Friday 6 October 2023

Chinese handmade lace


Browsing a copy of The lace and embroidery review recently I discovered that there had been an extensive network of handmade lace workers in China in the 1920s. According to an article in the 1926 edition of the magazine, the lace trade began in 1895 when Christian mission schools were set up in Chefoo and the surrounding area of Shantung to give girls a basic education and teach them lacemaking so they could earn their own living. By 1926, in the eastern part of Shantung 300,000 girls and women were earning a living by making bobbin lace.

The lace and embroidery review was quarterly magazine, which was published in the USA, aimed at buyers of lace, embroidery and trimmings. Most of the articles and advertisements are from American companies but several European lace firms also advertise in them. The Alfred Kohlberg company of New York are regular advertisers promoting their Chinese laces. As well as premises in Shanghai the company also has representatives in Swatow, Chefoo and Wusih and they advertise a variety of laces including torchon, filet, Irish crochet, Point Venise, Cluny, hand embroidered net, and Binche lace. They highlight that their lace is ‘Made entirely by hand by Kwantung girls and women whose ancestors have been needleworkers for 4000 years.’ In another advertisement they promote Chinese crochet by unashamedly explaining that if they were paying their workers American unionized wages the cost per yard of lace would be $108.22 but the actual cost is a only few cents. They note that it takes the same number of hours’ work to make a yard of fine crochet lace as it does to make a Ford automobile. The advertisement concludes with the words ‘What will happen if the unions win, we prefer not to contemplate’. I do not know if this refers to the Chinese workers wanting to set up unions or the US unions appealing against unfair competition but it does seem that the workers on both sides are being exploited by the middlemen. A later advertisement notes that ‘Civil war and the anti-foreign boycott in Swatow have stopped all production of Irish lace’. However the Alfred Kohlberg company assure their clients that they still have stocks of most types of lace, but buyers are required to buy edgings and insertions and they will not fulfil orders for only one type of lace. In the years after 1926 there are fewer adverts for Chinese lace so it seems that the events in China led to a reduction in the export trade in handmade lace.

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