Sunday, 1 December 2013

Nottingham Lace & La Cite de la Dentelle et de la Mode * Calais, France

I am so used to the fact that textile talent migrated to the UK from continental Europe, that I had to sit down with a pot of tea when I came across the fact that lace-makers had migrated from England to France.

In the field of textiles, Nottingham was a major centre for production of machine-made tulle, largely thanks to Lindley, Heathcoat and Leavers, who all had a hand in developing tulle-loom technology. In the early 19th century, a number of mechanics, engineers and tulle manufacturers from the Nottingham region emigrated to the continent, escaping a period of economic trouble and social unrest in the hope of making their fortunes. Some settled in Calais, smuggling in requisite supplies of looms and cotton cable. In less than a century, thanks to such technological developments as the adaptation of the Jacquard system to the tulle loom and steam power, Calais and its modest suburb of Saint-Pierre were to transform themselves into the capital of machine-made Leavers lace.

In the early 19th century, England was the only country capable of producing machine-made cotton tulle with a regular hexagonal mesh. This light fabric was the height of fashion in France, but imports were illegal and likely to confiscated as contraband. War between France and England, and above all the years of blockade and prohibition, gradually weakened English industry. Lack of outlets and an overabundance of tulle manufacturers led to an overproduction crisis as early as 1813, when workers formed gangs to break the looms they deemed responsible for their lack of employment – what became known as the Luddite Revolt. Confronted with such economic and social troubles, and with protectionism rife in the French market (law of April 1816), numbers of tulle manufacturers decided to try their luck on the continent. By leaving England, they also escaped having to pay royalties on techniques patented in England. Their tools of trade were smuggled out to Douai, Lille, Saint Quentin and Rouen, all towns with a long textile tradition. But Calais’ geographical proximity to England also attracted their interest. In 1816, they began setting up small tulle production workshops in inner city Calais. However, lack of space and noise pollution from night-time work soon forced manufacturers to set up shop in the market-garden suburb of Saint-Pierre-lès-Calais. Adaptation of the Jacquard system to the tulle loom and the arrival of steam power between 1835 and 1840 resulted in machine-made lace production on an industrial scale. In less than fifty years, Saint-Pierre became a prosperous cosmopolitan town, with more inhabitants than Calais itself – to such an extent that the two towns officially merged in 1885. It is also worth mentioning that the war between France and England and the shipping blockades were also responsible for the birth of Swiss machine-made laces and fancy textiles - such as broderie anglaise!

So the next time you are chunnelling across to France to see the delights of Paris, you might like to think about stopping off en route to visit this fabulous museum of lace in Calais. For more details, click here.

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