Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Queen Elisabeth and the Friends of Lace

Charlotte Kellogg relates the efforts of the Queen and other great ladies to assist Belgian lace workers, especially during the harsh German occupation of 1914-1918.
Long before the war Queen Elizabeth in Belgium, like Queen Margharita in Italy, had sought means to protect the lace worker, through centuries the victim of an economic injustice, not to say crime, and to rescue and develop an industry threatened from many sides. In 1911 she gave her royal encouragement to a group of prominent Belgian women who organized as "Amies de la Dentelle", Friends of Lace, and began a lace saving campaign by trying to remedy the deplorable condition of most of the lace schools, the defective teaching, long hours and pitiful pay. They could insist in the schools, as not elsewhere, on the right to inspect, to grant or refuse patronage. They subsidized worthy institutions, and advocated the establishment of a lace normal school and of a special school of design. Education they felt to be the main road leading out of the prevailing misery, and they were making progress along this road, when suddenly the Invader poured over their borders.
While other women hurried to open refuges and hospitals and soup kitchens, a few of the Friends of Lace remembered first the lace makers; and by November 1914, had effected a war emergency organization, known as the Brussels Lace Commitee, with Mrs. Whitlock as honorary president. Unfortunately most of the lace dealers failed to cooperate with them, but they won the approval of the powerful Belgian Comité National, which, with the Commission for Relief in Belgium, carried on the relief of the occupied territory throughout the war. And with an initial gift of $25,000 from America to be converted into lace, they were able to start their work. It soon came to be directed altogether by four women; The Comtesse Elizabeth d'Oultremont, Lady in Waiting to Queen Elizabeth, the Vicomtesse de Beughem, an American, Madame Josse Allard and Madame Kefer-Mali. At the same time the aid and protection of workers on filets and other commonly called "imitation" laces was assigned by the Comité National to another group of women, the "Union Patriotique des Femmes Belges"...
During the first few months the situation seemed utterly hopeless; thread was impossible to obtain, and even if the thread were forthcoming, no one could say who would buy the laces they might encourage the women to make; the Germans were cutting off successive sections of the lace making areas where they had established sub-committees, and were forbidding communication with them. And yet these four women continued bravely to create the foundations of a great lace business- for an extraordinary commercial organization grew from their efforts.
However, despite all their intelligence and devotion, such a result would have impossible but for a hard won diplomatic victory In early 1915 Mr. Hoover forced an international agreement which permitted the C.R.B to bring thread for the Lace Committee in Belgium, and to take out an equivalent weight of lace, to be sold in the Allied countries for the benefit of the workers...And once these international guaranties were obtained, the Belgian Comité National was able to arrange for the the distribution of the lace to the various, even remote lace centers, and for the return of the finished lace to Brussels. They granted the women a subsidy of $10,000 and insured to each dentellière the chance to make at least three francs worth of lace a week- a small minimum, to be sure, but everyone understood it might be increased later, and that if each of the many thousands of workers was to have an equal opportunity, it  could not in the beginning be more. After this the Lace Committee had about 45,000 women on its lists. The work in the schools and out of them began to bear fruit. The sweating system, and payment in kind (in clothing and food) were practically wiped out, and inspection and control established. Everywhere the standard of execution and of design was raised; old patterns were restored and improved, and, by the end of the war, 2237 new designs had been added...
The Germans early originated a "Lace Control" of their own, and tried in every possible way to win over the Belgian workers and to buy up all the lace in the country. They accused the Brussels Committee of being a political and patriotic body existing chiefly to defeat the occupying power and the Flemish activists. Then there were other courage-testing difficulties. But despite all obstacles and perils, the women persisted, and continually the precious skeins of "Carry On" were flung out from Brussels to the farthermost corners of the land, binding all together in a firm and beautiful web of hope and confidence. For the enemy was right in suspecting the Committee of a purpose deeper than that of merely trying to save women from the soup-line; they carried on a patriotic work of the highest importance. (Bobbins of Belgium: a book of Belgian lace, lace-workers, lace-schools and lace-villages, Funk & Wagnalls Company, 1920, pp. 15-21)

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