- One of the trademark crafts of Brussels, lace making evolved from embroidery. Needle lace appeared in Italy, most likely in Venice, at the end of the first quarter of the 16th century. Bobbin lace emerged at the same time simultaneously in Italy and Flanders. Derived from a weaving of braids technique, bobbin lace developed from the practice of weaving ribbons and other edgings on looms or plaiting them on cushions using pins to hold the criss-crossed thread in place.Lace making began to be taught to young girls, and, by the second half of the 16th century, women throughout Belgium were practicing the craft. At the same time, demand for lace rose with developing tastes in fashion. The original form of lace was purely geometric in design and used to decorate clothing. Around 1580, ruffs edged with lace became fashionable and, as they became larger in succeeding decades, the lengths of fabric needed to create them necessitated large-scale production. Family-based workshops sprang up in Brussels and convents and orphanages also served as low-cost and plentiful sources of labor.By the 17th century, Brussels had emerged as one of Europe's main lace making centers, renowned for the fineness of thread employed and the beauty of the motifs that were crafted. Demand increased as fashion dictated larger displays of lace. Sewn on to shirt collars and cuffs and adorning boot tops, lace was later used to make entire veils and gowns and for trim on bedspreads and tablecloths.The bobbin lace of Flanders known as "point d'Angleterre" became especially associated with Brussels. Perfected around 1650, this lace would change in design but not in methods of production, being created without technical changes through the centuries up to World War II.The name "Brussels" together with "Angleterre" came to designate bobbin laces from the city in the 18th century, a period marked by increased specialization. Sumptuary laws that had forbidden adornment with lace by the lower classes were no longer operative, adding to demand.The early years of the 18th century were marked by a specific design that featured a net based on round stitches. After 1760, the finer "droschel" net consisted of a ground of small hexagonal meshes, with the two vertical sides of each mesh composed of four threads plaited four times.Lace making in Brussels evolved from use of single continuous thread, by which only small pieces would be produced, to a noncon-tinuous thread technique, which permitted motifs to be worked separately and then connected by a network of meshes. Henceforth, large pieces could be created very quickly, a development that revolutionized the trade in allowing lace makers to respond swiftly to changes in fashion. The variety of designs became vast because the noncon-tinuous technique facilitated many ingenious arrangements. Brussels lace makers excelled at intricate incorporation of objects as diverse as people, buildings, and foliage. From the 1680s to about 1750, the strength of the trade in Brussels lay in its ability to create patterns in the French taste then in vogue and its dexterity in adapting quickly to changes in fashion. Highly sought after and very expensive, lace from Brussels became a favorite of the aristocracies and royal families of Europe.Lace became unfashionable in the late 18th century during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods. However, the 19th century saw a revival with the rise of regional costumes, including headdresses, and the vogue of wedding gowns, which became de rigueur beginning in the 1830s.Machine net appeared in the early 1800s, which gave rise to appliqué work. Lace makers in Brussels adopted it quickly. The droschel background that had formerly characterized its laces was rarely employed after 1830. Instead, bobbin-made motifs were applied to machine net, which made possible rapid production of large-size pieces. Known as Brussels appliqué or "application d'Angleterre," it was noted for its high quality and rich design. Other laces included "point de gaze," a needle lace, and "Duchesse," a bobbin lace that appeared in the mid-1800s, which was inspired by Brussels patterns of the 17th century. With its light mesh background and often encrusted with medallions of needle-made point de gaze, Duchesse lace became a famous Brussels specialty.Large quantities of lace were produced in the city's workshops, where some 10,000 women labored through the 19th century. Most production was exported, especially to North America, where no major hand-made industry existed, and South America, where a great deal of lace was traditionally worn.Demand at the turn of the 20th century for quantity remained high, but not for quality. Machines imitated every style of lace. Competition grew apace and led the hand-made lace makers of Brussels to specialize exclusively in the luxury trade. Still, the traditional clientele for hand-made lace—the upper classes — turned more and more to antique laces, which in turn grew to become museum pieces. During World War I, souvenir laces with patriotic decorations were crafted. Production for the tourist trade continued through the century. However, employment declined steadily as fewer women learned the craft and much production shifted to the Orient. World War II marked the definitive end of commercial hand-made lace in Brussels. The machine lace on sale today is made in China and is cheaper but inferior in quality.Churches and museums are replete with representative examples of the handicraft. The Musée du Costume et de la Dentelle (Museum of Costume and Lace) in the Maison du Roi houses an array of displays.
Historical Dictionary of Brussels. Paul F. State.