Alençon and Argentan – the homes of French Needlelace

February 14, 2012 at 8:37 pm | Posted in Lace, Museums and Exhibitions | Leave a comment
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Being a big admirer of needlelaces, Alençon and Argentan were very high on my list of places to visit in France. Both towns are preserving their history in the lace-making business, and the museums are splendid places to explore.

First up, Alençon. There’s a nice old town to see there, with a big church and interesting architecture. Sorry, no pics, since I managed not to take any. The Musée des Beaux-Arts et de la Dentelle is situated in an old building, and combines the town’s history in lace-making with an eclectic collection of paintings and sculptures. The big draw for me was of course the lace. On the ground floor there’s a small “appetizer” room, giving a glimpse of what’s still to come. Apart from fine examples of needlelaces from different time periods, there’s a table where different kinds of laces are on open display, and you’re invited to touch and study them, and then take a guess at which kind of lace you’re looking. Easy for somebody who’s been interested in lace for a long time, you’d think – and I did get most samples right on the first try. But hand- and machine-made bobbin laces still confuse me, and this was no exception to that rule. Shows that machines can make a very realistic imitation of bobbin lace.

The first floor was mainly dedicated to paintings, and after a quick look round I went to explore the second floor – and was blown away. There’s a huge room full of mostly big pieces of lace on all the walls and in display cases in the middle. While the emphasis is on Alençon lace, a lot of other types of needlelace are also on show, so you can compare the different types. I went round the room two or three times, seeing something new and different each time. There’s a display explaining the technique of making needlelace on one wall, and a video is shown in an adjacent room showing the past and present of Alençon lace. The technique of making Alençon lace is part of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity since fall 2010, and lace is actively produced by a workshop situated next to the museum. Some of the pieces produced are on sale in the museum, and they’re incredible. To put the price tags into perspective, next to each piece there’s the number of hours it took to make it as well. Tiny pieces, huge number of hours. Looking at this makes you appreciate the huge amount of work that must have gone into making the big pieces in the museum gallery even more. All in all, an amazing place to visit, and one I’d definitely like to get back to another time.

The following day, I continue to Argentan. The town is considerably smaller, there’s another big church, and the lace museum is housed in a tiny building:

That tiny building houses a small but interesting museum. The right side of the ground floor houses the permanent part of the exhibition, showing the different types of French laces. On the left side a video is shown and there’s a small shop. The special exhibition upstairs is a pleasant surprise: “Dentelles d’ailleurs” – Laces from abroad shows laces from lots of different countries. In addition to European laces there’s also stuff made in Asia or America. Being able to see the different traditions on display next to each other is great fun.

All in all, two very enjoyable days in a part of France I probably wouldn’t have visited if it weren’t for the lace that was and is being made there.

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