Sunday, 25 August 2013


I have just returned from a trip to The Netherlands and Belgium to explore my 'Lace Trail' further and study 17th Century portraiture.  My first stop was Bruges in Belgium where I enjoyed some waffles, had lovely dinners but also one foul lunch, got swamped by the tourists, but also found completely empty streets, dealt with my broken-down car and found the loveliest lace shop (and owner) ever. I walked all over town, but I was, however, on the hunt for just one thing: LACE.

Greetings from Bruges!
The skill of making lace probably travelled from Italy to Flanders in the 16th century although the exact origins of lace are still unclear. Flanders was an important centre for bobbin lace in the 17th century and onwards. Bruges lace shows typically a pattern of scrolling forms. Flemish bobbin lace was a huge fashion in Europe at the beginning of the 17th Century until Italian designs took over later in the century. Most lace seen in Dutch portraits of Rembrandt or Frans Hals is a Flemish or Dutch bobbin lace.

One of the many many souvenir shops
Although the city of Bruges and its neighbouring towns and Brussels have a rich and long history of lace making, one has to dig deep and search hard to find a trace of it in Bruges. That is, as long as you ignore the many tourist souvenir lace shops that are scattered around the centre of town selling modern, factory-made (most likely in Asia) lace in simple designs for an awful lot of money.  Those shops have little to do with the long history of lace making that started 400 years ago and is now nearly extinct.

The local lace museum (Kantmuseum) is a sad series of poor rooms, lit by some strip lighting in which a few old and rickety display cabinets hold some random-looking pieces of lace. Most are not even from Bruges or Belgium or have no label.  There is no sign of proper conservation or of special pieces and, to be frank, Bruges city council better close this 'museum' as having nothing would be better than this.
Bruges Kantcentrum, the Lace Museum.
The pattern is created with the help of pins

A lace maker during the Bruges Lace Days
While I was visiting the 'Bruges Lace Days' were happening which is similar to lace days in the UK or any other country: regional and national lace-makers organisations come together to display and share their craft, sell materials etc. It was lovely to see the craft of lace making still alive, but again, there is no comparison to the hand-made lace being made so many hundreds of years ago. The old materials don't exist anymore and the designs would take forever to create. Modern makers are after modern designs and do their own thing. The result can be interesting, as some textile artists show, but the small scale and scope of most lace-makers/hobbyists make it of little interest for my project.

detail of Jan van Eyck's Madonna with Canon van der Paele in the Groeninger Museum in Bruges
Revived after indulging in Van Eyck's 'Madonna with Canon van der Paele' (1436) and other Flemish medieval art in the Groeninger Museum, I ventured into more lace-hunting and found the best lace museum in Bruges:

Lace shop 't Apostelientje, run by the wonderful Anne who has been selling and collecting (only) handmade lace for 30 years. Her shop shows more handmade historic lace than all of Bruges does. I have spent quite a few hours there chatting to Ann and her partner about Bruges, lace and its history and her shop. She sells lace making materials, modern handmade lace, but most importantly handmade antique lace. This is the place to see 17th or 18th century Brussels lace, Binche lace or some 18th century Venetian needle lace (a blog post that is still in the making will discuss the different types of lace, which are notoriously difficult to identify).  On top of it all the shop is styled as a real treasure cave, packed to the rafters with lace. Heaven. I left with a lot of photos, contact details and a lovely piece of 18th Century Brabant lace.

The most beautiful chest of very old, very fine beautiful lace at 't Apostelientje

't Apostelientje. Balstraat 11, 8000 Bruges

a wall of gorgeousness at 't Apostelientje

For an organised list of ALL blog posts that I wrote during the BP Travel Award project (2 years), please see this page on my blog!

More Lace Posts:
The Pearl Necklace
Idrija Lace
An Overview of Early Lace
A Visit to Honiton

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