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.  

Maya Kroth
Hobbyist lacemakers at work near Barcelona's Arc de Triomf during the 26th annual Lace Day event, held in May.

It’s a sunny Sunday morning at Arc de Triomf, the arch-shaped monument situated on a long rectangular plaza normally dominated by break dancers, street performers and young people on rollerblades, skateboards and bikes—but not today.

Today the plaza is packed with what look to be at least two thousand Catalan grandmothers, seated at long tables stretching as far as the eye can see. On a stage underneath the arch, a quartet plays traditional music while costumed dancers perform a folk dance involving a pair of gegants, enormous papiermaché puppets that are a staple at cultural events in Catalunya. The women sit in chatty clusters of five or six, their hands busily working a complex of threads and pins stuck into cylinder-shaped pillows.

“It’s an international meeting of lace-makers,” explains Teresa Sabater as she works on the lace for a bridal handkerchief. Hundreds of tiny pins hold the pattern in place on her pillow, organizing an intricate web of individual crisscrossed threads. Dozens of small wooden spools dangle from the threads, looking a bit like the barbs that hang from a bull’s collar during a bullfight, albeit not so gruesome.

As traditions go, lacemaking may not be as old as bullfighting, but it is surely more important to Catalunya, which outlawed the corrida in 2011. Catalan lacemaking dates back to the 1600s, and the tradition remains strong in the villages of the Maresme region of the Costa Brava, where smaller gatherings of lace-makers are held nearly every weekend when the weather is good.

Throughout Spain, lace—whether made by hand or machine—has long been a part of important family functions, from the decorative lace that dresses up the table for special occasions to the delicate mantillas worn by women during Holy Week, inspiring masterpieces by Picasso, Goya and Velasquez. Two hundred years ago, daughters learned the basics of the craft at their mothers’ feet; by their wedding day, young women were expected to equip their new homes with a trousseau full of lace-trimmed linens, stitched by the bride’s own hand. 

 “We like to come here to see new things so we can learn to do them at home,” says Ms. Sabater, who lives in the village of Teià, about a half-hour’s drive from Barcelona. “If you see someone doing a stitch you don’t know, you say, ‘Can you show me how it’s done?’ and she teaches you.” 

Organized by the Catalonian Lace Association, the 26th annual meeting attracted  2,200 lace aficionados on May 26, according to association president Maria-Jesus Gonzalez, as well as a handful of glad-handing politicians. Vendors set up tents around the perimeter where the women browse new patterns and buy bobbins and thread in an array of rainbow colors.

“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.”

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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