Within easy reach of my holiday gîte is Alençon, still famous for the manufacture of Point d’Alençon lace. Typical of the seriousness with which the French take their cultural patrimony, the former College des Jésuites houses a museum where the history is told and the craft demonstrated.

Lace was a must-have fashion accessory in 17th-century France. It was imported from Venice and was so expensive that French nobles were ruining themselves acquiring it. Louis XIV’s minister Colbert persuaded 20 Venetian lacemakers to emigrate and set up workshops in Alençon. Soon more than 8,000 women were employed on a rudimentary production line making a lace of a staggering complexity of design and execution, involving up to 6,000 stitches per square inch. When the Revolution destroyed the market for lace, the manufacturing skills were preserved by nuns, until with Napoleon III’s accession there was a revival of interest in Point d’Alençon. It was shown in the Great Exhibition in London as “The Queen of lace and the lace of queens”.

At about the same time a young woman named Zélie Guerin established a lacemaking business in Alençon’s Rue Saint Blaise. She had tried her vocation with the Sisters of Perpetual Adoration but was rejected by the superior as unsuitable. She accepted this as she would accept so many trials throughout her life: with faith in God’s providence, deciding that it must be His will that she would marry and dedicate her children to Him. Though she was a woman of fervent faith, she was also always a woman of immense practicality. She related that at this time she heard a voice telling her she was to “see to the making of Alençon lace”. It accords with a tradition that there is something mystical in this craft whose purposeful and ordered execution is surely conducive to contemplation.

A Cinderella-type legend attributes supernatural origins to Alençon lace. It tells of a poor orphan girl left in the care of vicious grandparents who mistreated and exploited her. One night they charged her to stay up creating crochet work for market the next day or suffer heavy punishment. She set to work, but worn out with all the chores of the day, she fell asleep. Waking in a panic she saw a beautiful, shining woman sewing on the bench beside her, stitching lace of such minute delicacy and beauty that it seemed impossible that it was made by human hands. It was the Blessed Mother, who, schooled to such tasks in Nazareth, had now given the orphan a means of income.

Mystical intuition or not, Zélie’s business thrived and she provided employment for another 18 women in the town who worked from home. She believed it was her duty to love and care for these workers as if they were members of her own family.

Zélie continued to run her lacemaking enterprise after her marriage to Louis Martin. He eventually sold his watchmaking business and helped Zélie with hers. She would continue to run her business as she brought up her nine children, right until the last stages of the cancer which killed her aged 46.

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