Spanish women pick up the old traditions of lacing to connect with ancestral past
Generations of Spanish women gather at the base of the Arc de Triomf to exemplify their time honored tradition of lacing.
Itâs a sunny Sunday morning at Arc de Triomf, the arch-shapedÂ monument situated on a long rectangular plaza normally dominated by breakÂ dancers, street performers and young people on rollerblades, skateboards andÂ bikesâbut not today.
Today the plaza is packed with what look to be at least two thousand CatalanÂ grandmothers, seated at long tables stretching as far as the eye can see. On aÂ stage underneath the arch, a quartet plays traditional music while costumedÂ dancers perform a folk dance involving a pair of gegants, enormous papiermachĂŠ puppets that are a staple at cultural events in Catalunya. The women sitÂ in chatty clusters of five or six, their hands busily working a complex of threadsÂ and pins stuck into cylinder-shaped pillows.
âItâs an international meeting of lace-makers,â explains Teresa Sabater as sheÂ works on the lace for a bridal handkerchief. Hundreds of tiny pins hold the patternÂ in place on her pillow, organizing an intricate web of individual crisscrossedÂ threads. Dozens of small wooden spools dangle from the threads, looking a bitÂ like the barbs that hang from a bullâs collar during a bullfight, albeit not soÂ gruesome.
As traditions go, lacemaking may not be as old as bullfighting, but it is surelyÂ more important to Catalunya, which outlawed the corrida in 2011. CatalanÂ lacemaking dates back to the 1600s, and the tradition remains strong in theÂ villages of the Maresme region of the Costa Brava, where smaller gatherings ofÂ lace-makers are held nearly every weekend when the weather is good.
Throughout Spain, laceâwhether made by hand or machineâhas long beenÂ a part of important family functions, from the decorative lace that dresses upÂ the table for special occasions to the delicate mantillas worn by womenÂ during Holy Week, inspiring masterpieces by Picasso, Goya and Velasquez.Â Two hundred years ago, daughters learned the basics of the craft at theirÂ mothersâ feet; by their wedding day, young women were expected to equipÂ their new homes with a trousseau full of lace-trimmed linens, stitched by theÂ brideâs own hand.Â
Â âWe like to come here to see new things so we can learn to do them at home,âÂ says Ms. Sabater, who lives in the village of TeiĂ , about a half-hourâs drive fromÂ Barcelona. âIf you see someone doing a stitch you donât know, you say, âCan youÂ show me how itâs done?â and she teaches you.âÂ
Organized by the Catalonian Lace Association, the 26th annual meetingÂ attracted Â 2,200 lace aficionados on May 26, according to association presidentÂ Maria-Jesus Gonzalez, as well as a handful of glad-handing politicians. VendorsÂ set up tents around the perimeter where the women browse new patterns andÂ buy bobbins and thread in an array of rainbow colors.
âCatalunya was a very important center for the lace industry in the 19th century,âÂ Gonzalez says. Until mechanization all but killed off artisanal lacemaking, someÂ 30,000 women were engaged in the craft. âIn the 1960s there was a revival, andÂ then people did it not for commercial purposes but only as a hobby.â
Like many of the women here today, Sabater came late to the game, at the ageÂ of 46, part of a recent wave of renewed interest in this astonishingly timeintensive art. Working about three and a half hours a day, sheâs on track to finishÂ this 10â x 20â handkerchief in about two months. Her three granddaughters haveÂ started to learn, but it hasnât quite stuck.
âYouth is not for these things,â Sabater says, cocking her chin at the sea of grayÂ and white heads surrounding her. âJust look around.â
Helena Fornier is an exception. At 12 years old, sheâs already been making laceÂ for four years.
âMy grandmother always did it, and since I was little I liked it,â she says as sheÂ works on a delicate flower design. âIt relaxes me.â
Helenaâs grandmother, Maria-Rosa, picked up her bobbins again about 12 yearsÂ ago.
âWhen I was little it was taught in school, but not anymore,â she says. âIt is a veryÂ important Catalan tradition for many years, because it comes from the CostaÂ Brava. In Galicia they also make lace, because it is near the sea. Women were atÂ home alone waiting for their fishermen husbands to return, so this is what theyÂ did.â
Some speculate that lace-making around the Mediterranean may have evolvedÂ from the construction of fishermenâs nets, but thatâs not necessarily true, saysÂ Neus Ribas, whose lace museum in Arenys de Mar gets between six and tenÂ thousand visitors annually. âWhat is certain is that lace was usually made inÂ towns with access to the sea and traded through commercial ports. Thatâs whyÂ the two industries are closely linked.â
In the western state of Galicia, lacemaking is still big business, and not just forÂ hobbyists, says Ribas, who attributes this to Galiciaâs stronger tradition of settingÂ the table with elegant linens, as well as a simpler (and hence, more affordable)Â technique
âThe problem is that this work is not valued,â she says. âAt the prices you have toÂ charge, very few people consider it affordable.â (100-120âŹ for a 10-inch squareÂ handkerchief)
Since the 19th century, the tables have turned in the lace world, and now itâs theÂ men who are stuck waiting around for their women. I spot 72-year-old DamiaÂ Palau sitting on the sidelines among the other husbands.
âWe go almost every Sunday to lace meetings in other villages,â says the retiredÂ professor from the village of SanaĂźja. âIn my day, the girls when they went toÂ school, they would spend the morning working on math and science, but in theÂ afternoon they would sew. Itâs not like that anymore, now the girls study as well.â
Palau doesnât necessarily lament the changing times. âBetter that you donât learnÂ to sew,â he advises, waving a slender finger. âBut keep one thing in mind: If youÂ donât sew, someone else will have to do it for you.â