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Lace of the Queens - Queen of the Laces
Normandy in the northwest of France, is on the Atlantic coast. Mont-St-Michel is its most famous tourist attraction, but the city of Rouen and Monet's Gardens at Giverny are also well known.
Two hundred kilometers west of Paris, in the Norman town of Alencon, a handful of women carry on a tradition begun more than four centuries ago. Here, at the Ecole Dentelliere, professional lace makers who use techniques devised in the 15th century painstakingly manufacture the "point d'Alencon," the most elaborate needlepoint lace made in France. Today, because of the high costs of manufacturing, it is considered a luxury lace, and the largest pieces are sold mainly as extravagant lingerie in high-fashion Paris shops, but point d'Alencon once enjoyed a more widespread popularity.
Lace was an important factor in 16th-century world trade. The art began in Italy in the early 1500s as a gentlewoman's pastime. These ladies passed the skill along to nuns, who found it a meditative occupation as well as a way of producing income for their convents. The practice spread from convent to convent throughout Italy until, in the late 1500s, the demand for lace products was great enough that private manufacturing workshops were established.
The renowned Medici family amassed a large collection of lace in the 16th century, and when Catherine de Medici married Henri II in 1533, she brought her lace with her to France, where it soon caught on as a fashionable commodity. She quickly persuaded Henri II to import Italian lace experts to France, and thus was born the French lace industry.
French laces were generally lighter and airier in design than their Italian counterparts, and by 1650, ten years after the establishment of the first atelier in Alencon, point d'Alencon had already been recognized as the finest and most delicately worked of the French laces.
During the reign of Louis XIV, lace became a more coveted possession than ever. Court extravagance called for the manufacture of such vast quantities of it that the King established 12 national lace making ateliers. Alencon was given first rank among them and, as a consequence, the industry there grew rapidly, and point d'Alencon achieved new heights of perfection. The "fontage," a towering headdress of Alencon lace, was an essential item in every court woman's wardrobe, and lace was the official court dress. Point d'Alencon quickly became known as "la dentelle des reines," the lace of queens.
Lace making remained a major French industry through the first decade of the 19th century, when it began to decline. The industry was revived somewhat in the 1830s and again in the 1840s, but thereafter the demand for lace subsided significantly.
Today, a few dedicated women continue to practice the intricate techniques of point d'Alencon. Most are descended from the families whose women worked in the original atelier, and most grew up watching their grandmothers, mothers, and aunts toiling over the fine linen and silk threads that make up Alencon lace.
The creation of Alencon lace requires nine complex steps. In the traditional manner, almost every step is performed by a different lace maker, each with her own specialty. Final assembly of all pieces of the lace requires the skill of a senior lace maker. She must be an expert in all stitches and capable of blending the work of many hands into an apparently seamless whole. Such an exquisite lace-making tradition is a treasure from what the French call "a time of enchantment and folly."
Alencon lace can be viewed at the Musee des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle, Cour Carre de la Dentelle, in Alencon. The museum is open from 10 a.m. to noon and from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. daily (between September 15 and Easter, it is closed on Mondays). Guided tours are offered in several languages, including English.
www.ville-alencon.fr: Town of Alencon
www.normandy-tourism.org: Normandy tourism
www.dentellieres.com/Musee/Alencon/Lace-alencon1.htm: The Museum of the Beautiful Arts and the Lace (Alencon)
© Mellen Candage, 2000
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