Last spring while we were visiting Gozo I discovered that there is a tradition of bobbin lace on the Maltese islands that is similar to our Flemish bobbin lace, and it was then that I made the decision that if we would find a flat and come here for the winter, I would join a lace making class. Some forty years ago I acquired a lace pillow and bobbins from a friend, I even learnt a little on how to use the bobbins, but alas life got in the way and I never really took it up as a hobby, still I did keep the pillow and the bobbins to this day, the pillow is back in Ireland, the bobbins I brought with me.
Here the people use an oblong type of pillow mostly, while ours is round. When we arrived here beginning of October I set out to find a class as planned, but soon realised that I was too late and all classes had been filled. While I was disappointed I just got on with my other interests and while walking, some weeks later, through the narrow streets of Rabat (the old part of Victoria) I happen to see a woman sitting in her doorway and doing her lace, so I got chatting with her, she was called Victorina and she offered to talk to her teacher and ask if I could join her class, without further ado I spoke with her teacher, was accepted, bought my supplies and joined the class as a total beginner. I immediately found it a very peaceful activity and enjoyed it. Soon, after a few weeks the pattern became a little more difficult and concentration is needed very much. Last week I even had difficulty getting to grips with the complicated arrangement of stitches and design, but after undoing my work twice I got it – that is what is necessary in lace making, you got to ‘get’ it and then it is a piece of cake. Tying the weavers knot caused me some problems too, but after lots of practice, now I also got to grips with it. All in all it is good exercise for the brain as well as the hands and I love it. I am enjoying very much the interaction with Gozitan women, though a lot of Malti is spoken, of which I love the sound, they are very encouraging and talk to me in English, I feel included among them.
Here is an 82 year old Gozitan woman who sits doing her lace, selling some of her work to tourists, her work is exquisite.
A little bit about the history of lace making in the Maltese islands.
During the sixteenth century, bobbin lace was brought to the Maltese islands it is believed to have been by the Knights of St.John, who had become familiar with it either in Flanders or Italy where beautiful bobbin lace was already being produced. The Knights had learnt to use lace in the embellishment of their garments. Bobbin lace became an import from Northern Europe, but soon the women of Malta and Gozo started to weave their own lace, a century later their lace had become the envy of the Italians and the Belgians. On and off through the centuries lace making had its ups and downs, various people encouraged the making of it along the way. Apparently around 1864 the Gozitan lace took a different turn from the Maltese lace, I read that it was based on a model of Genoese lace and that two Gozitan sisters copied the style and made it their own, so the Gozitan lace was probably based on lace from Genoa but the sisters then developed their own patterns and the lace produced as a result became Gozitan lace as we see it today. According to one source Gozitan lace has more swirls in its design than the Genoese lace.
Lace making became more important as a means of helping to make a living during the 1860ies when many Gozitans suffered from poverty. Lace was made at this time mainly in the home and by the family, mother and daughters would work together. The lace produced then became used to barter for food. Eventually lace making industries were set up by a parish priest, Dun Guzepp Diacono. These were set up in Xaghra and Victoria, which lie close together though they are different towns. In these industrial houses classes in lace making were taught and more patterns were developed as time went by. Lace in today’s economy of Gozo is mainly produced for the thriving tourist industry. The lace is very beautiful and is mostly still produced by hand. There is a lot more to say about Gozitan lace and its history and its modern economic value and use, I only wanted to give a little information on it here. What most of the people here say when talking about the future of lace making, is that they are worried that it is a dying art as not many young people are taking it up. At the same time it is being taught in the university as a two year course. I do think it has a future, it is too beautiful an art to be lost and the Gozitans are actually very proud of their lace making.
Some examples of lace, and lace making here on Gozo. To me what lace reminds me of is the intricate embellishments in the architecture of their cathedrals, it also reminds me of the beautiful honey coloured limestone when it has been eroded and is full of holes, a very lacy effect.
The Gozitans themselves also love lace and when I walk through any of the towns I constantly see lace being used to hang in front of doors presumably to keep flies out. These curtain are nowadays often machine made though, like in the photos I put together in a collage.
Some preparations and off to my first class where I was taught the cloth stitch in three different ways. The linnen tread that we are using is Irish, believe it or not, it has been imported from Ireland. It is a very strong and lovely tread to work with.
Some pictures of my first works, it is very easy to make a mistake by forgetting a stitch and only discovering a bit later and having to undo many stitches, and while that is pleasant enough work to do too, it does mess up the tread and makes it fluffy, so I try and concentrate real good.
My latest works, the patterns are getting just a little more complicated but also more interesting, what is interesting is how some basic stitches can be used to make an intricate pattern, and I am only in the very beginning right now. Thursday is my next class and then we are packing up for Christmas. I am already looking forward to starting up again in the new year. I hope that before we return to Ireland I will be able to work away on my own and follow a pattern with ease. There are, of course, some very good YouTube videos and websites to learn more about bobbin lace.
To help me in some of my research on the history I read this interesting work: “Bobbin lace. it’s economic and social role on Gozo” by Adrienne Foster and I also read a WordPress article at https://vassallohistory.wordpress.com/maltese-crafts/comment-page-1/#comment-14763, and I spoke with a variety of Gozitan lace makers and sellers over the months that I have been living here.
Last but not least I would like to show an example of Irish Carrickmacross lace which my sister Maria, who died of cancer when she was just 50, used to make, it is a very intricate lace embroidered on fine netting, I guess not easy to do. Below are examples of what Maria made. This is a totally different type of lace in comparison to Gozitan lace of course.