Places to visit | Background information

Lace - history of lace-making
by hand and machine

Traditional hand-made lace
Machine-made lace
The Jacquard loom
Factory shops - to buy lace

medieval cloth trade

1. Making lace by hand 2. King Louis XIV and his court spent fortunes on lace-trimmed finery

Making lace for the aristocracy
In the 16th century, it was fashionable for lords and ladies in the French court to wear lace ornamentation, but it had to be imported from Venice.

State support
Louis XIV's minister Colbert wanted to make France wealthier by using state funds to encourage luxury industries. In 1665 he brought in some Venetian lacemakers and set up schools of lace-making to train French craftsmen. Making fine lace became an important craft industry - it was hand-made by thousands of craftspeople in their own homes or in small workshops. 18th century smugglers took French lace into England, to avoid heavy import taxes. Back to top

3. Traditional lace head-dress

Traditional headdress
The North's peasant women saved to buy a treasured lace head-dress for celebrations and "Sunday best".

Like the clothes of ordinary people, these would be heirlooms, handed down from one generation to the next.
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Effects of the French Revolution
Abruptly French lace-makers lost their best customers: French aristocrats fled into exile for fear of the guillotine. Under the Republic and Napoleon, plainer clothes became the fashion - lace was not wanted. Many unemployed workmen were glad to be conscripted into Napoleon's army to fight in endless wars.

4. 19th lace-making machine - a "Leavers Machine", now in Calais Museum.

Making lace by machine
You're looking at a machine that brought new prosperity to Calais in the years after the Napoleonic Wars. Not many people know that much of the world's fine lace comes from Nord/Pas-de-Calais!

Making lace for the world
If you see a lace dress at a wedding, chances are that lace was woven in Calais or in Caudry, near Cambrai. Actually 20% of the lace is used in wedding and cocktail dresses, and other high-fashion designer dresses; 80% is used for fine lingerie.

In Calais there are today about 700 looms employing 3,000 workers. The two town's lace factories export about 3/4 of their output to 140 countries. Back to top  

Inventing a machine to make lace
Back in 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic Wars, a machine to make lace was invented in England by John Leavers. The basis of his machine was the Elizabethan "stocking frame", invented c.1589 by a Nottingham vicar, Rev. William Lee, to help his wife knit stockings. It worked a bit like "french knitting", where children make a knitted tube by winding wool round nails on top of a cotton reel.

Industrial Revolution
The original English "Leavers Machine" was only 18 inches (0,5m) wide, but it made cheaper mass-produced lace for small garments. At that time many new inventions were transforming industry in Britain - textile machines, steam engines, iron-making... This was the age of the Industrial Revolution, and Britain was the "Silicon Valley" of those days.
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5. Today's "Leavers Machines" are about 6metres wide, but work on exactly the same principles as the originals in 1812.

Industrial secrets
Foreign lace makers could not get hold of the Leavers Machine. To protect valuable industrial secrets, the British government banned export of such new machines on punishment of death - just as the USA later banned exports of computers to Russia.
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Skills and technology smuggled from England

6. English "Luddites" broke into factories and smashed up the new machines that put them out of work. Here hungry workers break into a Workhouse to steal bread for their families.

In 1816 - just after the end of the Napoleonic wars - three skilled workmen from Nottingham, Clark, Webster and Bonnington, thought there might be a better future in France. They smuggled some machinery over to Calais, and were helped to set up a new machine-lace workshops.

They escaped from bitter opposition to their new machines back in England. Thousands of poor workers in Nottingham made lace by hand at home, and feared the new machines would deprive them of a living. There were bitter "Luddite" riots in which soldiers guarded the new mills against machine-smashers.

In Calais, the emigrant English workmen found people keen to work for them - the port was impoverished after losing its trade during the French wars. The French aristocracy had returned, so a revival in trade for luxury lace looked likely. Back to top

By the 1820's the new Calais lace workshops were flourishing. Protected by heavy tariffs on most imported goods, they didn't need to worry about competition from England.

English ex-patriots built rows of terraced houses in the St-Pierre district of Calais with space for their workshops. Some also went to Caudry, near Cambrai, and opened lace factories there. In Calais the industry is still in the hands of family businesses - many with distant English origins. People in Calais still eat Christmas puddings and Welsh rarebit (cheese on toast), customs the English lace-makers brought to the town. Back to top

19th Century "computer control" to make fine patterned lace

7. 19th lace-making machine - a Jacquard Loom. A roll of card punched with holes runs through the "mangle" on the left, and controls the settings on the loom to weave a pattern into the lace[R]. Change the card, and you change the pattern.

In 1835 they perfected a device to make a near-perfect imitation of hand-made lace in any design, including traditional styles like "Chantilly" lace. This was the work of another Englishman, Samuel Fergusson, who adapted the French "Jacquard loom" (used to make tapestries for aristocrats) for making patterned lace - an early example of "numerical control" Back to top

Suffering of the hand lacemakers

Petit Quinquin -statue,LilleLille's statue of "Petit Quinquin" commemorates a lullaby about a poor lacemaker and her hungry child who would not stop crying.

On top of the column is Lille composer Alexandre Desrousseaux, who wrote the song in 1858 - when women who made fine lace by hand were being priced out of work by the clever new machines which could match their patterns.

The statue is in the park in Square Foch, on rue Nationale (Metro Rihour)

Fashions and Free Trade
19th century women's fashions boosted the demand for lace. When free trade ideas led to lower tariffs throughout Europe, Calais lace became sold all over the world. Import taxes on French lace coming into Britain were drastically in 1860, during the Second Empire. Napoleon III made a treaty with British minister Cobden in 1860 that slashed protective tariffs on trade between the two countries.
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Today's lace industry
Nord-Pas de Calais is still an important centre for machine lace, exporting it all over the world. The craft of making lace by hand, which had almost died out, was revived after the First World War. In the 1920s a rich American endowed a
lace-making college in Bailleul to train future generations in the old skills. Back to top

Places to visit:
Lace Museum in Calais - machines & collection of machine-made lace through history
Lace "factory shops" & factory visits in Calais - bargains!
Lace Museum in Caudry - [near Cambrai] luxury lace for top fashion designers
Maison de la Dentelle, Bailleul - museum and school keeping alive the tradition of handmade lace

Related background information
Louis XIV - French monarch in 17th century.

North's textile industry




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