LACE IN BELGIUM:  Reflecting on Lace in Gent on Thursday

Reclining marblemarble closeup

Thursday was a day off from serious study.  The only lace I found in Gent was carved on a marble surplice in 1741 on a tomb in the 16th century St. Bavo cathedral.

I had added in an extra day in Belgium to perhaps return to Brussels, or maybe another city.  

As it turned out, what I really needed was a day off to reflect on what I had seen earlier, and to prepare for my last day, a visit to the lace shop Serena in Leuven.

First I tried to find a quiet place outside of my little hotel room to transcribe notes.  It was a cloudy, chilly day and sitting outside on a park bench was not so attractive.

I decided to try a museum.  I often used to sit at MOMA in New York in Monet’s Water Lily room and simply contemplate.  Perhaps that would work in Gent.

It was just after opening time, and the museum was quiet.  Too quiet.  I picked a gallery with a bench and nice pictures to surround me, but could hear my tapping on my bluetooth keyboard echo through endless galleries.  Not good.  A sidewalk cafe would have the same concern. The relentless tapping would annoy other coffee-drinkers who, like me, were seeking quiet and solitude.   “It was so quiet I could hear my own footprints,” my mother once complained as she returned from an abbreviated walk in rural Michigan.

zooi van vis

Back to hand-writing notes.  With a lovely lunchtime bowl of Waterzooi Van Vis in front of me.  Salmon, sole, three kinds of little shrimpy things, potatoes, carrots and lots of cream.

Gent was an ideal setting for retrospection on lace.  First of all, it is impossible to sit along a canal with students zipping past on bicycles, surrounded by soaring cathedrals, chocolate, beer, and coffee and not realize what a seductive place Belgium is.  


Gent is on the River Lys, sacred to lacemakers as the waters that retted the fine flax fibers of centuries past.  

A lovely thought, but also a reminder that that was then and this is now. The museum of the flax industry in Courtrai, or Kortrijk, just 26 miles upriver, is another of the destination museums of the lace industry that are not currently open.

Why are so few people interested in studying antique lace?

Certainly it not an easy avocation.

I remember describing an exciting new job I would be starting to my then-current beau, an IBM repairman.  That new job would be with a small company in the midst of a turnaround.  I would be working with the inside circle, responsible only to the president of the company.  I was stunned when he expressed alarm.  The problem?  “You will have to THINKEvery day!”

What attracted me to the opportunity horrified that IBM repairman, accustomed to having a comprehensive guidebook provided for his everyday activities with backup technicians if the answers were not in the guidebook. A neatly defined universe where everything was cataloged and defined.  If something somehow fell outside the bounds, it would be quickly corralled

Lace collectors have nothing like the guidebooks that order the collecting of numismatists and philatelists.  Art collectors have directories of artists and their works.  Enough pots, vases and silver teapots have identifiable makers to create an orderly market.

Lace collectors can’t even find two people to agree on what to call what they find.

They have to trust their own judgement.  They have to THINK.  Quelle horreur!  Or Yippee!, depending on your point of view.

Are there enough potential lace collectors to rise to the challenge to help maintain lace museums in someone else’s country?  Or should they -- must they -- focus their limited resources on supporting their own exclusively?

Might enough creative lacemakers exist to see the wonder in exploring the work of the skilled lacemakers from past centuries to dig for ideas for their own creations?  Or are most lacemakers attracted to the craft for its soothing zen-like repetition?

More questions than answers.


I have come to understand the purpose Belgian lace shops serve.  The Grand Place was not nearly so lively as I remember it from years past. Don’t listen to me when I grouse about touristy lace shops.  

They are needed, and serve a purpose.  Every place needs a bit of a circus to make it fun to visit, not only for tourists.  And tourists really do want and need grab-and-go souvenirs.  I get a bit frantic trying to find something to bring home for birthdays, Christmas, and just I’m-home-and-thought-of-you presents.

Just because I prefer starched Schiffli lace butterflies to bookmarks with the Mannikin Pis means nothing.  I don’t know what your uncle might like.  

I don’t even wish I could give everyone handmade Point de gaze butterflies instead of Schiffli. 


The machine versions are much better for pre-teens with American Girl dolls than “the truliest things.”  Judge for yourself what works for you and your family.  

Don’t judge what it takes for historic cities to attract tourists, or shop owners to make a living, unless it is downright inaccurate or dishonest. 

Lille hkf pkg203

As long as I’m ranting, I wonder about the role the tourists play in how things have to be labeled.  OK, I do abhor bringing “Made in China” souvenirs back from anyplace but China.  But really what difference does it make in the long run which of those lovely Point Ground handkerchiefs are made in Belgium and which in India?  Or whether it is called Lille or Tonder or Bucks?

It is appropriate that they be offered here, where the heritage is, and appropriate to bring home, wherever that is.

Lille hkf corner204

The lace always is what it is.  Here the design is graceful and interesting, the thread fine, technique not easy and workmanship exquisite. Plus beautifully presented in a lovely box.  And did you catch that precise, neat join just off the corner?

What's not to like?

I would have bought the more expensive handkerchiefs with the wider Point Ground edge if I could afford them. And I would have bought them for everybody I know but don’t know very many people who want or use handkerchiefs.

Ah yes, there is a rub around every corner, inherent in every choice.

There is an important moral lesson somewhere in all this-- but where? 

Would we not all be better off if we learned to judge true intrinsic worth, rather than value items by geography or name?   Can lace be judged objectively?


Perhaps I am on a fool’s errand to write a Connoisseur’s Guide to Judging Antique Lace, but here I go again.  

Intrinsic worth is objective, market value subjective.

With a nearly empty glass of Westmalle Trappist Dubbel in front of me….

why am I writing about lace instead of beer?  

Beer is totally subjective -- or perhaps it is objective.  

And then there is the chocolate...…



Posted  October 2013      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014