Malta Diary Intricate, precious and a labour of love – but very sadly dying out The art and skill of hand-woven Malta and Gozo cotton lace
e/mail – email@example.com
In Maltese, the word “bizilla” primarily means an intricate handmade lace weave in a significant pattern. However, the word is also used to signify deeply woven plots – sometimes sinister – that gradually fit together and provide the desired result.
Hand-woven cotton lace is very much linked to the Maltese Islands, renowned for providing among the best handcraft in the world. Gift made of Maltese Lace have been presented to royals for centuries, including tablecloths, serviettes and shawls.
Unfortunately, as with most other intricate, labourious and time-consuming handcrafts such as carpentry, furniture making, pottery, silver filigree and many others, it is rapidly on the decline to be replaced by plastic muck that is cheap, easy to wash and when needs be, discarded to add to the mondial plastic pollution scourge.
As a boy I spent lengthy periods of time in Gozo, the old world Gozo and not today’s, and in every street and on every street corner, Gozitan women, albeit mainly elderly, could be seen seated on stools busily switching about their bobbins on spindles and beautifully intricate patterns emerging.
The history of lace-weaving stretched back to the 16th Century when pillow lace was first introduced in the Italian city of Genoa. It was introduced in Malta by the Knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in the 16th Century and ideally combined the growing of fine cotton with Maltese weaving skills introduced by the Phoenicians and the Arabs back in the realms of time.
The finery of the woven lace immediately attracted a great demand by the Maltese aristocracy, the Knights and the Clergy as a portrayal of finery as well as for intricate vestments during ceremonies. The demand was so great that the number of producers highly escalated.
However, when Napoleon Bonaparte and the French ousted the Knights at the end of the 18th Century, the demand for finery dropped in line with “Republican” status – although that did not stop French soldiers looting every precious thing possible!
Their duration and occupation of Malta was thankfully short-lived when the Maltese and Gozitans rebelled, expelled the French and invited the British under Admiral Lord Nelson to incorporate Malta into the growing British Empire. When Lord Nelson installed his paramour Lady Hamilton Chichester in Malta she immediately fell in love with Maltese lace and she did her utmost to revive the handcraft of lace weaving in the Maltese Islands.
Throughout these years the manufacture of lace had been mostly confined to Malta but the story goes that in the 19th Century, a Gozitan woman named Marjana Attard was presented with a piece of Genoa Lace by the cleric Father Gwann Curmi and asked to study it and try to copy it. Having a good knowledge of weaving skills and techniques, she did just that and started to copy the pattern and then taught her sister and her circle of friends.
Gradually, the skill spread throughout Gozo, encouraged by the clergy and besides being a labour of love and skill also provided an income boost to the household family. In time, the beauty of Gozo Lace, if not bettering the Malta quality, was certainly on a par. The demand for Gozo Lace at one time became so great that a school was opened in the capital city Victoria (also known as Rabat).
One of the major incorporations in almost each piece produced was the eight-pointed Maltese Cross introduced by the Knights of St John, thus emphasising the origins of the piece being Malta and Gozo.
First the cotton thread has to be wound around the bobbins which are normally made of fruit wood but back in time animal bones were also used. Later a bobbin winder was introduced to save time. The thread may vary from silk to linen according to customer demand, silk of course for the finer pieces.
A bundle of dried straw stalk is used to make the “pillow” (or “trajbu” as known in Maltese). This is normally about 60 cms long and the stalks are then wound and sewn tightly in a piece of hessian cloth which is then covered with cotton, newspaper sheets and flour paste. After being dried thoroughly in sunshine the whole is then wrapped in strong brown paper. The pattern to be used is then pinned to the upper end.
When this preparation using basic and cheap materials is made, pins are placed at the top of the “pillow” and a threaded bobbin hung on each pin. Weaving commences using four bobbins, and there is a fascination in watching how the women deftly and skilfully manipulate the bobbins!
Magnificent Malta Lace gifts were often presented to Queen Victoria and later Queen Elizabeth II.
With acknowledgement for the information on the techniques to https://www.maltatina.com/bringing-maltese-lace-making-back-to-life/ and some pictures to Carmen Chetcuti.
“A fool is he who thinks and takes me for a fool”