Thursday, 27 March 2014

Lace: Part Two

Lace, as my last post made clear, is not the simple antiquarian it appears to be. Nay, it is a web of confusion threaded with strands of perplexity! I have discovered the colourful history of lace as a whole however is nothing compared to the mini-histories of some of its varieties. Here, fading from memory, lie some truly diverting stories.

Alençon and Valenciennes, the grande dames of the land of lace, shall be the first to have their tales told.

Alençon - The Lace of Fiscal Policy and Awkward Re-gifting

Otherwise known as the ‘Queen of Lace’, Alençon has a particularly regal history. King Louis XIV you see had a problem: a court full of nobles fit to burst with disposable income, who dressed in the most exquisite couture laces known to man. Yet, none of these laces were French.

Hence, all those wonderful gold coins Louis was so fond of were leaking out of his dominion at an alarming rate, pouring straight into the coffers of neighbouring kingdoms - all thanks to his flock of hangers on with their taste for foreign chic. 

Set of Flounces, Alcide Rousel, 1867, France, Needle lace worked with linen thread, Victoria & Albert Museum, London.
Colbert, his finance minister, considered it a matter of national importance that a selection of lust-worthy French laces be developed and threw massive resources into the effort. Thanks to the King and Colbert, a dizzying array of gorgeous fine French points emerged, which had amusing names such as  ‘Reseau Mouche’, meaning ‘Fly Mesh’ which featured “A clear ground spattered with spots like flies hanging on a window pane” or ‘Semes de Larmes’, meaning ‘Sown with Tears’, which was flecked with teardrop patches. 

The courtiers were impressed. The unlikely grand patrons of lace innovation had their way: France tore away masses of the market from the Spainards and Italians as Alençon boomed. And all was well in the Kingdom. 

That was until the French Revolution, which had people rather more concerned with keeping their heads attached to their necks than and decorating themselves or weaving lace. Luckily Napoleon came flying to the rescue of the crumbling Alençon producers after the establishment of his expansive Empire some years later, launching revival motivated by similar reasons as Louis XIV and Colbert. Napoleon however went one step further by making locally produced lace mandatory court attire and draping swaths of it around the palaces wherever possible. 

Fichu, 1805-1810, Alencon, France, Needle lace worked in linen thread on a net ground, Victoria & Albert Museum, London. Likely to be related to the Napoleonic bed hangings. 

A huge set of bed hangings were commissioned from Alençon for the Empress’s chamber, an order which would stretch a whole twenty yards when complete and cost a royal price of four thousand francs when a peasant would earn only a handful a year. The fragment pictured above is believed to have been produced at the same time as the hangings, and show the dear insectoid motifs that would have dotted the netting. This was done as a nod to the symbol Bonaparte chose for his house – not the noble lion or proud hawk, but the humble bee. 

A slight hitch - the Empress changed between when the hangings were begun to the point when the final thread was put in place, the old, charismatic Josephine traded in favour of the potential heir-producing Austrian Marie-Louise. 

But did the Alençon lace makers let their hard work go to waste? No! They simple scribbled a new name on the card and off it went to drape over one of the Empire’s most important beds, regardless of which Empress was to sleep within in it. Enterprising!

Valenciennes - The Lace that Sparked Wars and Made Heads Roll

Try all they might to make Alençon and its like supreme, their remained for years one lace King Louis could never quite knock off its perch – the Valenciennes. His finance minister Colbert estimated two million livres a year still drained out of France across the Flemish border to the small town which bore its name. 

It was a frustrating but not impossible situation. Louis and Colbert were pragmatic fellows and they had a pragmatic answer to their woes: if they couldn’t steal the village’s prowess, they’d simply steal the village. 

Fragment, 18th Century, Henrietta Seligman Lace Collection, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Not unexpectedly the village and the Flemish weren’t too happy about this idea. Time for a war - yay!

Alas, the Flemish proved to be no match for the mighty power that was France and Valenciennes was officially ceded in 1678. Historian Earnshaw drolly summarised the happy position Louis now found himself in: he was now in possession of “a Flemish town, with Flemish lacemakers producing Flemish designs by Flemish techniques, within his own boundaries – and he immediately dubbed the lace ‘French’.” 

Their chief competitor now allied with their cause, the King and Colbert had their way. The best lace was, with a bit of boundary modification, firmly on French soil and lots of cold hard cash flowed into their coffers. 

Alas, the poor Valenciennes lace makers suffering at the hands of the French was not to end there. Now part of France, they were able to enjoy the fabulous Revolution that rolled around about a century after their conquest. The problem for them was that the primary buyers of their craft were dashing noblemen and court-going ladies since they were the only ones who could afford the incredibly labour intensive product. Incredibly, one pair of ruffles priced at 160 pounds would take a maker working a fifteen-hour day ten whole months to finish. 

Valenciennes from Lace and Its Origin and History by Samuel Goldberg (1904)

Their lot in life sounds quite pitiable to me but once the Bastille was stormed and the revolutionaries started chopping of their main clientele's heads, they obviously reached their conclusions about the lace makers using different equations. 

Their ideas went something like this: Nobility = bad. Suppliers of nobility = bad by association. Valenciennes lace makers = dead.

In 1780 there had been 4000 lace makers fiddling with their bobbins in the region. By 1789 that number had plummeted to 250, and by 1851, there were two. Amongst the survivors of the Golden Age of the Ancien Regime, Valenciennes lace did not count amongst them. 

Well, that closes another portion of my history of lace segment. Stay tuned for part three!

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