Lacemaking, Gender Roles and Humanitarian Aid in the First World War

  • Wendy Wiertz (Speaker)

Activity: Talk or presentation typesOral presentation


Since its origins in the sixteenth century, lacemaking has been a female-dominated home industry. The craft, its materials and making processes quickly became imbued with gendered connotations. This was no different in Belgium, where lacemaking was an important part of the country’s national heritage. During the First World War this renowned industry was in danger of disappearing forever: demand for the luxury handmade fabric plummeted, while the supply of materials was interrupted. Thousands of lacemakers faced unemployment. In response, humanitarian organisations developed lace-aid programmes: saving an imperilled European tradition, and ensuring the wartime employment of Belgian lacemakers, often women who supported themselves and their families. The schemes were highly successful, bringing unprecedented publicity to the industry and to American philanthropy, and employing more than 50.000 women in German-occupied Belgium and among Belgian refugees in Holland, France and the UK. War lace, with its unique iconography, referred directly to the conflict and included battlefield scenes, names and portraits of people, places, dates, coats-of-arms or national symbols of the Allied Countries, of the nine Belgian provinces or of the Belgian martyr cities. This paper examines to what extent humanitarian lace-aid programmes (re)produce the social (and gendered) order and if the lacemakers could find expression and solidarity or even empowerment in these schemes. The results, based on archival, collection and practice-based research in Western Europe and the U.S., will help to understand how craft in humanitarian programmes challenges or reifies frameworks and discourses of gender.
Period14 Apr 2023
Event titleEuropean Social Science History Conference
Event typeConference
LocationGothenburg, SwedenShow on map
Degree of RecognitionInternational