Prior to the 19th century, hand-made lace was an exclusively female occupation in Europe. When the machine-made lace industry began to develop in the Nottingham region from 1809 onwards, only men operated the sophisticated “Leavers” machines that were soon coupled with Jacquard looms. This production gradually pushed hand-made lace out of the market. Assisting the lacemakers, women and children worked (often in a family setting) on the preparation of threads and bobbins, embroidery, mending, bleaching and dyeing, and all the peripheral activities, often carried out in difficult conditions. These tasks, sometimes highly skilled, were considered to be secondary and were paid less. After 1815, lacemakers emigrated to France and developed an industry in the Calais area. Was the gender segregation that prevailed in Britain reproduced in France? How did migrant lacemakers adjust to the differences and similarities in legislation and customs between the two countries? These are the questions addressed in this article.
By Fabrice Bensimon