The sisterhood of lace
By Elisabeth Khan
At Nancy VanOphem’s house in Washington, MI, a group of women are relaxing with a cup of coffee and dessert after a long day. They’ve come from near and far to immerse themselves in a topic dear to their hearts: lace. Their “guru” is Anny Noben-Slegers, a veteran lace instructor from Belgium who crosses the Atlantic each year to lead workshops from Michigan to Florida. This is the 7th year Nancy hosts a class at her home, a place that reflects the passion they all share: lace is on display on every table and wall. Two adjoining rooms of the house are taken over by pillows, pins, and bobbins.
A precious commodity
Once upon a time, lace was made exclusively by hand and only royalty, aristocrats, and rich merchants could afford to embellish their clothing and surroundings with it. The Catholic Church, too, favored lace for altar cloths and liturgical vestments. Because of the time-consuming process, Nancy says, a piece of lace was once worth its weight in gold. All over Europe, cities gave their names to the distinctive styles of lace they produced: Venice, Milan, Valenciennes, Chantilly, Brussels, Bruges, and quite a few more. Lace came – and comes – in many different types: bobbin lace, needle lace, ribbon lace, tatted, knitted, crocheted, and finger lace.
The machine age that brought cheap, mass-produced lace almost killed the ancient craft. Almost, but not quite: now elevated to an art, lacemaking is kept alive by a surprising number of women on several continents. Flanders alone has five recognized lace schools. In the United States, the Great Lakes Lace Group (website www.gllgi.org) and the International Old Lacers (website www.internationaloldlacers.org) provide networking, information, and training.
Today’s handmade lace is more likely to be found in art galleries and museums. Modern lace artists may use colored thread instead of the traditional white, ecru, and black; they may incorporate beads or create pieces out of silver wire and even out of steel cables, as in the case of the Georgia artist Robin Lewis. Antique lace has become highly collectible. Contemporary pieces can be acquired directly from the artists or via reliable sources like the Bruges Kantcentrum (Lace Center). However, don’t go looking for “real Brussels lace” in the tourist shops of the Belgian capital. What you will find there has, in the best case, been hand made in some low-wage Asian country or, just as likely, it’s machine made.
Many paths lead to lace
The workshop participants each have a different story to tell about how they found their “calling.” Sharon Saarinen, on vacation in the Finnish lacemaking town of Rauma, could not resist buying all the lacemaking equipment, although she had no idea how to use it. Fifteen years later, she at last found a teacher via the internet (that was Barbara from Macomb). Kathleen Campbell spotted a Princess lace loom from 1903 in the Ypsilanti museum back in 1973 and spontaneously exclaimed, “How interesting!” Next thing she knew, she was invited to take the loom home and try to figure out how to use it. It was a bit complicated and it did take her some time to find the right teacher. Barbara Bulgarelli, a Canadian who lives in Macomb, and her husband are history buffs. Thirty-five years ago, they came across a lace demonstration in a Revolutionary War reenactment, and the rest, as they say, is history. Cheri Whalen, who lives in Birmingham, discovered lacemaking in a magazine while looking for “something fun to read” on a European trip. She remembers, “I was like, wow – people actually do this?” Before she knew it, she too was hooked.
The outcome is always the same: an interest bordering on obsession. These women make lace – often more than one kind – they collect it, and often also collect books about lace, art and postage stamps depicting lace or lace makers and, last but not least, “sisters” who share their passion. Nancy likes to scour flea markets and used-book stores in Belgium whenever she has a chance, which has led her to serendipitous encounters and “lucky” finds.
Ambassador of lace
Born in Hoeselt, Limburg, Anny Noben-Slegers came to lace relatively late in life – she was almost 40 – after falling in love with a piece by a famous designer she’d seen in Brussels. You could say she took to it with a vengeance: she now teaches seven different lace styles (including three-dimensional flowers) and travels the world as a tireless ambassador of lace. As she continues to create many original patterns incorporating elements of various cultures (African, Native American, etc.) her diplomacy works in multiple directions. She has created a lace-picture domino game, a lace-horoscope birthday calendar and other lace-themed items that are sold to benefit an anti-cancer charity in Belgium called “Klos tegen kanker,” which can be loosely translated as “Bobbins against cancer.” If lace is alive today, it’s thanks to people like her.