There is a fabric most rare and precious. Its motifs spun from gold and linen thread as thin as angels hair. For centuries, the women who hold the secret of this sacred stitch say to gaze at its beauty is to see a reflection of God.
Mother Colette’s profile is obscured by the wall between us. Not a solid wall, but a grid of metal bars. On one side, a life of solitude, prayer and purity; on the other, the secular world.
Curiosity, and the quest for historical sites preserving France’s finest handmade needle lace led to this Benedictine monastery in the village of Argentan, about 250 kilometres west of Paris.
History books paint a legacy of epic survival dating back to the 6th Century — it was raided by Vikings, dispersed by the French Revolution and bombed during the Second World War. After each adversity, the community of devout Benedictine sisters would humbly rebuild in the shadows and continue a contemplative life of prayer. The prestige saved the community from expulsion, and its sacred stitches continue to be held in great esteem.
As an act of penance and genuine appreciation for hearing their story, I offer a box of homemade cookies through the grille. Mother Colette receives them with delight — and the warmth and goodness in her voice is reassuring to even a stranger. As our eyes meet for the first time, a joy seems to radiate from behind her golden spectacles, suggesting this is a woman who hasn’t wasted time looking for the meaning of life, but has found it.
That’s when I notice the ring — a gold band on the fourth finger of her right hand.
“Yes, we are married with the Lord,” says Mother Colette, who made a personal decision to leave her family and join the sisterhood at an early age. “I entered when I was 23 years old, in 1967, so I am now here for 48 years.”
History comes alive as Mother Colette provides a narrative for the origins of needlepoint lace in France.
For a 16th century woman, it was of utmost importance to wear the most exquisite lace she could find. At the time of King Louis XIV’s reign, many were importing luxurious needlepoint lace from Italy. Concerned with the outflow of money, the king’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert banned its import and brought skilled teachers from Venice to Normandy to instruct locals on how to create a distinct handmade lace known as Point de France. Cottage industries were set up in several French towns including Alencon and Argentan, and a more delicate lace with clearly defined pattern was born.
France rose to fame as the producer of the world’s finest handmade lace, often referred to as “the lace of queens.” Moreover, the skill and labour required in its production gave lace immense value — only kings and nobles could afford ornamental tissues.
During the 19th century, many of Normandy’s lace artisans were killed or fled France, yet the craft was preserved with a lacemaking school at this Benedictine monastery in the village of Argentan.
Although Argentan lace is distinctly French, Mother Collette explains how this luxury item is also a precious union of multiple cultures. “I will amuse you; the lace of Argentan originates in Venice, we are creating it with a thread that come from Belgium and needles that come from England. With that we produce a very refined French product.”
As lace fell out of fashion in the 18th century, the culture of handmade lace became, for the most part, “nuns’ work.” Today, while a small five-centimetre piece of finished Argentan lace is sold for 730 Euro (C$1,146), Mother Colette muses that it barely “puts butter on our broccoli.” Purely a luxury item, one piece takes months to complete.
Running a needle lace atelier is not profitable, and the primary work of their contemplative order is prayer — at least six hours each day and every day, yet the sisters are determined to preserve this tradition. Centuries later, they continue to fulfill orders from a discerning clientele who use the decorative fabric as embellishment for wedding veils and baptism bonnets and then collect them as valuable pieces of art.
A knock at the door, a rustle of robes, and another sister, Mother Prioress appears, excited to share a sampling of the precious textiles. She is among the five remaining sisters skilled at needle lace.
It begins with a drawing; then, with silent hands, the sisters work with thread “as thin as angel’s hair” and needle to create a delicate mesh of woven threads in small motifs. The motifs are arranged around a vertical axis, held together by invisible stitching, and linked by buttonholed bars. The next step is to decorate it with small loops of twisted thread called picots, add a scalloped edge, and then polish with a lobster claw.
People often get confused between embroidery and lace, says Mother Colette, who explains that “with lace you start with nothing, whereas with embroidery you have a base fabric as support.”
The women at the monastery seem intrigued at the news that lace is enjoying a fashion revival, appearing on ready-to-wear and couture collections of Gucci, Alexander McQueen, Christian Dior, Chanel, Valentino, Givenchy, Giambattista Valli, and Elie Saab, spreading the beauty of the fabric to a wider audience.
“Perhaps it is a return back to the French court,” muses Mother Colette, speaking with the authority of one who recognizes lace’s true worth and beauty. “But today they use industrial lace. It is not handmade needle lace, that is not possible.”
“There are no more people able to make laces produced with needles,” she adds. “When you think that the future queen of England, Kate Middleton, got married herself wearing a veil made from mechanical lace. It was kilometres long and made with laces from the French city of Caudry. It would have cost an enormous amount of money, but it was not real lace.”
Today Mother Colette and Mother Prioress are among 32 sisters who live at the monastery. Among them, only a few of the sisters are skilled at the craft of lacemaking. However, “if there was a need for more, we would figure things out. We have one very young nun who is really into it,” says Mother Colette.
Prayer for the world, and the wish to bring beauty to people impregnates the work of the sisters from dawn to dusk, even as they turn tangled thread into a finished art piece that reflects the beauty of creation.
“We are vigilant to live the heritage of our past and faithfully preserve our tradition,” says Mother Prioress, “and through this process develop virtues of patience, perseverance, humility and silence.”
While the women are few in number, they are one in spirit, and with extraordinary beauty and strength they carry on both the endearing traditions of those who walked this life before them.
“This is really a craft, this heritage is a craft and we should not lose it,” says Mother Colette. “What we can do with our hands is wonderful. If we can show to the world something beautiful — as I am told that what is on television is horrible, then for that reason alone, we should carry on with this beautiful tradition.”