Up close, a Leavers loom is terrifying, a 10m-long, 3m-high mass of chuntering metal parts, a Heath Robinson nightmare of pistons and wheels, levers and cogs, strung with gossamer-fine threads that are being tied into intricate patterns by the 5,500 wafer-thin bobbins that scythe back and forth between them.
There's no catwalk glamour here and yet this centuries-old relic of the industrial revolution is turning out the impossibly beautiful material that has made Sophie Hallette the go-to lace-maker for top designers.
"Yes, lace is full of paradoxes," says Maud Lescroart. Her grandfather Etienne bought the lace factory from the Hallette family in 1942 and passed it on to her father in the 1970s. Now her brother Romain is CEO while she runs the Paris showroom where top fashion designers (Valentino, Burberry, Erdem, Prada,Dior, Versace, McQueen) come for inspiration.
Unlikely as it seems, these ancient machines are the Rolls Royce of lace-making. The Leavers loom was the first to replicate the intricacy of hand-made lace and the six at Sophie Hallette were smuggled out of Britain to preserve them from the angry machine-breaking mobs, known as Luddites, who saw the industrialisation of lace-making stealing their livelihood.
At 12 tons, a loom doesn't make easy cargo, but the first were stealthily loaded onto barges (it was illegal to export them) in 1816 and sailed to Calais, along with the men who knew how to work them. Many more followed. Some stayed in Calais; others pushed on.
The tullistes, the men who operate them now, believe their predecessors were heading for Paris, or perhaps to Valenciennes, near the Belgian border, which had a tradition of lace-making. One way or another, a great many ended up in Caudry, a sleepy town an hour south of Lille.
The founder of Sophie Hallette began his company in 1887 and six Leavers looms are still working smoothly today, though the company has adapted to the modern world in other ways. Sophie Hallette nearly foundered when lace went out of fashion in the 1970s, and again with the global credit crunch of 2007. After scanning the archives for inspiration, it designed a heavy cotton lace that caught Miuccia Prada's eye and formed the basis of her winter 2008 collection.
"I started looking at lace and became obsessed with it," she said afterwards. "I had never liked it. It reminds me of children, the church. I got rid of all the old connotations. Here, it was very feminine, elegant and dignified."
Since then, Sophie Hallette has been on a roll. Sixty per cent of production is for Europe and 25% is for premium lingerie lines such as La Perla and Agent Provocateur, but even Maud was taken by surprise when its motifs, reworked by the Royal College of Needlework in London, appeared on the Duchess of Cambridge's wedding dress.
The company now has 280 employees and 130 looms in Caudry. The employees are all exceptionally skilful locals; it takes five years to train as a tulliste and the jobs are passed from father to son.
"Lace" is too simple a word for the end result. There's the classical shadow-patterned Chantilly lace, or corded Guipure lace, lace like slabs of thick cotton with egg-sized holes, tulle appliquéd with silicone and lace beaded so elaborately with crystals that it costs €1,000 per metre.
It means that fashion's insatiable appetite for invention should keep the old looms chuntering a fair while yet.Try Newsweek: Subscription offers