Leavers lace machines date back to the beginning of the 19th century. Then, a mechanic from Nottingham observed the movement of a lacemaker’s fingers as she worked her tulle network. The mechanic invented a machine that could replicate her every movement. Originally invented in 1808 by John Heathcoat, it was developed and perfected by John Leavers.
There is a big concentration of the machines in the Calais-Caudry region in the north of France. The British government had banned export of any such new machines but, in 1816, three skilled workmen from Nottingham thought there might be a better future in France and smuggled machinery to Calais to set up a new machine lace workshop. By the 1820s the Calais lace workshops were flourishing, with 19th century women’s fashions boosting the demand for lace. Originally the machines made tulle or net-based lace but the later addition of the jacquard system of perforated cards allowed designs to become more elaborate.
Leavers looms weigh between 10 and 15 tons, are 12m in length and produce the most delicate, yet complex, lace. Inside the manufactures, each machine is like a living organism, requiring three mechanics and a ‘metteur en oeuvre’ (who acts like a conductor to make sure the machine is aligned) to stay ‘alive’. Thousands of coils feed the looms with single threads. Only moving forward, the threads are systematically knotted together, composing a web-like three-dimensional pattern. In between the steel jaws of the machines, an intricate see-through textile comes to life, bearing the most refined floral patterns. Once ‘off the looms’, the visiteuses ‘visit’ the fabrics in the ateliers to make sure the lace is impeccable and that no overlapping thread or knot is left in the wrong place.
The Dentelle de Calais-Caudry trademark, which can only be made by affiliated producers in Calais and Caudry, was recently awarded the Liliane Bettencourt Prize for the Intelligence of the Hand. “These machines have witnessed and lived through the Industrial Revolution. As such, they revolutionised productivity by tying 1,000 knots simultaneously on 12m-long machines,” explains Romain Lescroart, president of Dentelle de Calais-Caudry. “Our trademark is that of the highest quality: the manufactures resisted the 1970s rush for globalisation.”
Inside the Dentelles Méry (an affiliated producer of Dentelle de Calais-Caudry) office, president Jean-Pascal Méry unfolds priceless archive books: geometric motifs, Art Deco influences, intricate patterns, fresco-inspired drawings or colourful abstractions, countless threads and knots run on the pages like genuine works of art. “The number of combinations one can obtain is simply unbelievable,” Méry comments. Keen to preserve the region’s heritage, the patriarchal figure also never hesitates to buy spare parts, old machines or crumbling manufactures to collect Leavers looms, which he then fixes and puts back into the Méry manufacture.
“Innovation and technology have kept us afloat,” Lescroart adds. “It gave the manufactures the flexibility they needed without losing our craftsmanship heritage. Technology helps us anticipate the way threads will compose an elaborate design.
“Our main challenge today, however, is counterfeiting and intellectual property. So many companies try to imitate what we do at a lesser quality. Keeping our culture alive is the best way forward. Whether organising lectures in fashion schools, or spreading the message internationally, we want the world to understand that the highest-quality lace can only be produced in the Calais-Caudry region, on historical Leavers machines.”