The laces made in Belgium during World War I are an important part of the lace holdings of the Division of Home and Community Life's Textile Collection in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. They are representative of laces made by about 50,000 lace makers, many of whom were women, throughout Belgium from 1914 through 1919, especially during the Great War.
In August 1914, the German army invaded and occupied Belgium. When Great Britain set up a blockade of the Belgian borders to prevent supplies from reaching Germany through Belgium, seven million Belgian people were cut off from imported food and other needed supplies. After the start of World War I the Commission for the Relief in Belgium (CRB) was established with Herbert Hoover, a wealthy industrialist living in London at the time, as chairman. Hoover, later U.S. President (1929-1933), was instrumental in negotiating with England and Germany for the delivery of much needed food shipments to Belgium. The negotiations also included the importation of thread for the Belgian lace makers and the export of the lace made from this thread. Orders for and deliveries of war laces were managed through the CRB office in London. Numerous people in the Allied countries were generous in their willingness to buy the laces to support the Belgians.
The Belgian lace committees worked closely with the CRB, especially as the lace makers' work became even more important during the war. Several famous Belgian artists were enlisted to create new designs. Among them were Isidore de Rudder, his sister Maria de Rudder, Charles Michel, and Juliette Wytsman, who designed some of the war laces that are now part of the collection at the National Museum of American History.
World War I laces often included names of people, places, inscriptions, and dates—a characteristic not usually found in other lace work. The lace often incorporates the coats of arms or national symbols of the Allied nations, as well as the nine Belgian provinces, in recognition of the help received. It was hoped that these distinguishing elements would appeal to generous people around the world who might buy these laces in support of the Belgians. Most of the laces in the collection at the National Museum of American History were bought in Europe by American collectors and donated to the Museum.
About Lace and Lacemaking
Lace is an ornamental openwork fabric created by looping, twisting, braiding, or knotting threads either by hand or by machine. The main categories of handmade lace are needle lace, bobbin lace, and decorated nets. Needle lace is created by making looped or knotted variations on the buttonhole stitch with a threaded needle on top of a pattern. Bobbin lace is created by twisting, crossing, or plaiting multiple threads wound on bobbins. It is also made on a pattern, sometimes called a pricking. Bobbin and needle techniques can be combined in the same piece of lace. Bobbin- and needle-made lace motifs can also be applied to handmade or machine-made nets.
During the 17th and 18th centuries the handmade lace industry played an important part in the economy of many European countries. Lacemaking was mostly a cottage industry with individual lace makers working in their homes for a lace dealer, who would supply the threads and patterns and collect the finished lace from the lace maker. Producing a handmade piece of lace is very time consuming, making the delicate fabric a very expensive and desirable fashion accessory. Members of royalty and the aristocracy were the customers for the fine laces, with both men and women competing to display the most exquisite lace on their fashionable clothes in the 17th and 18th centuries. However, by the end of the 18th century, men had stopped wearing lace, and fashion shifted to a much simpler, unadorned dress for women, so the demand for lace was rapidly declining. Additionally, the Industrial Revolution saw the development of machines for making lace that brought an end to most of the opulent handmade lace industry.
One of the lacemaking centers of Europe that suffered from the advances in machinery wrought by the Industrial Revolution was Flanders. Belgium's Queen Elisabeth was concerned about the decrease in demand for handmade lace, so in 1910 and 1911 she helped establish lace committees specifically to improve both the quality and the designs of the lace, as well as to better the lives of the lace makers. Another committee was established for promoting the sale of Belgian lace abroad: the Queen noticed that handmade Belgian lace enjoyed a renewed interest, especially among Americans. Committee members included the Vicomtesse de Beughem, an American married to a Belgian nobleman, Madame Kefer-Mali of Brussels, and Mrs. Brand Whitlock, wife of the American Envoy (later Ambassador) to Belgium. Some of the laces in the war laces collection have connections to these three generous women.
Lacemaking in America occurred primarily among European immigrants, who practiced their craft in communities all over the country. The only documented large-scale handmade lacemaking industry in the U.S. was in Ipswich, Massachusetts, in the late 18th century. That industry also came to an end with changes in fashion and the development of lace machines in the early 19th century. Currently lacemaking traditions are being kept alive by modern lace makers who research and create lace as a hobby.
Credit for the written content of this section goes to Karen Thompson and Doris Bowman from the Division of Home and Community Life.
Anne Kraatz, Lace: History and Fashion (New York: Rizzoli, 1989).
Charlotte Kellogg, Bobbins of Belgium (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920).
Charlotte Kellogg, Women of Belgium: Turning Tragedy to Triumph, 2nd ed. (New York: Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1917).
Heather Toomer, Antique Lace: Identifying Types and Techniques, illustrated ed. (Atglen, PA: Schiffer Publishing, 2001).
Karen Thompson, “The Bayeux Tapestry at the Smithsonian? Yes, but who made it, when, where and why?,” O Say Can You See? Stories from the National Museum of American History (blog), September 20, 2012.
Santina M. Levey and Victoria & Albert Museum, Lace: A History (London: Victoria & Albert Museum, 1983).