The delicate "war laces" of World War I

"War" and "lace" are not often part of the same sentence. However, laces made in Belgium during World War I are an exception. About 50 of these form an important part of the lace holdings of the Division of Home and Community Life's Textile Collection. While they aren't currently on display, you can explore them in a new online object group.

Arch-shaped delicate lace, white on black background

But why are Belgian-made laces in the collection of the National Museum of American History? There are several connections. At the outbreak of World War I in 1914, Herbert Hoover, who later became the 31st president of the United States, was a wealthy mining engineer living in London. After helping thousands of Americans who found themselves stranded and penniless in Europe, he was asked to set up the Commission for Relief in Belgium (CRB). The main goal was to help feed the starving Belgians. When the German army invaded Belgium (a neutral country) in August 1914 in preparation to invade France, the British navy blockaded Belgium's harbors in order to cut off German supply lines. However, Belgium depended on imports for 80% of their food supply, and with the blockade in place it could not import any food for its citizens. Hoover was able to negotiate with the British and Germans to let food be delivered to the Belgian people.

Besides the all-important food shipments, Britain and Germany reached an agreement allowing the importation of thread and the exportation of lace made with the thread. This effort helped thousands of Belgian lace makers earn money for food for their families. The laces were ordered, inspected, and sold through the London office of the CRB.

Lou Henry Hoover was very active with her husband in helping with this effort. Mrs. Hoover utilized her skills as an organizer to establish a hospital in London, which was supported and staffed by American volunteers, and also organized a knitting factory in London. She also showed a keen interest in preserving the Belgian lace industry, which had been well established and world famous since the sixteenth century. She saw an opportunity to help the Belgian people through the lace making skills of the many Belgian lace makers.

Exploring the laces, certain types emerge.

Square shaped lace example, white on black background

In addition to Lou Henry Hoover, Americans heavily involved in helping the Belgian lace makers included Mrs. Brand Whitlock (née Ella Brainerd), wife of the American envoy and later ambassador to Belgium. The allied nations table cover below expresses gratitude from the Belgian lace makers toward Mrs. Whitlock. The Vicomtesse de Beughem (née Irene or Irone Hare), an American married to a Belgian nobleman and living in Belgium, was part of the Lace Committee, specifically working with the lace makers under the CRB. The vicomtesse donated many of the laces in this collection, and possibly commissioned examples like this panel for her mother, Augusta Virginia Hancock Hare Mitchell.

Table cloth with diamond-shaped designs inside larger diamonds

Rectangular white lace panel with eagle in center

Square piece of lace. White on black background. Cherub in center.

Now that the War Laces are viewable online, we continue to learn interesting things about them.

Lace

The design of the above lace border was specifically made to appeal to Dutch women for their bonnets. A single repetition of the pattern measures half an "el," the old length for a bonnet. As it was wartime, people saved on luxuries so instead of using an el, approximately 69 cm (depending on the area), some only bought half an el. When the budget allowed it, they could use two pattern repeats of the lace to decorate the bonnets. The way the motif is finished, it was easily inserted into the linen of the bonnet.

Karen Thompson is a Volunteer in the Division of Home and Community Life's Textile Collection. To learn more about Belgian lace makers in World War I, she recommends Charlotte Kellogg's Bobbins of Belgium, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920. She also recommends our blog post about embroideries made by women in France during the war.