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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.  

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“Catalunya was a very important center for the lace industry in the 19th century,” Gonzalez says. Until mechanization all but killed off artisanal lacemaking, some 30,000 women were engaged in the craft. “In the 1960s there was a revival, and then people did it not for commercial purposes but only as a hobby.”

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Like many of the women here today, Sabater came late to the game, at the age of 46, part of a recent wave of renewed interest in this astonishingly timeintensive art. Working about three and a half hours a day, she’s on track to finish this 10” x 20” handkerchief in about two months. Her three granddaughters have started to learn, but it hasn’t quite stuck.

“Youth is not for these things,” Sabater says, cocking her chin at the sea of gray and white heads surrounding her. “Just look around.”

Helena Fornier is an exception. At 12 years old, she’s already been making lace for four years.

“My grandmother always did it, and since I was little I liked it,” she says as she works on a delicate flower design. “It relaxes me.”

Helena’s grandmother, Maria-Rosa, picked up her bobbins again about 12 years ago.

“When I was little it was taught in school, but not anymore,” she says. “It is a very important Catalan tradition for many years, because it comes from the Costa Brava. In Galicia they also make lace, because it is near the sea. Women were at home alone waiting for their fishermen husbands to return, so this is what they did.”

Some speculate that lace-making around the Mediterranean may have evolved from the construction of fishermen’s nets, but that’s not necessarily true, says Neus Ribas, whose lace museum in Arenys de Mar gets between six and ten thousand visitors annually. “What is certain is that lace was usually made in towns with access to the sea and traded through commercial ports. That’s why the two industries are closely linked.”

In the western state of Galicia, lacemaking is still big business, and not just for hobbyists, says Ribas, who attributes this to Galicia’s stronger tradition of setting the table with elegant linens, as well as a simpler (and hence, more affordable) technique

“The problem is that this work is not valued,” she says. “At the prices you have to charge, very few people consider it affordable.” (100-120€ for a 10-inch square handkerchief)

Since the 19th century, the tables have turned in the lace world, and now it’s the men who are stuck waiting around for their women. I spot 72-year-old Damia Palau sitting on the sidelines among the other husbands.

“We go almost every Sunday to lace meetings in other villages,” says the retired professor from the village of Sanaüja. “In my day, the girls when they went to school, they would spend the morning working on math and science, but in the afternoon they would sew. It’s not like that anymore, now the girls study as well.”

Palau doesn’t necessarily lament the changing times. “Better that you don’t learn to sew,” he advises, waving a slender finger. “But keep one thing in mind: If you don’t sew, someone else will have to do it for you.”

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