Guest Edited by Rebecca Devaney
The French word for lace is dentelle, which means small tooth and describes the tooth-shaped edge on bands of lace before they are sewn together.
Image: Chantilly Lace. Image courtesy of Rebecca Devaney
When Catherine de Medici moved from Florence to marry Henry II she brought a team of Venetian lacemakers with her, beginning a craze for lace amongst the French aristocracy that was to endure for centuries. By the 17th century, at the court of Louis XIV in Versailles, noble men and women were spending small fortunes on bobbin lace from Flanders and needle lace from Venice.
Image: Chantilly Lace pattern, Carton piqué. Détail d’un ensemble de 15.
The Minister for Finance, Jean Baptiste Colbert introduced several sumptuary laws to ban foreign lace and encourage the wearing of French lace, with little to no effect. Colbert sent spies north and south to bribe the finest lacemakers in Europe to return to France and train the local arisans, thirty teachers arrived from Venice and two hundred from Flanders. He established royal manufacturies in Arras, Reims, Alençon, Aurillac, Sedan - among others and then offered tax reductions for parents who sent their daughters - from 9 to 22 years of age - to be apprenticed for seven years until they qualified as dentellières.
In the small town of Chantilly, near Paris, Anne of Bavaria (1648-1723), the Princess of Condé founded the Community of Saint Anne in 1693. She sponsored 22 local orphan girls to train as lacemakers and gave them a uniform of long red cloaks to wear in public, earning them the nickname, Les Filles Rouges, the Red Girls. Silk was their thread of choice, in its natural, unbleached blonde colour, ordered from Alès in the Cevennes, the traditional region of sericulture in France since the 16th century.
A year later, two silk merchants, Nicolas Leguay and Charles Moreau, settled in Chantilly and organised the production of lace amongst local women and girls. They distributed the supplies; pillows, bobbins, pins, threads and designs. Lacemakers were paid by the length of lace using an aune, a wooden stick used to measure fabric, the length of which could vary from year to year and from house to house. Chantilly blonde lace became fashionable at Versailles, clients included the Duchess du Barry and Rose Bertin, the marchande de modes and later Minister of Fashion, to Queen Marie Antoinette.
Image: Musée de la Dentelle de Chantilly. Image courtesy of Quennetier Lorenzi
In 1787 the Prince of Condé established a drawing school for local boys and men to train as dessinateur. Their designs were traced onto bands of parchment by the patroneur and then the piqueur de marques perforated the small holes to insert the pins. According to Sarah Gillois, director of the Musée de la Dentelle de Chantilly, when the Revolution began in Paris in 1789, rebellion was slow to reach Chantilly. The women and men of the town were relatively content, educated and employed in the design, craft and trade of lacemaking, which was supported by the aristocracy.
Image: Barbe en dentelle noire de Chantilly Musée de la dentelle de Chantilly. Image courtesy of Xavier Chretien
Nonetheless, the extravagance and luxury of lace fell out of favour. The golden era of Chantilly lace began in the mid-19th century when the Empress Eugenie began to accessorise her gowns with black lace featuring intricate flowers and foliage. At the Musée de la Dentelle de Chantilly the veils, barbs, collars, fichus, shawls, ruffles, parasols and fans on display showcase the legendary work of the lacemakers of Chantilly.
Rebecca Devaney is running a tour in partnership with Selvedge on 1 - 9 June 2023 (subject to change). You can find more details on our website Selvedge Textile Tour, Paris
Fascinating to read along with the beautiful photographs