One of the lace-makers at the Kantcentre works with dozens of wooden bobbins at once. Photo by Elisabeth Roybal

Dusty rooms, faded pictures—for many people, the word lace implies old. Recently, though, lace has been making a comeback in a big way.

At her marriage to Prince William last year, Kate Middleton wore a wedding dress featuring handmade lace from the Royal School of Needlework, helping to popularize the delicate beauty of this fabric. Artists are also beginning to experiment more with lace by creating it from different materials, including metal.

What’s so fascinating about lace? As Marie Bassett, an experienced lace-maker from Utah, states, “The interaction of light and dark—areas of solid cloth contrasting with the open areas—makes lace a unique art form.” Even with the ready availability and inexpensive production costs of machine-made lace, the creative flexibility of lace-making may be one reason the art of handmade lace is still alive and strong in Bruges, Belgium.

Bruges has been one of the European centers of lace-making for hundreds of years. Due to its prime location near the fruitful Belgian flax fields, Bruges was uniquely situated to become a center for production. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, lace-making became an important part of the economy of the city and provided work to hundreds of women. There are still dozens of lace shops around the city that sell handmade lace (although you have to be careful if you want to buy the real deal; some of the cheap lace has either been imported or made by machine).

The true artistry of lace-making can be appreciated only by watching a master lace-maker at work. Fortunately for visitors, live demonstrations are offered daily in Bruges in the Kantcentre. This center is located near the middle of the city and was founded in the mid-eighteenth century. It is both a museum and a school, so visitors who are inspired by the exhibits can enroll in classes to learn how to make lace themselves.

In the Kantcentre’s demonstration room, several lace-makers sit at large tables. Most of the lace-makers are women—several of whom are in their late 70s or older; it takes “a lifetime” to become an expert, according to Bassett. The lace-makers work so quickly that bystanders cannot even follow the motions of their hands.

Bruges lace is a type of bobbin lace, which means that each thread is wound around a separate wooden bobbin. As the lace-makers pass their bobbins from hand to hand or finger to finger, it sounds like dozens of computer typists typing at the speed of hundreds of words per minute. One viewer described the lace-makers’ hands as “looking like spiders” because of their speed and accuracy in weaving such elaborate designs.  

These intricate designs are possible because of bobbin lace’s versatility. Lace-makers can create both thick bands of lace as well as delicate, detailed work. According to Bassett, to create the lace, lace-makers pin a pattern to a small, straw-stuffed pillow. They then hang the bobbins from the pillow using pins. They weave the threads by passing the bobbins over and under each other.  As the work progresses, the lace-makers use more pins to hold the threads in place. After removing the pins, the piece of lace is finished. Says Bassett, “It might be whimsical, it might be useful, but it is always beautiful.”

The beauty of lace in Bruges isn’t limited to the Kantcentre. Because lace-making is such an important part of Bruges’s cultural history, a lace festival is held every August for four days in order to exhibit the craftsmanship of this traditional art form. This festival has been going on for over 30 years, providing visitors a unique opportunity to both see and buy exquisite lace. Even Bruges itself is designed in an intricate lace pattern, woven together by its many canals. Don’t miss your chance to see this living art in action.

—Claire Warnick