Belgian lace making predates the founding of modern Belgium (1830) by centuries. In fact, the area's history is woven in lace.
Experts say the craft began in the 16th Century when the land was known as Flanders. A magnificent lace coverlet, full of technical innovation, was made for Archduke Albert's wedding in 1599. Today that work is in the Royal Museum in Brussels.
In the 16th Century, Flemish lace meant all bobbin lace from Ghent, Antwerp, Malines, Brussels and Brugge. By the 18th Century, patterns and techniques had evolved and were clearly identified as Fairy point, Rosealine, Duchesse and others. Place names such as Cluny, Venice, Brussels and Bruges did not necessarily indicate the place of origin.
All by Hand
Belgian lace is all handmade (an essential distinction) with bobbin and other techniques.
Over the years, thousands of variations have been invented. Creating patterns is the hardest part; handling up to 1,200 threads requires a genius for strategy. You can't imagine its complexity until you've seen it done. Those who start young can follow complex patterns by their teens.
Lace has always been valuable. It was included in notarized property lists of aristocrats. Protective laws were passed and serious punishment inflicted upon those found guilty of smuggling it or stealing patterns.
Lace has always been art by anonymous; you won't find signatures. Historians say that's because lace making was the work of lower-class women to earn extra, often undeclared, income.
Strict Standards Exist
Without labels, how can you determine quality and authenticity? The Belgian lace industry has strict standards. Lace of recent vintage, still made at home and then sold to shops, is certified fait a main, or handmade. Size and complexity determine value. Antique lace is recognizable by its finer threads and greater intricacy.
Now there's a lace making renaissance in Belgium. A workshop at the Belgian Lace Center (Balstraat 14, Bruges; telephone 05033-00-72) instructs students from around the world in traditional patterns and techniques. Government subsidy allows the center to sell equipment and supplies at just above cost, and instruction is inexpensive (about $25 buys you a year's membership in the workshop; two-week intensive summer courses cost $50 per person in groups of 15).
Tourists may observe the workshop and visit the museum for 50 cents. The center also publishes books on lace.
Across the street from the center, Apostelientje Lace Shop has a collection of antique and recent lace. There are recently made doilies ($20-$30, depending on size) and framed 12-inch decorative pieces, including a baby buggy ($20) and lace maker ($75).
A 5-by-3-foot oval tablecloth (Antwerp, 1920s) sells for $1,800, while an 1850s point de Gaze decorative piece, a bouquet of flowers mounted on blue velvet and framed, costs around $300. A 19th-Century collar that drapes over the shoulders is about $280.
No Shortage of Shops
Lace shops abound in Bruges. At Market Square 11, the Little Lace Shop is a good source for high-quality investment lace. There are also doilies, place mats and handkerchiefs comparable in quality and price to Apostelientje.
Breidelstraat, adjacent to Market Square, is Bruges' lace street. Bobbin Lace Palace (No. 20) is a reputable shop. Some of their lace is mounted on machine-made net; some machine-made ribbon is used. Ask about this before buying.
Lace-trimmed linen tablecloths (two by three yards) sell for $250-$500. Similar cloths in cotton mixture cost $125-$180. The price includes eight to 12 napkins. Runners cost $100-$200. There are decorative lace cats, candles, birds, hearts, steamboats, balloons and other items in eight- or 15-inch oval frames for $14-$55.
Souvenir lace is even less expensive at Firma Pickery (Vismarkt 13, near the old Fish Market), where dozens of doilies and runners ranging from 70 cents to $60 hang on the walls for the choosing. There are also inexpensive lace maker dolls.
Brussels, too, has dozens of lace shops. Manufacture Belge de Dentelles, at Galerie de la Reine 6-8, is a must. The shop, run by the Mallit family since 1810, has an exceptional selection of recent lace objects including parasols, christening robes and fans as well as more utilitarian items, and a collection of antique lace.
The most lavish and expensive item is a full lace tablecloth ordered in the 1950s by Cuba's Batista. The cloth took 2 1/2 years to make. By the time it was completed, Batista was no longer in power. The cloth is exquisite, with flowers and birds (their wings flap) against an impossibly intricate laced ground. It costs $120,000.
This shop buys from about 200 lace makers, who provide more reasonably priced tablecloths, as well as lovely handkerchiefs ($6-$60).