BRUGGE, Belgium — No one product is as closely associated with Belgium as lace. "Chocolates!" you may cry, but these luscious morsels come in a distant second when stacked up against the power and position that lace has assumed in past and present Belgium.
Consider this: The country's history, its art, politics and even its economy have been enmeshed in lace since the 16th century. Kings and princes, queens and courtiers from throughout Europe have coveted it, flaunted it, smuggled it and included it in dowries where it was valued beyond gold.
Today, when streams of tourists flow down the narrow streets and into the little shops of Brussels and Brugge, Ghent and Liege, it is lace they seek from its source. You can't buy a postcard here, or a key chain, without also being confronted by a rack of lacy, initialed handkerchiefs or a tray of winsome, openwork butterfly brooches.
The enormous surprise, then, as I discovered last summer when I set out to explore Belgium's realm of linens and lace, is how little of the mountains of gossamer goods sold here is authentically Belgian. Most of the lace sold in Belgium today is, in fact, imported from Asia. The patterns and techniques may be Belgian, carried to China and India and taught by missionary nuns a century ago. But the lace makers are Chinese and Indian, and the final products--the lace-trimmed tablecloths, napkins, handkerchiefs, blouses, coasters, place mats and doilies--are imported into Belgium by the container-load.
This makes sense when you ponder the realities: All the skilled lace makers in Belgium, working night and day, could not produce even one-tenth of the lace required to stock Belgian shops and fill the demand.
But you can buy a stack of pretty lace-trimmed handkerchiefs made in China for $5 each, and none of your recipients will be the wiser. Or you can buy one finer, prettier lace-trimmed handkerchief for $22, made in Belgium by a skilled lace maker, and only you will know you've acquired the real thing. For $250 you can have a large white linen tablecloth and 12 matching napkins trimmed, albeit a bit crudely, in swirls and whorls of Battenberg-style ribbon lace, created in Asia. Or for $800 you can have the same size cloth and 12 napkins, also lavished in ribbon lace but made from a finer grade linen, with fine, careful stitches and more intricate workmanship created in Belgium and certified as authentic with a Benelux Trade Commission label.
In a country well-stocked with foreign lace, how do you go about ferreting out the real thing? The first step is knowing what you're looking for so that you can recognize what you'll be looking at. Learning the bare-bones basics of lace making is a necessity. Herewith, a primer:
All classic Belgian lace can he divided into three categories: bobbin lace, needle lace and mixed lace, a combination of the first two. In bobbin lace, the threads--usually linen, sometimes cotton and occasionally silk--are tethered to hand-carved wooden bobbins; some complex patterns require more than 1,000 bobbins. The work is painstaking and awesomely slow, the output often less than one-third inch per day. Binche, Duchesse, Brugge Flower Lace, Valenciennes, Chantilly, Rosaline and Torchon are all types of lace created with this system of bobbins. These days, only Torchon lace, the most elementary pattern, and the more complex Brugge Flower lace are produced in any quantity and available commercially.
Much rarer than bobbin lace, needle lace is created with a needle and thread. The finest example of this kind of lace in Belgium is Point de Gaze, or Gauze Point lace, also called Rose Point because of the pattern's lavish rose motifs. In mixed lace, bits of bobbin lace are enhanced with needle lace embroidered with intricate detailing.
The two most common kinds of lace found throughout Belgium today are hybrids that don't quite fall into any of the above categories: Battenberg lace and Princess lace. Battenberg lace (also called Brussels Ribbon Lace) is created from a long, skinny, tape-like strip of lace, perhaps one-fourth-inch wide, that is wound and stitched into a pattern, the ground between the swirls of tape then worked into a variety of openwork designs with needle and thread. Today most Battenberg lace is created from machine-made lace ribbon, which is then worked into the traditional patterns by hand, and finished by hand. All lace created by this method, whether domestic or imported, is sold as handmade lace, even though the lace ribbon was manufactured by machine.
Princess lace, used most frequently in wedding veils, christening gowns and handkerchiefs, is tulle netting embroidered with floral or figurative motifs. You will frequently see, on small items such as boudoir pillows, Kleenex holders and handkerchiefs, ribbon lace embellished with little medallions of Princess lace.