The Return of Lace as a Major Fashion Trend is Giving a Boost to a Once-Faltering European Business

The lavish lace is a dramatic change—not only for high fashion but also for a European industry that has been dwindling since the 1920s. Europe was once famous for lace—hundreds of types of Swiss, Belgian, French and at one point even English lace. Now, much of the lace shown on high-end runways comes from one town in northeastern France.

The French lace industry was famous when Jerry Lee Lewis crooned, "Chantilly lace and a pretty face...." in the 1950s. But Chantilly lace is no longer made in the French town of Chantilly. The high-end lace industry has mostly shrunk to the area around a town called Caudry, where rival companies Sophie Hallette and Solstiss supply the likes of Christian Dior, Chanel, Jean Paul Gaultier, Jason Wu and Valentino.

The region is known for its stinky Maroilles cheese and the slurry of its "Ch'tis" dialect, made famous in France by the 2008 comedy "Bienvenue Chez Les Ch'tis" or "Welcome to the Sticks." The factories here specialize in "Leavers" lace, using looms that imitate the intricate knotting of 18th-century handmade lace. These machine looms, named after the Englishman who invented them, can work cotton, silk, rayon, polyester, wool or other materials into exquisite laces that are sturdier than they look. (Handmade lace is now a hobbyist's product, though some machine lace is embellished by hand.)

Of course, the Leavers machines are far slower than the knitting machines now used to make mass-market lace in China. Heidi Cho, who trades in lace at Victorian Lace & Trim, a Los Angeles-based lace wholesaler, sells large quantities of Chinese lace to fast-fashion and budget-clothing manufacturers in the U.S. "The China quality is low, but the price is low, Ms. Cho says. Created with an entirely different technique, it isn't nearly as nuanced or beautiful. Still, Chinese factories haven't made headway into the market for couture-level lace—largely because new Leavers machines haven't been manufactured in decades.

Outside of bridal trims and lingerie, lace hasn't been a big part of women's wardrobes in recent decades. Perhaps that's partly because it's so truly, almost wholly feminine—in an era when women have been focused on competing with men.

Read full Article by Christina Binkley