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Catherine Hervé Lifts the Veil on Handmade Lace

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Appointment with: Catherine Hervé, Meilleur Ouvrier de France in duchess lace
When: 2pm, February 17th, 2009
Where: Her weekly lacemaking class at a community center in Paris’ 15th arrondissement.
On the Agenda: Learn the secrets to handmade lace from France’s preeminent expert.
Glossary: Métier (cushion), gatlap (cloth with cut-out center), fuseaux (bobbins), fil (thread), grillé (grill-like pattern), toilé (cross-cross pattern)

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This might come as a shock, but before I discovered the haute handiwork of lace designer Catherine Hervé at a fair devoted to French artisans, the subject of handmade lace had never once flittered through my mind. (Crazy, I know!) Was it like crocheting? Did it require looms? Were there patterns? Easels? For the life of my, I just couldn’t picture how it was done, who was doing it, where they did it and why.

There was only one person I knew could solve this puzzle: the Queen of Lace herself.

In 2004, Hervé became the third person since 1924 to win the Meuilleur Ouvrier de France (Best Craftsman of France) title for duchess lace, giving her instant street cred as France’s leading practitioner of this painstaking craft.

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After winning the MOF, Hervé traded in her job as a legal assistant to devote herself full-time to lace. By blending traditional techniques with non-conventional materials (colored threads, rayon, leather, wool, silk) she hopes to give the endangered medium a fresh, modern patina. In addition to creating her own original designs (which include three-dimensional lace sculptures, lace jewels, lace canvases, and lace appliqués for apparel) Hervé teaches the art of this mysterious medium each week to a growing number of devotees. From fashion designers and chatty grannies to summer tourists and this guy from Chartes who likes frog motifs, lace holds a seductive spell over a rather eclectic cast—one that I plan to temporarily join to witness the virtuoso at work.

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So there I am one Tuesday afternoon sitting in on a lacemaking gathering at the community center out in Paris 15th where Hervé conducts her classes. Six women are seated around two rectangular tables. In each woman’s lap is a large circular pillow (métier) covered by a piece of blue cloth with a small circular cutout in its center (gatlap). The window of the fabric is placed over the section of the lace under construction, like a surgeon’s cloth during an operation. Peeking through the circle is a dash of lace with strands hanging out and down into a system of wood bobbins (fuseaux) that patter pleasantly when jostled about. Scalpels, spotlights, magnifiers, pins and patience are in abundance too; further adding to the strangely surgical, yet restorative energy in the room.

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The women are each working on a beautiful lace pattern designed specifically for them by Hervé. An illustrator since childhood, Hervé first fell in love with lace as a way to bring tactility to her drawings.

Using cotton thread as fine as hair to create nature-inspired motifs (flowers, animals, leaves), the technique being taught is duchess bobbin lace, an extremely delicate type of lace name after the duchess of Brabant, Marie-Henriette of Austria who later became the Queen of Belgium. Patron of the arts and a lace fetishist, she popularized this new variety of lace introduced in the 1850s by adorning much of her royal wardrobe with it.

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“Lace is the opposite of embroidery,” explains Hervé of the mystifying nature of her art. “Instead of applying thread to fabric, you create fabric with thread.”

Pins keep the pattern and threads in place on the pillow while the lace maker maneuvers her bobbins to create two different stitches: grillé, a grill-like pattern that controls density and thus contrast; and toilé, a criss-cross pattern that creates a fabric-like effect. The epitome of labor intensive, the average lace-maker clocks a whopping 1cm2 (roughly the size of a quarter) per hour. Even with exactly the same pattern, materials, and technical plan, however, it’s impossible to recreate the same effect twice. Handmade lace displays the unique style and characteristics of its maker.

So what are you waiting for? See how your signature style translates to lace at one of Hervé’s hands-on workshops. All courses are conducted in French, so you’ll need to bring a translator or study up.

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Sept-June: 414E per trimester (six, three-hour courses, twice monthly)
July-August: 69E (one three-hour class); week long summer workshops available by request.

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3 Responses to “Catherine Hervé Lifts the Veil on Handmade Lace”

  1. K.L. says:

    This is very fascinating, I never realized that lace is created this way. If I took the class, could Parisbao find me a translator?
    Thanks Zeva.

  2. Zeva Bellel says:

    Of course ParisBAO could find a translator for you, just let me know what your dates are. Send your details to me at: contactparisbao@gmail.com. Z

  3. Kasia says:

    My Belgian heritage has given me an appreciation of lace-making – however I did not know the connection with Marie-Henriette – I assume another of Marie-Antoinette sisters? – I love the idea of taking a lace-making class while on a visit to Paris. Thanks ParisBAO! Only my first time visiting your site and I am very pleased with the possibilities – I look forward to great inspiration on future visits.

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