Maltese Lace: The rich weave of history and its relevance today
The survival of a craft also depends on innovation, which is a key element of Gatt’s own day to day approach to Maltese lace – an enthusiasm which she also hopes to impart to future generations of would-be lace-makers.
Though traditional Maltese lace – or bizzilla – may appear to be an omni-present feature of the islands’ tourist product and folk-iconography, its continued production may be at risk as the many distractions of the modern world continue to encroach upon the habits and disciplines required for its creation. However, long-time lace practitioner Annamaria Gatt is cautiously optimistic about both the aesthetic and therapeutic qualities of Maltese lace, and she’s confident that the increasingly mental-health conscious younger generation will find plenty to enjoy were they to take up the practice.
“You either love it or you hate it. It’s true that some may think they do not have the patience for it, or that they find it confusing. But there are also many who find it calming and therapeutic, and an excellent way to put their talents to good use,” Gatt, Administrative Council member for Malta in the International Organisation of Bobbin and Needle Lace and Committee member of the Malta Lace Guild, said.
While Gatt acknowledges that her own ‘bizzilla alma mater’, the Gozo Campus, currently offers a Diploma in Lace Studies and that entities like Lifelong Learning, the Malta Society of Arts and certain local councils still offer courses on lace-making, the more centralised educational institutions have a “touch and go,” relationship with the craft, if any at all.
This is a shame, not least because bizzilla really does have an illustrious history, one which Gatt is happily expansive about. “‘Maltese Lace’ is the name of a continuous bobbin lace technique which evolved on the Maltese Islands during the 19th and 20th centuries,” Gatt begins, furnishing a key detail: bizzilla was first publicly exhibited during the Great Exhibition in London in 1851, that landmark event of the Victorian Era engineered by Prince Albert showcasing an assortment of artistic and scientific curiosities from all over the world. “But it was in 1862 that Malta won a gold medal for a big black silk shawl and was highly commended for white thread laces,” Gatt says, emphasising how subsequently, entities such as the Malta Industries Association contributed to the further dissemination of Maltese lace from the 1930s to the 1960s.
While Maltese lace was worked all over the islands, Gatt points out that historically, “Gozitan lace makers were more prolific.” This was, in large part, thanks to the existence of the Conservatorio in Gozo, though lace schools were also scattered across Malta, and thanks to which “mothers, daughters and all other family members – boys included – mass-produced lace on commission for both the local and foreign industry, since Maltese lace was exported across Europe, but also as far as India and China”.
18th century paintings by Antoine de Favray show us that bizzilla was a key component of aristocratic fashions, while it was also “compulsory” for members of the clergy and the judiciary.
As is to be expected, however, both the process of lace-making and its attendant artefacts became more democratised over the years, and Gatt is keen to point out how even previous gender-based assumptions about lace-making – namely, that it was a women-only domain – no longer hold water.
“Gender is not the least bit relevant here, and neither is class,” Gatt says, insisting that lace-making is “a talent that anyone can explore. Yes, even boys and men!” However,
while she remains confident about the intrinsic attractions of lace-making, Gatt is also conscious that more widespread public appreciation for the craft would not go amiss.
“I believe there is a strong need to organise a Grand National exhibition of Maltese lace, both antique and current. There is so much of it around in private collections, sadly hidden away in drawers and cupboards.”
But the survival of a craft also depends on innovation, which is a key element of Gatt’s own day to day approach to Maltese lace – an enthusiasm which she also hopes to impart to future generations of would-be lace-makers.
“Nowadays, I create my own designs and am also moving forward of adapting the traditional lace to a more contemporary lace artwork. I use different mediums apart from the usual threads such as synthetic threads, metallic threads, wire, and ribbon and incorporate beads and buttons. The finished lace is mounted on art paper or canvas as part of the artwork with acrylics or watercolours,” Gatt says, however lamenting the fact that the majority of lace-makers are either sceptical or afraid of ‘out of the box’ approaches.
“I try to inspire and amaze anyone as much as possible, with the aim of getting them to try doing it too.”
Tree of Life Lace Art & Tree of Life. Photo Credit - Annamaria Gatt
If you would like to learn more about this craft, make sure to watch Annamaria Gatt’s workshop during Għanafest Online (8-13th June). For more information visit www.festivals.mt/ghanafest