Point d'Alençon Lace Will Always Be the Queen of Lace

By: Carrie Whitney, Ph.D.  | 
Alençon lace collar
Grape and vine motifs with shadow effect decorate this cotton Alençon lace collar from the late 19th century. Horsehair was used to support picots on the outside edge and on some interior motifs. The pattern for this collar is in the Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle, Alençon, France. Beverly Wolov/National Museum of American History

In a small town in Normandy, France, admiration for handcrafting has never gone out of style. Known since the 17th century for its fine lacemaking tradition, Alençon, France, is still home to the nationally sponsored Atelier Conservatoire National du Point d'Alençon (National Alençon Lace Workshop). It's where artisans learn to make the delicate point d'Alençon lace, regarded as the "queen of laces" and the historical favorite of queens like Marie Antoinette.

The importance and rarity of point d'Alençon — also known as Alençon needlepoint lace — is due to the fact that it is made entirely by hand with needles, thread and parchment, just as it has been for more than 350 years, explains Valérie Durand in an email translated from French. Durand joined the National Alençon Lace Workshop in 2006 and is now its head. She was named "One of the Best Workers in France" by the COET-MOF for needle option lace in 2019 for a Point d'Alençon bracelet she crafted.


Today's Alençon lacemakers like Durand learn the process during an apprenticeship that can last up to a decade. And while other lace may claim to be Alençon, the authentic stuff, which bears the name of the city where it was born and perfected through thousands of Normandy lacemakers, is as inseparable from its place of origin as from its technique, she says. But interestingly, the story of this famed French lace begins somewhere else.

The Origins of Point d'Alençon Lace

To begin the tale of needle lace, we'll travel back to Venice, Italy, in the second half of the 16th century. According to Durand, it was then that Venetian embroiderers first gave up their embroidery support and created "punto in aria" (needlepoint in the air), which spread throughout Europe.

In 1665, King Louis XIV and Jean-Baptiste Colbert, the king's finance minister, founded the state-sponsored lace industry in France, explains Michele Majer, professor emerita of fashion and textile history at Bard Graduate Center and co-curator of the center's "Threads of Power" exhibition. Louis XIV and Colbert built the lace industry chiefly for economic reasons, as they were interested in limiting French nobles from spending their money on Italian and Flemish laces, which had been most desirable and fashionable.


Louis XIV and Colbert created the Manufacture des Points de France, and French cities with a strong lace-making tradition, such as Alençon, Aurillac and Sedan, welcomed royal workshops with a 10-year supervision by the crown. These workshops were the only ones allowed to produce various types of lace.

"French nobility were forbidden from wearing foreign lace and only state-accredited dealers were permitted to buy French lace," Amelia Soth wrote for JStor Daily.


Lace Prohibition, Smuggling and French Fashion

Alençon lace
Marie Antoinette is seen wearing point d'Alençon lace in this portrait with her children by Marie Louise Élisabeth Vigée-Le Brun. Wikimedia/(CC BY-SA 4.0)

The king and Colbert's strategy worked.

"By early 1670s, this type of French needle lace — Alençon — was already being admired for its high quality," Majer says. Referencing the book "Lace: A History" by Santina M. Levey, Majer explains that sumptuary laws also prohibited what commoners wore at that time, and fine fabrics like lace were restricted to royalty only. Prohibition only increased its value, and there was a thriving smuggling of it across borders.


In 1675, they had achieved their goal of creating a French lace industry, Durand says. The king did not renew the monopoly, but he did not need to. Surpassing Venice, France had begun to set the tone in terms of fashion.

By the mid-17th century, Alençon was a remarkable lace center with skilled workers — more than 8,000 in the city and its surrounding areas — and the style of Alençon needle lace evolved according to the tastes of queens and empresses.


The Painstaking Process of Making Alençon Lace

Alençon lace
Making Alençon lace takes time, skill and years of dedicated practice. One small piece can take months to create. Sébastien Collet, Service Communication de la Ville d'Alençon

Despite its name, the importance and rarity of Alençon lace relates not only to where it is made, but also how it's made. The process includes many stages, according to UNESCO, beginning with drawing and pricking the design on parchment.

Next, the artisan creates an outline of the design and netting, stitches the patterns, adds shading with more stitches, and then finally decorates the design and adds relief through embroidering. The lace is removed from the parchment with a razor blade, then trimmed and polished.


Every lace-maker could (and still can) complete every stage of the process. Today it takes years to perfect through their a decadelong apprenticeship.

"In terms of clothing and accessories, [Alençon lace] was one of the key signifiers of wealth and status," Majer says. It was extremely expensive and time-consuming to make. More than fabric, more than embroidery, a piece of Alençon lace of the highest quality could take months or up to a year to create.


How Alençon Lace Was Worn

man's Alençon needle lace cravat
Alençon lace was more popular on women's clothing, but men wore it too. This man's cravat from the early 19th century is a good example of how men might have worn a piece of Alençon needlepoint lace. Beverly Wolov/National Museum of American History

Hundreds of years ago, openwork fabrics like Alençon lace occupied an important place in the female and male costumes at the royal court.

At first, lace was used as an ornament on collars and cuffs. Think of the fashion seen in Renaissance paintings. But during the second half of the 16th century, lace developed as a textile in its own right, not just edging, according to Majer.


By the late 16th and early 17th centuries, enormous ruffs of lace had become popular.

Women of the 18th century had many opportunities to wear lace, including in caps, necklines, sleeve ruffles or even as aprons. Men were more likely to wear lace at the neck as a cravat or as cuffs, but by the 19th century, women had become the main market for lace.

In addition to the earlier accessories, women began incorporating lace into dresses in the form of flounces, which could be removed and put on other dresses, Majer says.

In France, following the upheaval of the French Revolution and the unpopularity of the aristocracy, the lace industry declined. But in the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte encouraged courtiers to wear French needle lace, particularly Alençon lace, and by around 1840, the handmade lace industries of France had made a comeback.

"Alençon remained one of the very high-end laces," says Majer.

When machine lace took off in the mid-19th century, everyone had access to lace. But a connoisseur could tell the difference between a good machine-made lace and handmade lace, so point d'Alençon remained in demand among women of top social status.

It was even popular among elite women to wear antique point d'Alençon lace from the 17th and 18th centuries. Today, it's hard to tell the difference in these textiles, Majer explains. But men and women of that era knew what they were looking at.


The Status of Alençon Lace Today

The French Revolution, the wars and the appearance of machine-made lace marked a slow decline in the production of Alençon lace, Durand explains. By the early 20th century, luxury products no longer held their commercial place in a society that was changing economically and socially.

Nevertheless, a deep attachment to the craft remained and in 1903, the Alençon Chamber of Commerce launched its lace school. Beginning in 1965, it was managed by the association La Dentelle au Point d'Alençon and by 1976, the French government committed to safeguarding the lace craft and created the National Alençon Lace Workshop that Durand now heads.


"Today, we are nine lacemakers within this workshop," she explains. "[Our] primary mission is the conservation of the knowledge of Point d'Alençon lace, through practice, research and transmission." The workshop is attached to the Mobilier National, a ministry of culture organization responsible for maintaining French furniture and textiles.

The nine lacemakers have mastered all 10 steps of making Alençon lace during an apprenticeship that takes from five to 10 years, and in addition to continuing the lacemaking tradition, the workshop sells pieces at the Musée des Beaux-arts et de la Dentelle in Alençon. Roughly 10 pieces are sold there each year.

The technique was inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2010. UNESCO determined that "Alençon needle lace is unusual because of the high level of craftsmanship required and the very long time that it takes to produce (seven hours per square centimeter)."

Put another way by Mobilier National, a design the size of a postage stamp takes between seven and 15 hours of effort to complete.

That's a lot of work. But Durand says true point d'Alençon lace is preserved and protected today because no machine can reproduce its special handmade stitch.