LACE IN BELGIUM:  Monday in Brussels

It was at least twenty years since I ventured into Belgium, and I was curious to see what had changed.  When I was last there, it was in the early discovery days of my interest in antique lace.  A visit to a lace shop in Brussels first awakened my interest in antique lace.  (see Collecting Lace: How I Started Collecting Lace)  Now I am decades into it.  I had been forewarned that Belgium has largely forgotten lace, which now for them seems to be a curiousity from the distant past.  This foreboding was enhanced by a search for old lace at Bermondsey Market in London (hardly a shadow of its glory days, and no textile dealers at all.)  and the Marche Aux Puces in Paris, where I was brought up short by a lone lace dealer when I was not impressed with her Rosaline and Duchesse pieces.  “Don’t you know ANYTHING about lace?”  she chided.  “This is Rosaline, this is Duchesse - it is all antique!”  Her chilly look when I suggested there was lace even older drove me from the stall. 


My plan was a day, perhaps more in Brussels, then set up base camp in Gent for daily train trips to Bruges, Antwerp and Leuven.

Top of my list for Brussels was the Costume and Lace Museum, a must-see destination for any lace collector or lace maker who ventures into Belgium.  Be aware of what you will find, and you will not be disappointed.  But be aware!

First, the walk to the  museum.  I walked from the Gare de Nord train station, about a fifteen or twenty minute walk through a lively and very modern business district.  The bustle gradually slowed as I neared the Grand Place.  Several of the stores along the sidestreets around the Grand Place were closed or empty,  as if it were its own history that Brussels was no longer interested in, not just antique lace. 

The museum is just a street over from the Grand Place, and in the middle of all the tourist destinations.  Follow the signs to Violetstraat 12.  


Along the way, lace shops still do abound, with all the dazzling array of Cluny and Rosaline doilies, placemats, Battenberg bun warmers, and Schiffli bookmarks.  Only a single robotic lacemaker in a shop window suggested the ghost of lacemaking past.  (That is, by the way, machine lace draped over her pillow.)

I did stop in a half dozen or so of those traditional lace shops, including the one with the robotic lacemaker, and asked about old lace.  Nope -- not here!  Only a few places on the Grand Place may still may offer antique lace was their answer.  

The only shop on the Grand Place that offered any prospect of old lace beyond the typical Rosaline, Duchesse and Cluny tablewear was Rupprecht, which offered up a few little turn-of-the-century Binche handkerchiefs at about a thousand dollars each, and a few handkerchiefs with about an inch of Mechlin lace edging.  Prices on those were hundreds of Euros.  The texture did not look quite right, and I took a really close look.  OOPS -- machine Mechlin.  The clerk was very gracious when I pointed that out, and she asked how one could possibly know it was machine made.  I pulled out a loupe, and explained about braids and twists in the mesh.  Her eyes glazed over, and she quickly reminded me she was just a clerk, the only person in the store at the time, the labels were put on the lace years before she was hired, and that was not her problem.  Moral of the story:  don’t trust labels, even in established shops in Brussels.  Verify everything for yourself, and buyer beware!

Frites and sauce

The guidebooks I read said the museum was open in the morning, closed for lunch, and reopened in the afternoon.  Turns out they were open from 10 to 4 -- no lunch break for them!  Do check out for yourself what the opening days, fees and hours are before you plan your own visit.  Things do seem to change.

I followed my original plan of spending some time at the museum, taking a lunch break to absorb what I saw and think about what I wanted to take another look at.  Lots of places for lunch around the Grand Place -- I chose a quick stop for street frites.  Under the frites and spicy mayonaise sauce is a sausage smothered in onions.  Yes, that is a paper cup of beer behind the frites.  Just what I needed to forget the incident at Rupprecht and move on,

LC museum SIGN

The building housing the small Costume and Lace  Museum itself does not look like a public building at all.  

The traditional sign is very small, and the colorful signs in the window for the current exhibits gave no clue whatever of antique lace.  

The orange slashes said more of "Closed, keep out!" than of any lively exhibits.

The small entrance door looked closed and locked -- but did yield to a push.  It was indeed the museum, and it was open.

BRUSSELS L C Museum front

I had the email with what I thought was confirmation of an appointment with a knowledgeable assistant to discuss lace, but that day only a couple of young ticket sellers were on duty.  (The 3 euro entrance fee is a bargain!)  Reading the email again I realized they simply were welcoming me to visit -- I was on my own beyond that.

The main exhibits that month were Mid-century Modern Belgian Fashions.  A Flemish interpretation of Emilio Pucci did not interest me, so i took a short-cut to the elevator.  

Lace and Costume ROOM

The lace is tucked away on the top floor in a separate little room.  

A dozen or so lovely seventeenth to nineteenth century pieces were framed and on display in a suitably dimly lit room.  The remainder of the available collection is in glass-covered pull-out drawers.  Perhaps a dozen or so drawers are available to open at any time.  Presumably the collection rotates.

Odd lappets w label

odd lappets detail

Each drawer has appropriate labels, including many in English.  The pieces are wonderful -- dating from the sixteenth through the nineteenth centuries -- but many are very traditional.   Those that were unusual had frustrating terse descriptions.

A typical example:  Beautiful bobbin lace lappets in very different bobbin lace techniques, all simply labeled "Headdress lappets in Brussels lace.  Mid 18th century."


There are useful displays of how lace is made for those unfamiliar with lace, but not much for those who want to go beyond the basics.

Nevertheless, it is well worth visiting the Museum.

You will certainly see lots of lace as good as it gets.  This provides a very useful mesuring stick for those who have not had a chance to see a great deal of lace, and especially useful for those who have seen pictures in books but have not had very many first hand views of really great old lace.

A small temporary exhibit of 16th and 17th Century portraits of people wearing lace was a bonus.  No major giftshop, but a nice assortment of postcards of lace and portraits was available. 

One nice little book that came home with me: "Brussels Lace in the Collections of the Museums of the City", produced in 2004 for the exhibition "Brussels Lace, from Reality to Fiction" at the Costume and Lace Museum that year.  ISBN 2-9600377-9-0

It is also important to register that there are people still interested in old lace, and to encourage Brussels to offer more of an opportunity to study their remarkable history of lacemaking.

The Royal Museum of Art and History in the Cinquantenaire Park on the edge of Brussels also has a large lace collection, but it is currently not available for viewing.  No plans for any displays in the near future according to the curator of lace.  Again, if you are planning a trip to Belgium, do phone and inquire.  Things change, and it is always helpful to let the museums know people do want to see old lace.

There seems to be a plan afoot for Bruges to host the 2018 OIDFA Congress, and that hopefully will be an incentive for Belgium to really strut their old lace. There are amazing riches of old lace in Belgium, mostly locked away.  Encouraging Bruges and the other cities in Belgium to put on a really great show would be a splendid opportunity to resurrect interest in old lace.

My travel schedule in Belgium:

Tuesday,  Bruges

Wednesday,  Antwerp

Thursday:  Forget lace, explore Gent

Friday:  Leuven.

Satuday:  Return to Chicago


Posted October 8, 2013      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014