LACE IN BELGIUM:  Wednesday in Antwerp

(Many images, especially those of lace, will enlarge when clicked on. When images are not sharp enough or an enrlagement does not add useful information, it will not enlarge.)

better train

A visit to Antwerp for me always will be a special event.  All of my grandparents -- and my then 2-year-old father --  must have passed through this train station on their way to the port of Antwerp and the ships that would bring them to the New World early in the 1900s.  

This grand Central Station, which could have served as the inspiration for the backdrop in a recent Lyric Opera production of Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann", would have been a brand new station at that time.

My visit to study the lace collection at the Borromeo Church in Antwerp was near the end of a two week London-Paris-Belgium trip, and Rick Steves' guidebook description of the "enjoyable 30 minute stroll" to the Borromeo Church in an obscure courtyard hidden in an "attractive maze of lanes"  seemed to require brain cells and concentration as well as energy to walk.  All were in short supply after the long, very full day in Bruges. 

I opted for a taxi.  As in any other major city, many cab drivers are foreigners in their own land.  The first two I asked had never heard of the Borromeo church, snd even when presented with a picture in the guidebook and the location of the courtyard seemed unlikely to get me there. 

The third, a real Antwerp native, just shrugged when I came up with a map.  Totally unnecessary. He knew exactly where it was.  We had to approach from a side street behind the church, however, because the paving blocks alongside the church were taken up for repairs. and the main courtyard in front of the church is pedestrian-friendly, as are many of the other streets around.  I had to climb past workmen digging up cobblestones to get into the church.

Boro square

A visit to study the lace at the Borromeo Church in Antwerp seemed to me to be an all-day affair, and I did not plan anything else for Antwerp.  It proved to be absolutely worth while, especially with the two lacemaker/tour guides Nora Andries and Godelieve Vroom.

The lace room is currently open only on Wednesdays -- and only from 10 to 12:30 and 2 to 4.  I planned to be there when the museum opened, break for lunch, and come back for the afternoon.

Do phone or email ahead of your own visit, however, to make sure of the visiting hours, and the availablily of Nora and Lieve.

The church itself dates to the early 1600s, not long after Borromeo, the Cardinal-archbishop of Milan was fast-tracked to sainthood. That this Milanese Cardinal, venerated as a patron saint of learning and the arts, is also a patron saint of Flemish lacemakers would make a fascinating study in itself.

Borro colonade

Much of the lace in the excellent lace museum also dates from the 1600s.  This whole adventure was a walk back in time, and unlike any other lace study experience.  

A very modest entrance fee is collected in the back of the church, and a docent led me first up a dark set of stairs in the back of the church, then along the long gallery above the main church...

Side altar the small side altar at the end of the upstairs colonnade…

over the step at the left side of the communtion rail…..'

Boro hall 1

Through the side door and down a narrow hallway….

up and down a few stairs to another hallway…

and finally to the lace room.

Lace room door

Exhibits do occasionally change, so the pieces I show and describe may be different for your visit.

Nora tells re pat book

There is plenty of lace to simply view, but with the availability of the two stellar lacemakers and historians Nora and Lieve, the visit could be truly a unique learning opportunity.  

In addition to the lace, the museum has extensive records and archives of the lace industry in Antwerp in the 1600 and 1700s. 

Nora speaks excellent English, and was my primary guide.

Nora pointing sharp

Nora had photocopies of pages from the archives available, to show patterns and prickings from the 1700s as well as records from lace manufactories with information on who was working on which patterns, which grounds were to be used, and other details of the lacemaking process.

lace log close

With Nora's expertise in lacemaking it is possible to begin to follow the trails of threads through patterns, and begin to understand the process by which various techniques were developed. 

Early Antw carry pairs

meander mesh

Many of the very early pieces are not either entirely part bobbin lace or continuous bobbin lace, but hybrids of both. Lacemakers in the early 1600s experimented with new and different ways of solving the problems of carrying pairs of threads through designs.

The background meshes often did not follow the precise paths we are accustomed to seeing today, but instead meandered between parts of the design.

Flem Milan

The frustration for me was ultimately realizing I will never know many of the things I really wanted to learn.  

Early records of the lacemaking industry do not provide enough ways of specifically labeling or identifying lace beyond the generic differentiations of "Flemish"  or other general terms.  

There also are not the definitive clues I would like to differentiate Flemish lace from Milanese lace.  We can make some generalizations based on intuition, characteristics of design, and thread manipulations.  But finally there is no way to be sure.

What we see before us -- design and thread manipulations -- are all we can ever know for sure.  What those features reveal in terms of exact dates, places, and makers we will never know.  We have to be content with that.

Amuse bouche

The mid-day closing time came very quickly.

Just as well, as I needed time to absorb all I had taken in.  

As Rick Steves correctly described, the church is surrounded by an attractive maze of lanes, all crowded with possibiities for lunch, ranging from simple carry-away sandwiches and snacks to full gourmet meals. 

It was a gray and chilly day, my mind was reeling with ideas, and I needed a seriously relaxing atmosphere to process all the new information.  I chose serenely upscale to spend the hour and a half the museum would be closed.

The quiet and uncrowded restaurant was a perfect opportunity to review notes and contemplate questions for the afternoon.

Ant lace chalice

At this museum I focused on the bobbin laces, which are some of the crowning achievements of Antwerp and a favorite technique of mine.

tulip a bird

Lace is displayed both attractively, and in ways that add to the learning experience.  

Here lace from the early 1600s is displayed with botanical drawings showing the inspiration for many of the designs.

Ignatius in case

There is, of course, lace beyond bobbin at the Antwerp Borromeo museum.

One piece on exhibit during my visit in particular shows the depth of scholarship that makes this museum very special.

This partially unrolled communion-rail cloth depicts the life of Saint Ignatius. (The church originally was dedicated to St. Ignatius, who was canonized about the time the church was completed. The dedication was changed to St. Charles Borromeo in 1803.) 

better antwerp

The dozens of pictorials depicting events in the life of St. Ignatius are worked in filet lace.  

Side sections are embroidery and needlework, side panels are filet, and the stars are knotted lace.  

The bottom edge is needle lace.

Ignatius recon

The museum has determined that the pieces originally were assembled In the 1620s as an altar veil, designed to hide the altar during Lent.

Additional studies show that the floral designs in the filet are traced to pattern books from the 1500s.

Evidence makes a strong case that the piece was made in Antwerp.

onder inside cover

I felt very honored to have as much time as I did with Nora.  This is not just a museum, it is a very special place of learning.

Plan ahead if you are considering a trip to Belgium. Nora and Lieve are always very busy researching, analyzing lace, and writing books.  

25 val cover001

Onder de Loep by Nora Andries is a 3 volume set with chapters (In Flemish, German and English) on history, technical construction details and glossy photos of the laces.  There also are 40+ folders, each with a drawing of the lace, photo of finished lace, line diagram, pricking and notes of special points of making.old Flemish lace in the Borromeo church. It is currently out of print, but there are plans to reprint.  An amazing scholarly work.  Do encourage a reprint ASAP.

25 Valencienneskantjes,  a pattern pack by Andries and Vroom includes diagrams, glossy photos, prickings, big line drawings and technical directions of 25 Valenciennes patterns.  This volume is currently available.

For details of obtaining copies of either of these works, contact Nora Andries at

Plan your schedule to visit the Borromeo church lace museum when Nora and Lieve are available if you possibly can.

But by all means, visit this amazing treasure of lace history.

Contact info:

Sint-Carolus Borromeuskerk 

Hendrik Conscienceplein 6 

Tel: +32 (0)3 231 37 51

Godelieve Vroom <>


Posted October 2013


      219-659-1124    Elizabeth Kurella 2014