The Calais Lace Museum - Calais but with frills on
Sought after by designers of Haut Couture and lingerie, Sharron Livingston find this museum brings a new dimension to this commercial coastal town.
‘Non, non, zis is not morse code’, said Genevieve, my guide, squinting in the sunlight ‘ze holes that you see make up a pattern for making lace that you find on a Jacquard loom card.’
We were looking up at the soft curves of the gleaming silver frontage of the new Lace Museum in Calais. It was so reflective that you could see the sky in its bends and its mirror image shimmering in the nearby canal.
‘… and anyone who knows how to weave can use zis pattern to produce their own’.
Impressive. But for a wino and gourmet guzzler like myself, Calais has been an indulgent day or two away.
After lunch it's to Cite Europe shopping mall for a spot of shopping, a quick visit to the local market at Place D’armes for some freshly made fish soup and then a ferry home topped up with goodies and a little joie de vivre.
But on this occasion I took a detour to the lace museum in St-Pierre, just ten minutes from both the port and the Flemish style town hall.
I followed Genevieve into this magnificently arranged space, aptly located in the former 19th century Boulart lace factory. Five floors are dedicated to the glory of Calais' often ignored lace-making heritage and shows off working historic looms, bobbins, threads, tools, samples and ends with a beautiful collection of fashion that ranges from the enfant terribles of 1930s Belle Epoque such as Chanel, Schiaparelli, to more recently Lacroix, Gaultier and Chantal Thomass.
Lace was once Calais' most sought after product, initially smuggled here by Nottingham lacemakers and worn by royalty and used as a symbol of wealth and status. Initially it was the men who adorned themselves in this luxurious tulle, but as time went on it became fashionable for women to show off their silhouettes in more and more daring designs – a movement that increased in momentum when elastane was introduced.
According to French chronicles, the first Englishman to smuggle a lace machine into Calais was Robert Webster in 1816. In Blighty, Nottingham lace makers were plying their trade by hand. To them, modern technology meant unemployment so the lace making machines were smuggled to Calais where they were welcomed and an industry started in (and is still in) the district of St Pierre. Soon practically every family was involved in lace-making one way or another.
These days, though overall production has reduced since its hey day (some 40,000 workers a 100 years ago to just 2000 today), 78% of the town’s lace production is exported to 140 countries and used mostly to make lingerie and wedding dresses but at the museum a sensational selection of lace samples are on display with narrative in English. Traditional lace is made with Leavers machine and trade marked.
Prepare to be dazzled by the haute couture garments and some very sexy lingerie. Be sure to make a bee-line for the relief maps of old Calais showing how Calais looked when it was still walled town before the Second World War and end the tour with some fine dining in the museum’s restaurant.
And finally, for a truly authentic and world-famous Calaisien souvenir, go for a lacy item from Royal Dentelle (106 Boulevard Jacquard) or Noyon Lace Boutique (85 rue de Vic). Both these outlets are specialists in the noble artisanal craft of producing and selling Calais lace. Choose from place mats, table cloths, napkins, lingerie, lace pashminas and even loo roll holders.
And if you do weave a little lace into your shopping escapade, unlike the booze and the groceries, your lace won’t take up much space in your boot!
From the port, follow the signs to the town centre.
Did you know?
The main customers for Calais lace today include Valentino, Triumph, Paul Gaultier, Christies, Chantelle, Calvin Klein, Chantal Thomass, Lacroix and Valéry Valentino. So you’ll be in good company!
The museum in numbers
Presently there are 6 lace manufacturers, 300 Leavers and 2000 people employed in the Calais lace industry.
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