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Photo by Petra Barnby
Arachne’s children...Catalan lace requires skilled hands to work bobbins and pins
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Photo by Petra Barnby
Antonia Jaures i Vallalta
Experienced teacher of Punta d’Areny, Antonia Jaures i Vallalta, is concerned about the future of Catalan lace
The soothing tap of hundreds of wooden bobbins being deftly passed over each other is the only sound. The heads of the seven Catalan lace-makers are cast down on their work as if in prayer, their fingers moving as expertly as a concert pianist’s to select the bobbin they need. All light is cast on the threads. Someone speaks and everyone laughs. The lace is slowly created.
By weight, the pieces these people are making are more valuable than gold. A pair of women’s gloves cost €2,500 and the simplest handkerchief can take six months to complete. In the past this kind of lace could be pawned for cash at Barcelona’s historic bank Monte de Piedad, but now it is made just for the pleasure.
“You always feel happier after working on your lace,” said Josep Lamiel, 42, one of the managers of Borne lace shop, Labors Vol i Boixet.“When you are working on it you can’t think of anything else. The sound of the bobbins relaxes you.”
In reality, making lace of this high standard is a skill that takes decades to master. Up to 1,000 wooden spools and threads are managed and manipulated to make this precious fabric.
Secretary of The Catalan Lace Guild, Rosa Provencio, 61, believes learning about lace from the region is a way for foreigners to develop their understanding of Catalans. “People are very surprised that we have this skill here, especially foreigners. We had two Japanese ladies come over to learn what we do. They stayed for two months,” Rosa told me. “Learning about Catalan lace is a way to integrate yourself into our culture. It is a way to understand us. We are a people of tradition.”
There are two main ways to make lace. One is bobbin lace which is made by pinning threads to a large pillow and attaching all the threads to wooden spools or ‘bobbins’. These bobbins are worked in groups of four and systematically passed over each other to create the plaits and knots of the lace. The other technique is needlelace which achieves a similar effect using a single needle.
Bobbin lace, or punta as it is called in Catalan, is Catalunya’s speciality. There are two types of bobbin lace made in the region; Blonda de l’Arboc is a style from Tarragona and is known for its dense weave, while Punta d’Arenys (facing page) comes from the coastal area around Arenys de Mar and is famous for its more delicate finish. Apart from their beauty, what is special about these laces is the skill required to make them and the large number of bobbins needed to control the lace. “The number of people who make our traditional lace are few,” said Provencio.
Spain has a long history of lace-making. It is widely thought that Catherine of Aragon, the first wife of English King Henry VIII, introduced lace-making to England when she was there in 1531. The oldest Catalan bobbin lace dates from the 14th century and can be found in the Monastery of Pedralbes in Barcelona.
Since its creation, lace-making provided a livelihood for women home-makers across Europe because of the constant demand from the bourgeoisie to be seen wearing lace as a show of wealth. The most sought-after Spanish lace was the fine black lace historically used for mantillas (the silk lace veils worn over the head and shoulders on formal occasions across Spain). At the end of the 18th century came the machines that did away with the professional lace-maker entirely. Now there is almost no demand for hand-made lace—despite its rich tradition of lace-making, there is not one lace shop in Barcelona that sells new lace pieces off-the-shelf. If you want to buy a new piece, the only two shops in Barcelona that sell it are Artesania de Catalunya and Lobors Vol I Boixet (see insert). And with so much time and skill needed to craft a piece of hand-made lace, the finished product doesn’t come cheap.
Despite this lack of demand, the culture and love of lace-making is alive and kicking in Barcelona today. There are thought to be somewhere around 3,000 lace-makers in the city and 40 lace associations; every barrio of the city has at least one. It is said one in five grandmothers makes lace in Cataluyna. Your best chance of seeing lace being made is to visit one of the many lace meetings, or trobadas, which take place across the city, culminating in the annual meet on Portal de l’Àngel which sees some 500 people gather around a vast table in February. The same thing, on a smaller scale, is seen at most festa mayors across the region.
Contrary to popular belief, it is not only elderly women who make lace here—men and children can wield a bobbin too. The numbers are smaller but a recent lace-meeting for children in Arenys de Munt attracted sixty children. The Catalan Lace Guild has even created its own Facebook page and is running its first lace competition for children. President, Maria Jesus González, 64, is working tirelessly to preserve the Catalan lace culture for the next generation. “We have the best lace in Spain. We have more varieties here. We have a creative culture in Cataluyna and I’m working very hard to ensure it has a future,” she said.
But others are worried that there is not enough commitment from practitioners to pass on the skill. Lace teacher Antonia Jaures i Vallalta, who has been making lace since she was a girl, is concerned. “Young people are increasingly interested and grandmothers want to share what they know. But only three of the six women in my class are passing it on to the next generation. It is not enough.”
Since machines make so much of the lace we see today, it is hard to appreciate the amount of work, skill and commitment that goes into making a piece of hand-made lace. Whereas a knitter might create a hat in a few hours, a lace-maker will take months to create the smallest of pieces because the weaves are so tiny.
So what is the allure of this most beautiful, if pain-staking, business? For Josep Lamiel, lace-making was a lifeline. “I was working in a bar and becoming ill with stress. My doctor told me I needed to change my life. I was walking past a shop and saw two ladies doing something with wooden sticks. They were making lace and it was very relaxing. I wanted to try,” he said. “Now we are like a little family. I can tell by looking at a piece who made it. I know who does a tight weave, who is a perfectionist, who is more relaxed.”
But for others, making lace simply unites mind and body. “You need a lot of concentration. Your hands and brain work together. When you have finished you have made a work of art, a fantastic work of art. It gives you a huge amount of satisfaction. It is a therapy,” said González.
Whether a form of therapy of a priceless tradition, lace making is an art form that will hopefully continue for ages to come.
There are weekly classes of two-hours costing €38 a month at Labors Vol i Boixet, Sant Pere Mes Baix 41.
Email email@example.com or call 93 319 8919.
Courses can also be found at Escola de Puntaires de Barcelona. escolapuntairesbcn.com. 93 329 6538
Museu Marès de la Punta, Arenys de Mar.
Museo Textil y de la Indumentaria, Montcada 12
Exhibitions/general info www.puntaires.com
Casa Felix, Placa de la Villa de Madrid 4
Antigüedades Pilar, Boulevard Rosa, Pg de Gracia 55
Artesania de Catalunya, Banys Nou 11
Labors Vol i Boixet, Sant Pere Mes Baix 41