During our recent travels in Belgium we took some time to visit Brugge: a city well known for its picturesque canals and tall church towers that stand as testament to the city’s magnificent past as a major trading port. You can feel it everywhere, from the angelic melodies ringing out of the clock tower bells to the gilded doorknobs of merchant houses and the occasional horse carriage taking tourists for rides up and down the cobblestone streets. But walk for 15 minutes away from the bustle of visitors, statues and Van Eyke paintings and one begins to see a very different picture of Brugge. The buildings change from monumental mini-palaces to humble houses of single-storied red brick. The streets are empty and quiet. Here, in its modest origins, we can start to catch glimpses of something ethereal hanging silently in the windows or laying on a tabletop. These are the silent alleyways of handmade lace.
With the invention of mechanised production processes the handmade counterpart has very nearly disappeared. What little remains of the industry is wonderfully displayed at the Kantcentrum (Lace Centre) where one can see and buy some astonishingly beautiful pieces and lace making tools.
The intricately minute details, the level of dexterity required and the speed at which the hands moved all boggle the mind. Lace-making was often a way for women to make ends meet and support their family when no other work was available. Stories of exploitation, child-labour and appallingly low piece rates were not uncommon. Nimble fingers twisted tiny linen threads in the dim candlelight to craft the very same lace that adorned the necks of sternly proud nobles in Jan Van Eyke’s paintings. We couldn’t resist buying a few of these remaining treasures.