VALENCIENNES

Characteristics

  • A continuous, flat lace: no gimp
  • Pattern of closely woven clothwork: curving flowers and fronds
  • Diamond shaped or round hole plaited mesh
  • Continuous row of holes outline design and separate features

History

Rarely does history relate names of those involved in the lace trade. The first important manufacturer in Valenciennes was Francoise Badar, a lace-maker, who learnt the craft in Antwerp. She taught both bobbin and needlelaces to the people of Valencienne, a town on the French/Flemish border.

Old Valenciennes, reached its peak mid 18th century. At first the meshes were round, but became very square about 1740. At this time the French bobbin laces acquired a reputation comparable to that of French needlelaces – due entirely to Valenciennes

Due to the extreme fineness of the thread – 1200 count – the lace needed to be made in a damp atmosphere, to prevent the threads from snapping. Lacemakers were young girls, their hands not roughened by housework, who laboured in damp cellars, often going blind by age 30.

Valencienne lace of the late 17th century and early 18th century was extremely expensive as it took an immense time to work, using a vast number of bobbins with such fine thread: 1000 for an elaborate piece and 300 on a piece 5cm wide. Only 1 ¾ ins (38mm) could be produced in a 15 hour working day – 4am to 8pm. A pair of men’s ruffles took a worker 10 months and cost $160. Because of this, much of 19th century lace was narrow trimmings and insertions.

Throughout the middle decades of the 18th century, Valencienne was in great demand with the aristocracy who prized it not only for the delicacy, and beauty of its designs but also for the strength and firmness of its structure which made it very durable even through repeated washings. Its smoothness and strength made it particularly suitable for underwear (a favourite with Queen Victoria), babies’ wear and trimmings for bedsheets and pillowcases.

1780 on, fashions changed when cravats, jabots and sleeve ruffles ceased to be used in men’s clothes and demand fell. During the French Revolution, the number of lace makers in the city fell from 4000 to 250.

After 1830, machines were able to copy hand made bobbin lace and enabled larger pieces to be made. From that time on Belgium became the greatest producer of Valenciennes. But it was also produced in Northampton and Exeter in England, and a variation in Russia and Bohemia (Czechoslovakia).

When ruffles went out of fashion and cheaper laces, quicker to make, came in, Valenciennes declined.
It is one of the very few laces not used for ecclesiastical purposes and is absent from portraits of the time as it was not considered a ‘grande’ lace for court wear.

References

Earnshaw, P. The Identification of Lace, Shire publications, 1994
Earnshaw, P. A Dictionary of Lace, Shire publications, 1982
Gwynne, J. The Illustrated Dictionary of Lace, Batsford, 1997
Toomer, H. LACE: a guide to identification of old lace types and techniques.

© Valerie Cavill 2010

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