Ninety Thousand Hours


Alençon is a town about which several books could be written without ever finding a need for repetition. The Tourist Office gives out two brochures; one of them details nineteen sights to see in the central area, the other runs to 35 sights, without including all of the first 19. And still, everywhere I went, I would notice a splendid building or a picturesque street and look on my two maps, only to find no mention. Saint Theresa of the Infant Jesus, one of France's most recent and most cherished saints one of the few saints, indeed, of whom photographs exist was born in Alençon and baptised in the splendid church of Notre-Dame. Her lacy christening gown is displayed in a special chapel.

Ah yes, the lace. That's the reason for all the wonderful buildings, all the signs of deep-rooted, long-lasting prosperity. This was for centuries the home of the finest lace of all, a development and refinement of Venetian lace, a type created with a needle. There is still a school of lacemaking in Alençon, where the trainees can obtain a certificate after three years' study, on the understanding that they will still need to serve five years of apprenticeship before they are actually any good. Their teachers start them on embroidery, using the finest silks, and gradually train their eyes until they can manage the microscopically thin linen thread, only just visible to ordinary mortals, of which the masterpieces of Alençon are built. If you have been thinking that pillow lace is too complicated for you, and that needle lace must necessarily be simpler, my advice is forget it. This is a craft for the totally dedicated.

There are two lace museums in Alençon; one belongs to the town, the other to the school. At the latter, they have pupils to show you round, as well as a video film available in several different languages.

The way Alençon lace is made is like this:
First, LE DESSIN, the drawing; with a superfine pen on thin, stiff paper.
Then, the PIQUAGE; transferring the outline of the drawing onto parchment by pricking it with a fine needle at millimetric intervals. The parchment, which will be the support of the work from now on, is tinted green for the sake of the worker's eyes.
After the piquage, the TRACE; the parchment is attached to two thicknesses of flannel, and a fine linen thread is tacked along the lines of the design by means of another thread which goes in and out through parchment and flannel and will, like them, be discarded at the end.
Stage 4 is the RÉSEAU; the lace mesh which makes up the large areas of the design; amazingly fine, amazingly regular. It is worked by hand in a process which my student said was 'just buttonhole stitch, really'. She also told me that it's possible to cheat by using a machine-made mesh and simply embroidering the rest of the work onto it; 'but it shows, of course', she added, and showed me a piece which included both types of work; and it shows.
Once your réseau is complete, stage 5 is the REMPLIS filling in the white areas, also in the same buttonhole stitch but with an incredible fineness, several hundred stitches to the inch.
Stage six, the MODES, is where the lacemakers are allowed to enjoy themselves, and where the distinctive features of Alençon lace begin to show. There are still open spaces in the design, and these are filled with a variety of Venetian stitches resembling hoar frost or ice crystals, a sort of lace within lace, delicate to the point of invisibility, with tiny picots and microscopic mesh; the virtuoso part of the job. A fine black horsehair is used as a support for some of this work, being removed as each stage is completed.
Stage seven is the BRODE, outlining the main lines of the design with buttonhole stitch again, incorporating a white horsehair for stiffening at the outside edges, which often has tiny picots as well.
Stage eight is the LEVAGE, the removal of the work from the parchment; the two layers of flannel are parted, and the tacking threads cut through with a razor blade so that the lace can be lifted with the utmost care.
Stage nine is the RÉGALAGE, which consists of removing all the loose ends of tacking thread with tweezers. Incidentally, I wondered where all the loose ends of the lacework had gone, but of course they're tucked away inside all that buttonhole stitch.
Strangest of all is stage ten, the LUCHAGE, a polishing or burnishing of the white areas of the lace, which is done always has been with the smooth side of a lobster's claw.

So, how long does all this take? My student said she was getting quite good at the job after three years, and could manage a square inch (enlarged, top right) in, oh, less than a week. Then she showed me the work of a real expert, a border of Alençon lace three feet long by ten inches wide, curved to outline a lady's collar, made in ten separate pieces over a period of ninety thousand hours.

The incredible thing is that, throughout the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the good ladies of Alençon churned this stuff out by the mile. In the Museums there are tablecloth edgings up to forty feet long. They used a factory system, of course, each worker specialising in one stage of the ten, the cleverest working on the modes and the simplest polishing away with the lobster claw. That was how the trade secrets were kept; few people understood the whole process. A dozen of the ladies are still employed as a National Heritage programme, a matter in which we have a great deal to learn from the French. Crafts in France are not left to the benevolence of gifted amateurs and a few eccentric and underpaid professionals; they are recognized as a part of the nation's heritage and simply not allowed to die out.



















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