Alençon Lace – Frilling Stuff
UNESCO recognised the exceptional quality of Alençon lace by adding it to the “Representative List of the Cultural Heritage of Humanity“, it was announced on Tuesday this week (see video at end of article). French gastronomy was also added to the list. In its announcement the UNESCO committee said “Alençon needle lace is unusual because of the high level of craftsmanship required and the very long time that it takes to produce (seven hours per square centimetre).”
But Beware Cheap Imitations …
You’ll find plenty of suppliers offering what they claim to be “Alençon Lace” and wedding gowns supposedly trimmed in Alençon lace.
With very few exceptions, most of this is NOT genuine Alençon lace. It often comes from China and is a cheap, machine made imitation that bears only a superficial resemblance to the real thing. When it is available to order by the yard, or the dresses cost just a few hundred dollars, this gives the game away – new Alençon lace costs several hundred dollars per square inch!
Ouch – Why is real Alençon lace so expensive? Mainly because it takes eight years of training to master the Point d’Alençon technique and 25 hours of labour to produce a finished piece of Alençon lace the size of a French postage stamp (2.5cm by 2cm, less than a square inch). The end result is stunning and can’t be matched by any machine made lace.
History of Alençon Lace
Alençon lace, known as “the Queen of laces and a lace for Queens“, is the most elaborate needle-point lace ever produced in France. It traces its origins to 1665, when Louis XIV determined to improve the quality of French lace in order to keep in the country the enormous sums then being spent on Italian and Flemish laces by members of his court.
Venetian lace makers were brought in to train the French lace-makers of Alençon in Normandy, who were already skilled in making cut-thread lace. The number of workers rapidly grew and by 1875 nearly eight thousand workers in Alencon and surrounding towns (Sees, Argentan, Falaise, Mamers and Beaumont) were engaged in lace making. Until c. 1675 the new French lace strongly resembled Spanish and Venetian points and was called “Point de France“. But around that time the lace-makers of Alençon adopted a mesh backing technique and invented a new and even more delicate stitch, a distinctive style leading to the “Point d’Alençon” soubriquet.
Enormous prices were paid for Alençon lace, which could only be afforded by the aristocracy. Despite this, not only were articles of clothing trimmed with it, but it was used as a trimming for luxurious bedclothes, upholstery, valances and bed spreads. Altars in the churches were hung with it, surplices of the priests trimmed with it, and the king gave away to his courtiers cravats, ruffles and complete items of clothing. At the time of the French Revolution in 1794 the value of Alençon lace was a staggering 12,000,000 livres (pounds) per annum. The average wage at this time was only 3 sous (shillings) per day, making the value of the lace equivalent to 80 million days’ labour.
During the Revolution many of the Alençon lace factory workers were killed or fled France on account of their connection with the aristocracy. Nevertheless, the skill survived and even had a renaissance when in 1810 the Emperor Napoleon I gave Marie Louise bed linen decorated with finest Alençon lace on the occasion of their marriage.
The Duchess of Angoulême also tried to revive the industry, but by 1830 there were only two or three hundred Alençon lace-workers still employed. Alençon lace was shown at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in the Crystal Palace of London where it was greatly admired, and in 1856 a large commission was placed to mark the birth of the Prince Imperial. In 1859 the most expensive single work ever executed at Alençon was exhibited – a dress valued at 200,000 francs purchased by the Emperor Napoleon III for the Empress. Despite this, the Alençon lace factory fell into terminal decline towards the end of the 19th century as cheaper machine-made lace became available and tastes in fashion changed.
Alençon Lace Technique
The technique of point d’Alençon is a rare technique of needle lace-making. Alençon needle lace is unusual because of the high level of craftsmanship required and the very long time that it takes to produce (seven hours per square centimetre).
Its process comprises a number of successive stages: drawing and pricking of the design on parchment, creating the outline of the design and the background netting, then the stitching of the patterns, shading with filling stitches, decorating with designs, and embroidering to create relief. Then the lace is removed from the parchment with a razor blade, trimmed and, finally, the filling stitches are polished with a lobster claw.
Every Alençon lace-maker knows how to complete all the stages of the process – knowledge that can only be learned through a practical apprenticeship. To fully master Alençon needle lace-making requires seven to ten years of training. The learning method is exclusively based on oral transmission and practical teaching.
In 1903, the Alençon Chamber of Commerce realised that there was a need to safeguard the special Alençon lace-making technique for posterity and it founded a lace making school in the town.
In 1976, the Point d’Alencon National Workshop was created by the State to preserve the lace needlepoint traditions in the town. Today the workshop houses a small group who keep alive this unique skill, mainly producing pieces of needlework destined for great state-owned properties.
There is a permanent exhibition of Alençon lace and exhibits showing how it is made in the Musée des Beaux Arts et de la Dentelle in the town centre.
The public can also visit the adjoining lace-making workshops on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in summer, or groups by appointment throughout the year.
Small samples of the lace can be bought from the museum shop for a price – about 500 euro!
More Information on Alençon Lace:
Musée des Beaux-arts et de la Dentelle d’Alençon
Cour Carrée de la Dentelle
T. 02 33 32 40 07
Open all year daily except Mondays, 10h00 to 18h00.
Closes for lunch 12h00 to 14h00 except in July and August.