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Discover the Sacred Lacemaking of France

A secluded cloister of French nuns continues the beautiful tradition of French lacemaking.

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“We’re vigilant to live the heritage of our past and faithfully preserve our tradition, and through this process develop virtues of patience, perseverance, humility, and silence.”
—Mother Prioress

There’s a fabric that’s most rare and precious. Its motifs are spun from gold and linen thread as thin as angels’ hair. For centuries, the women who hold the secret of this precious lacemaking stitch have said that to gaze at its beauty is to see a reflection of God.

A quest for historical sites preserving France’s finest handmade needle lace led me to Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Argentan, a Benedictine monastery in the village of Argentan, about 250 kilometres west of Paris.

History books date its legacy of survival to the 6th century. The monastery was raided by Vikings, dispersed by the French Revolution, and bombed during the Second World War. After each adversity, the devout Benedictine sisters humbly rebuilt their community and continued their contemplative life of prayer and lacemaking.

Mother Colette demonstrates the making of Point de France lace. Photo by Gaelle Didillion

At the monastery, Mother Colette’s profile is obscured by the wall between us. It’s not a solid wall but rather a grid of metal bars. On one side is a life of solitude, prayer and purity; on the other is the secular world.

As an act of penance and genuine appreciation for hearing her story, I offer a box of homemade cookies through the grille. Mother Colette receives it with delight—the warmth in her voice is reassuring to me.

As our eyes meet for the first time, joy seems to radiate from behind her golden spectacles, suggesting that this isn’t a woman who has wasted time looking for the meaning of life; she has found it already. That’s when I notice the ring—a gold band on the fourth finger of her right hand.

“Yes, we’re married to the Lord,” says Mother Colette, who entered the monastery in 1967 at the age of 23. When I met her in 2015, she had been there for 48 years.

History came alive as Mother Colette provided a narrative of the origins of needlepoint lacemaking in France.

In 17th century France, during the reign of King Louis XIV, many aristocratic families imported luxurious needlepoint lace from Italy. Concerned with the outflow of money, the king’s finance minister Jean-Baptiste Colbert banned its import and brought skilled teachers from Venice to Normandy to instruct locals on creating the handmade lace known as Point de France. Cottage industries were set up in several French towns, including Alençon and Argentan.

Postcard designed by nuns from Abbaye Notre-Dame d’Argentan, 2015. Photo by Gaelle Didillion

France rose to fame as the producer of the world’s finest handmade lace, often referred to as “the lace of queens.” Moreover, the skill and labour required in its production gave the ornamental fabric immense value—only kings and nobles could afford it.

Order the Magnifissance print edition to read the full story.

This story is from Magnifissance Issue 118

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Inspired for a Beautiful Life

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