by confiscating the assets of the moneylenders. Since he personally owed a lot of money to the Order of the Knights-Templars, his banker, he declared them heretics, imprisoned and burned them while confiscating their property.

The third action he took had a direct impact on our subject matter: he also confiscated the assets of the Lombards, Italian bankers. This action was responsible for bringing the leading families in Flanders and Italy close together.

wpe70.jpg (23053 bytes) At that time, the trade routes over land were not very safe, certainly not in France. An intense sea-trade relationship with the great Italian city-states of Genoa, Venice and Florence via the Flemish sea ports of Bruges and later Antwerp developed. 


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The Italian cities were also very wealthy from trading in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and beyond.They exchanged jewels, silver and gold for silks and spices like pepper and ginger.At that time, the trade routes over land were not very safe, certainly not in France. An intense sea-trade relationship with the great Italian city-states of Genoa, Florence and Venice developed via the Flemish seaports of Bruges and later Antwerp. The Italian cities were also very wealthy from trading in the Mediterranean, the Black Sea and beyond. They exchanged jewels, silver and gold for silks and spices like pepper and ginger. Marco Polo's father Nicolo, and his uncle, Matteo, traveled to China and lived at the court of the Great Kublai Khan. Later, Marco Polo became a diplomat in the service of the Khan. The Italians could afford to wear the expensive Flemish linen cloth. Against this backdrop, it is understandable that a strong demand developed for laces as clothing embellishments and later on also for the fabric of lace itself. The demand was promptly filled in these two important geographic locations.

Around 1305, it is said to have rained heavily and constantly. Some chronicles talk about rain lasting for more than a year - with tragic implications. Rats could no longer live and eat outside and moved into the human dwellings. Fleas carrying Black Death disease started living on the rats and from these rats it crossed over onto the human population. This epidemic plague killed almost 50% of the inhabitants of Europe during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. As a result, a lot of people, who could afford to do so, went away to the south —mainly Italy— to escape the moist weather and The Plague. Many of the successful patrons established thriving business relationships and brought about a profound cultural exchange between Italy and Flanders. Dutch artists reflected in their paintings the idyllic Italian landscapes. The Church became wealthier by collecting large sums to compensate for sins and to avoid the plague. The Church became the foremost and principal customer and user of lace during the centuries to follow.

Returning to the origins of lace: Italian lacemakers used a single thread technique with help of the needle, whereas in Flanders, the threads were wound on wooden shuttles or bobbins which were used altogether on a pillow to twist & cross multiple threads and create the desired effect on a loom of pins. This is bobbin lace and was initially known as pinwork.

The close economical relationship between these two areas was also reflected by the fact that the lace, created by these two completely different techniques, is amazingly similar.

From 1480 to 1590 was the Geometric or Gothic period, without brides; when the lace became heavier, between 1590 to 1630, we see more floral motifs and the various filling stitches were called modes.

Between 1630 to 1670 the motifs developed constantly and incorporated not only floral designs but also heads, figures, scenes and birds on a net or meshed background.

From 1720 to 1780, little bouquets, sprigs, sprays, flowers, leaves, buds and dots were freely scattered over grounds, creating an exquisite beauty of ornament that reached such perfection that it could not be improved on.

Due to these political and economic ties between Italy and Flanders, it is clear that the birth and development of lacemaking can not be pinpointed to one specific location. Rather, its creation may be attributed to the union of two cultures.


The follow-up article about: The Growth of Lace by Wim J. Lauriks, was published in LACE Magazine international #50 Summer 1999,

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