World War One Laces

The laces made in Belgium during World War One 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 throughout Belgium from 1914 through 1919, especially during the time of World War One.

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 One the “Commission for Relief of Belgium” (CRB) was established with Herbert Hoover, a wealthy industrialist living in London at the time, as Chairman. Herbert 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.  

 belgian Lace maker is making lace among the ruins of World War One

Belgian Lace maker is making lace among the ruins of World War One, © RMAH

The Belgian lace committees worked closely with the “Commission for Relief of Belgium” as the work on behalf of the lace makers became even more important during World War One. Several famous Belgian artists were enlisted to make 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.

 “1915 ARDOYE - KLOOSTER DER H. KINDERSHEID VAN JESUS – WEESKINDEREN” (1915 Ardoye - Convent of the Holy Childhood of Jesus - Orphans) Detail of the Inscription in Ardoye Orphanage Tablecloth in TE*E383962

World War One 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 Belgian people.

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 century through the mid-18th century. By the end of the 18th century men had stopped wearing lace, and fashion also changed to a much simpler, unadorned dress for women, which meant the demand for lace was in rapid decline. Until early in the 19th century almost all lace was handmade. However, the Industrial Revolution saw the development of machines for making lace that brought an end to most of the opulent handmade lace industry.

Detail of motif work seen in TE*T14227Detail of motif work seen in TE*T14227

Lacemaking in America came mostly with European immigrants, who practiced their craft in communities all over the country. The only documented large scale handmade lacemaking industry in the US was in Ipswich, Massachusetts in the late 18th century. That also came to an end with the change in fashion and development of the lace machines in the early 19th century. 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. Currently the lacemaking traditions are being kept alive by modern lace makers who research and create lace as a hobby.

The Flanders region, including Belgium, was a center of excellence for lace making from the early 1600’s. However, in the early 20th century competition from machine-made lace and changes in fashion made it very difficult for lace makers to earn a living. Belgium’s Queen Elisabeth was concerned about this development and in 1910 and 1911 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, as 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. To continue to study the laces in the War Laces collection without the introduction, click here.