Today an informative post about the development of French needlelaces! As I previously defined it, needlelace is lace made by embroidering with a needle rather than braiding with bobbins or crocheting or knitting. During the reign of Louis XIV (the Sun King), the French government made a deliberate investment in lacemaking, as part of a wide-ranging plan to become Europe's center for luxury goods, fashion, and taste. They had stiff competition in all those fields: the Italians and Dutch were already Europe's sourcebook and marketplace for luxury goods. In particular, as relates to lace, the bobbin laces of the Netherlands were fantastically expensive and popular. But the needlelace of Italy was also prestigious; Italy developed needlelace from its history of drawn thread work and reticella, and by the 1600's the Italian gros point de Venise, which was sculptural and meant to look like carved ivory, was the needlelace to beat. The French set out to beat it.
The development of French laces didn't happen in a vacuum: it's important to understand the economic policies of France's Minister of Finance, Jean-Baptiste Colbert, in the 1600's. And he didn't come out of a vacuum either...
The 1500's had seen the enacting of restrictive guild laws which forced French craftsmen into guilds, then limited them to following guild rules about how they made things and where they sold them. The crown gave the guilds power over their artisans and monopolies in their fields, but demanded taxes from them in exchange. To ensure quality within the guild, prevent competition from outsiders, and do all the other things that control freaks like to do, there were inspections, fees, import taxes and restrictions: a bureaucratic set-up ripe for corruption. Because tradesmen were limited in their movements (you might only be allowed to sell in your own town, never travel), and constrained to a few approved methods of manufacture, there was not a lot of innovation, and both production and trade stagnated. So France was the loser in the bargain... their cushy plan by which the guilds reaped fees and the king reaped taxes and everyone on the top got paid would hurt them in the long run. (If man were a plant, he'd forever be cutting his own roots to steal his own fruit!) Prices were high, output was low, and everything was taxed and tariffed.
There was also a brain-drain from the religious wars forcing Huguenots out of the country. When Protestant tradesmen left for friendlier places, they took their expertise with them. (Not to say that there wasn't plenty of Catholic expertise still in France, but any loss is a loss worth mentioning.)
Meanwhile, the French nobility, who didn't pay taxes and so had quite lot of spending power, bought foreign goods to get the best stuff at the best price. The 1660 edict "Déclaration contre le luxe des habits, carrosses, et ornements" (Declaration against the luxury of clothes, carriages, and ornaments) was pretty ineffective, and prompted the satirical response "La Révolte des Passements"-- the Rise of the Trimmings!
Enter Louis XIV, the absolute monarch, in 1661. (He'd been King since 1643, but most government went through his mother and chief minister when he was young.) His vision for his country was that it would be all about himself: he was the sun, and all would reflect his own magnificence.
Under Colbert's direction (which began in 1661), the state invested in various industries (glass, tapestries, ship-building, silk-weaving), especially the production of luxury goods, and exerted absolute control over every aspect of production and trade, even deciding who was allowed to sell what to whom using which ships to transport things. Standards of quality were high, with inferior work destroyed and the makers of it fined or otherwise punished. All trade had to happen under government supervision, subject to government regulation and taxation. Absolutism in economics, a very top-down approach. This refilled Louis XIV's coffers (though he emptied them again pretty regularly with his foreign wars) and raised France's status in Europe.
Contemporaries admired Colbert's policies and marveled at the magnificence of Louis' court at Versailles, and French fashion came to eclipse the fashion of any other country. To be French was to be sophisticated, chic, and everything au courant! But Colbertism wasn't an unalloyed good. How could it be, when it built on the guild laws on the previous century, which themselves stifled innovation and drove free thinkers away? There were many interesting side effects and long-term effects of his policies which were ultimately bad for France. But time would tell that story, and we can see it in micro-scale by focusing on just one industry: French needlelace.
When discussing French needlelace, French terms are necessary, and it's nice to know how to say them. I've learned by typing the terms into Google Translate and clicking the "read aloud" button. I can't vouch for its accuracy, but that's my full disclosure about my source. If I could type the International Phonetic Alphabet on this site, and if my usual readers were familiar with it, I would, since that's really the best way to transcribe pronunciation. But since neither is the case, I'll use the more layman-like "spelling it out" method, comparing it to English words or just trying to be phonetic. I suggest you try to read my spellings with a French accent! You can't sound worse than me, so be bold! ;)
The French word for lace is "dentelle" (say "DAWN-tale"), but that seems to be an umbrella term, rarely used when identifying types of lace. Instead the word for "stitch" is used, combined with the location of manufacture, since each location developed differently. The French word for stitch is "point", which is pronounced, nasally, as "pwah". So "Point d'Argentan" (say PWAH dar zhen TAWN", with lots of nasal vowels) is "the stitch of Argentan". Even Italian styles are often identified in French, such as "gros point de Venise" (say "gro PWAH der vuh-NEEZ"), which means, literally, "the big stitch of Venice".
In English-language resources from the Victorian Era, when there was a revival of interest in lacemaking, the term "point lace" is used to mean what we now call needlelace. ("Pillow lace" was the term for what we now call bobbin lace.) As far as I know, "point lace" is pronounced all in English (i.e. "point" not "pwah"). The Victorian manuals also confused the nomenclature by using terms like "point d'Espagne" to refer not to entire schools of lacemaking, but to individual stitches. Since many modern lacemakers use these Victorian resources (which are in the public domain and easy to find online), we also use those names for stitches. It's all mixed up now!
In 1661, lace was a major luxury good that Colbert coveted for France. Of course, the French were already making needlelace, and there were convents and factories and individuals busily sewing away. But he wanted to subsidize and guide the industry to bring it under government control, and develop a uniquely French style. Through the offices of the French ambassador to Italy, France wanted to entice Italian needlelace makers to teach trade secrets to the French. (There was a similar plan to have Flemish bobbin-lace makers do the same, but I don't know how many foreign workers ended up in France.) The first French needlelaces made under this scheme were obviously derived from the Venetian lace: they were mostly motif, held together by a few brides (embroidered bars) here and there. But unlike the Venetian lace, there was less free-ness of form; the French liked things symmetrical. And there were no separately constructed flowers applied like stumpwork to the lace, as in the highly dimensional gros point. The new lace was called Point de France, and was quite popular. Production of lace was soon refined and altered as each city developed its own style. Most ended up being grounded laces, which means that instead of brides there were mesh grounds holding the motifs together; the more ground there was, the lighter and more delicate-looking the lace.
I very much like the lace associated with the city of Argentan, which has a stiffer mesh ground than the related and more famous Alençon lace. Wikipedia claims that the cities of Alençon and Argentan were chosen for lace centers, and were set in competition with each other, but this is simplistic and ill-researched. Actually, several cities that were already lacemaking centers ("Quesnoy, Arras, Reims, Sedan, Chateau Thierry, Loudun, Alençon and Aurillac", according to Dr. Laurie Waters) were taken into Colbert's program. Argentan came a little later. And while Argentan and Alençon laces did draw from each other and diverge from each other in interesting ways, I can find no example of them being set in "competition" against each other. If anything, Colbert's policies discouraged competition because they protected the licenses and rights of each guild against "threats" like that.
. . . in May 1665, the king established monopoly privileges for a group of French lace manufacturers, using the transparently canting argument that this was done to prevent ‘the export of money and to give employment to the people’. Actually, the point was to prohibit anyone other than the privileged licensees from making lace, in return for hefty fees paid to the Crown. Domestic cartels are worthless if the consumer is allowed to buy cheaper substitutes from abroad, and so protective tariffs were levied on imported lace. But apparently smuggling abounded, and so in 1667, the government made enforcement easier by prohibiting all foreign lace whatsoever. In addition, to prevent unlicensed competition, it was necessary for the French Crown to prohibit any lace work at home, and to force all lace work to occur at fixed, visible points of manufacture. Thus, as the finance and commerce minister and general economic czar Jean-Baptiste Colbert wrote to a government lace supervisor: 'I beg you to note with care that no girl must be allowed to work at the home of her parents and that you must oblige them all to go to the house of the manufactures...’
In addition to that encouragement to keep production in the factories, there was also a specialization of training, so that a single piece of lace might be made by a succession of women, each doing one task. Thus a single person wasn't entrusted with the whole secret of manufacture! Mrs. Beebe, writing in 1880 about Alençon lace, describes the roles of no less than seven and as many as sixteen workers in production: the picqueuse to prick holes in the parchment pattern, traceuse to lay the foundation threads, réseleuse and fondeuse to put the mesh background and other meshes down, remplisseuse to put the flat areas of dense toilé, brodeuse to buttonhole stitch over the cordonnet, modeuse to sew pretty motifs in, ebouleuse to cut the lace off the backing, régaleuse to lay out one section next to another in a continuous strip of lace, assembleuse to attach them... and so on. She goes on for almost two pages about the assembly-line style of manufacture for Alençon lace!
This specialization was a side effect of Colbert's mercantile philosophy: he saw humans and their expertise as a limited resource, so he sought to acquire the experts for France, but he simultaneously feared them leaking or compromising their trade secrets, so he enforced strict controls on who could know what, which stamped out innovation just after fostering it! Though this division of labor assured excellence in every particular, it also crippled artistic expression (Alençon lace is technically fine but often rather blah in design, if you ask me) and rendered the art form as a whole vulnerable to loss if the whole team was ever broken up. Freedom-loving people went elsewhere (England and Holland were attractive options for religious and political reasons) and left France with an ever-dwindling pool of experts in outdated methods of manufacture. French needlelace is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but no longer a viable means of producing lace for export!
MATERIALS FOR NEEDLELACE
Antique needlelace was made with very fine linen threads (flax). The threads they used back then are not made anymore. In fact, even the flax plants used to produce the fibers aren't grown anymore. The finest machine-made threads of today are still thicker than what our ancestors made: in some antique threads there might only be four fibers spun! I don't know that modern spinning machines could work with only four fibers without breaking them. This spinning had to be done by hand, with extreme delicacy.
At some point in the sixteen hundreds, the French began importing flax from Flanders, which was a different strain than the flax from France: whiter and finer. The laces made using this finer thread (like point de Sedan) are distinctly whiter and softer looking. Flemish bobbin laces used the finer thread, as well.
Nowadays, you can buy flaxen thread for needlelace, or use other types. I have used crochet cotton for my larger pieces, and often use all-purpose thread, simply because it's what I have. The techniques are the same, but the texture and overall effect of the lace is different depending on the thread.
I don't currently have enough pictures that I have the rights to use to show you good examples of each type, so check out Jean Leader's page about French needlelace, for pics. One thing you'll notice when she analyzes the grounds of the different laces is that there was some overlap between the regional styles, and the same ground that eventually became distinct to Point d'Argentan was used in other styles at earlier dates. In the same way, plenty of Alençon lace was made before the distinctive Alençon ground became standard. Anyway, I want to do more detailed posts about each style at some point in the future, which will hopefully include pictures! For now, a simple list:
Point de France
The name "Point de France" is given to all lace made from its commencement by Colbert's direction until about 1678, when the lace-workers, perhaps forgetting the traditions of the Venetian school, developed a style of their own and the work became more distinctly French, being more delicate, finer in substance, the patterns clearer and more defined. The importation also of the finer flax thread from Flanders brought the more exquisite Pillow lace of Brussels to the notice of the French lace-workers.
What we usually call Point de France is a needlelace with obvious ties to Venetian gros point, with large, usually symmetrical, scrolling or floral designs, with motifs often touching each other so there are minimal brides. What brides there are are buttonholed. Sometimes the hexagonal mesh of Point d'Argentan is seen, even the bride picotée, but the style is still Point de France if the motifs are Venetian, large, clustered, et cetera. The visual effect is similar to a mille fleur tapestry: there's stuff going on everywhere.
Like some point de France, it uses the complex, heavy ground in which a hexagonal mesh is first made, then covered with buttonhole stitches to stabilize it. Often the ground is heavily ornamented with picots (bride picotée). Unlike point de France, the point d'Aregentan motifs are smaller and widely spaced, giving rest for the eyes in the negative space between them
The smaller, widely spaced motifs I mentioned above are found in this lace, too. It has a characteristic light mesh ground, and raised cordonnet stiffened with horsehair. The cordonnet is thoroughly covered in buttonhole stitches, which is time consuming but sturdy. Horsehair is also used in the formation of the picots along the edges, to hold them out in a neat shape (keep them from getting wiggly).
Flatter than Argentan or Alençon lace, with no raising of the cordonnet. Its claim to fame is its distinct and interesting mesh stitches used to fill various portions of the design, like the "partidge-eye" stitch. There is a surprising variety of filling stitches in individual pieces, which makes me wonder if one worker was doing the work. The assembly-line production style leads to monotonous stitch choices, but a single worker, getting bored, will vary her stitch choices as a matter of course.
Point de Sedan
A disputed term, used to describe a densely ornamented form of needlelace, made with very fine Flanders flax, possibly around the border with Belgium. It has a snowy look, both because of the whiter flax being used and the denseness of the stitches and closely spaced motifs.
(I mentioned point de gaze earlier, but it doesn't make this list, because it's a Belgian lace, not a French one! If watching Poirot has taught me anything, it's not to confuse the Belgians and the French!)
Other famous French laces, like Chantilly lace, are bobbin laces.
FRENCH NEEDLELACE POST COLBERT
Victorian point lace, which I mentioned earlier, was made by individuals as fancy work. It was usually lesser quality Battenburg style stuff, made using thicker threads, machine-made tape, and sometimes machine-made net: no-where near the perfection or style of antique needlelaces. Patterns and directions were published by enthusiasts and by DMC cotton, which also sold the threads and tapes needed for it. There's a lot of this point lace to be found in antique stores because it was fun and accessible to home-sewists, so I say the revival was a good thing because it kept aspects of the old traditions alive. I learned most of my needlelace stitches from Victorian resources, not secretive French guilds.
The Arts and Crafts movement also sought to revive needlelace, as part of their overall fondness for hand-crafted things. I love their designs, which are so much of their time.
Nowadays, there are many who work to preserve needlelace techniques all over the world. Since 1976, the town of Alençon has had a National Lace Workshop where the traditional methods of Point d'Alencon are taught and practiced, though somewhat differently from in Colbert's day. For instance, according to UNESCO, modern makers of point d'Alençon apprentice for seven to ten years, and learn every aspect of the craft. No more having over a dozen hyper-specialized workers collaborating on a single flounce! On certain days of the year, you can visit the workshops, but if you're not there when they open to the public, there's always the Musée des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle, right next door. Meanwhile, modern lacemaking guilds operate very differently from the medieval guild system of the past: guilds used to be trade unions that regulated their own members and lobbied the crown for monopolies; now the word is used more loosely for organizations which revolve around educating their members and exhibiting their work to raise the profile of the craft.
The legacy of Colbert's system in France nowadays is more cultural than economic. Various French industries, especially wine-making and fashion, still have trade organizations like the old guilds, still protect the use of regional names for regional products, and are active to prevent and prosecute counterfeit goods. Their high standards of quality maintain the reputation of French excellence. Modern French lace is made with machines, but in a labor-intensive way, with skilled workers and lots of handwork, and is still among the best laces in the world. Colbert succeeded in his goal to elevate the luxury status of French manufacture: to be French is still to be sophisticated and chic.
As for the phenomenon of incumbents in a trade being afraid of innovation? And how clamping down on innovation in one country leads free-thinkers to flee elsewhere? Well, during the industrial revolution in England, a group of textile workers called Luddites took to destroying the equipment in their employers' factories. This is often though to be a revolt against the march of industry, but actually the protesters used that same machinery to make their living; they weren't opposed to machinery, just to their employers constantly hiring cheaper labor to operate it, and putting all their hard-learned and once marketable skills to waste. They sabotaged the looms ("sabotage", French for "throwing a shoe in"!) by "throwing a spanner in the works", blowing things up, et cetera. I suppose it was better than attacking people-- although that happened, too. Eventually things got so fraught that employers shot at protesters, and military action put the movement down. But while it was going on, the destruction was so rampant and dangerous that some industrialists took their equipment elsewhere, including the owners of a bunch of Leavers looms, used for making machine lace. Ironically, these looms were smuggled(?) into France and acquired by the lacemaking company that eventually became Sophie Hallette. They still exist, still make very fine lace, and supply many high end designers, including Alexander McQueen, who used Sophie Hallette lace in Kate Middleton's wedding dress! England's paranoia was France's gain, just as Colbert's paranoia in the 1600's was England and Holland's gain! And yet the threat Sophie Hallete faces today, in an age when the Leavers loom is no longer the height of technology and their workforce is aging? They need to train new blood before the techniques are lost! Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.
LACE IN FICTION...
I can't neglect to mention the book Bride Picotée (1883) by Margaret Robertson. That link takes you to Google Books, where you can read the book for free. It's a charmer: earnest, lame, poor young Lise applies herself to learning needlelace by herself, with no teacher, while her elderly neighbor La Brisarde, a skilled lacemaker of the Argentan school, brings in money for herself by repairing old laces which no-one else knows how to repair. Lise humbly applies to be taught, which La Brisarde refuses (because she's a crusty old thing). But she allows Lise to sit and watch, and even to work beside her, which is all the poor child desires. The moralizing is a mix of Dickens (the poor hardworking waif, starving but plucky, constantly misunderstood) and Heidi/Silas Marner/Oliver/Pollyanna (the relationship between cynical elder and innocent youth is a catalyst for the old one to be rehabilitated into a sponsor/mentor/parent figure to the young one). So the plot is cliche and predictable. And what's wrong with that if we like the cliche? Moreover, the details are lovely, and the needlelace is so well described as to be a character in itself!
You will also see the cultural effects of Colbertism in the book, in La Brisarde's memories of making point d'Argentan as a young woman in a family atelier. The scene in the book where she laments that machine made thread is inferior to the flax her sister spun-- her sister, and only her sister (because no-one else had the talent!), in a dark humid room, alone--is a perfect example of the hyper-specialization of the workers in the system of production set up under Colbert. She even retells (in prose, not poetry) the story of the Rise of the Trimmings!
And if you're interested in the cultural milieu in which trade was rigidly controlled and foreign laces banned, the book The Ruins of Lace by Iris Anthony is a sweeping, widely-cast story about the effects of lace making, lace smuggling, and the high price of lace. The lace in the novel is Flemish bobbin lace, made in convents in the Netherlands and smuggled into France to adorn the nobility. The scene is set a bit earlier than the history I've related here, during the reign of Louis XIII, the father of the "Sun King". Louis XIII did ban all laces during his reign, with limited success. Like all sumptuary laws, his edict was subverted by many, if they thought they could get away with it; various wealthy or important people kept wearing their lace anyway and smuggling in more. Louis XIII's reasons for banning the wearing of lace were the same as Colbert's reasons for banning foreign lace and encouraging domestic versions: keeping the money in the country. Colbert's methods were more effective because instead of just proscribing a highly coveted item, he offered a perfectly lovely alternative that the French could buy with pride. Well, Colbert served a king who loved extravagance and understood its impact on the prestige of his country. Louis XIII, by contrast, was a more austere character, who saw noble extravagance as an example of picking up bad habits from the rest of Europe.
In an interview with Hoydens & Firebrands, Anthony dismisses Colbert's point de France pieces as being "domestic rip-offs"... though she concedes that the French laces eventually became quite good. But I quibble with the word "rip-off", which suggests inferior counterfeits. I think that suggestion does injustice to Colbert's vision. It's clear from his correspondence with the lacemaking factories and his personal interest in the project that he never intended point de France to look anything like the laces of other parts of Europe: even when he brought Italian lacemakers to teach the French ones, he emphasized that the French works should be in different patterns and styles. His desire for authentic French style was actually a point of dispute for some workers, who were set in their ways:
Correspondence with Colbert indicates that of the ~8,000 workers in Alençon, only 700 were willing to work for the new company, to its standards and with new designs. Only 250 of these had the skill to imitate the best Venetian products. Workers in convents appeared to have ignored the government’s efforts completely.
But by fining and punishing inferior workmanship, and refusing to subsidize those who didn't fall in line with his plan, he kept quality high and pushed a unique advance in needlelace's development. So while I think you could accuse Colbert of industrial espionage, I don't believe you could call the products he fostered rip-offs. The point de France laces were neither inferior nor fakes.
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Soll, Jacob. "Colbertism failed in France. Will it work in China?" Boston Globe, July 14, 2013. Accessed
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