Irene Griffin is the Senior Technical Instructor for Mixed Media and Natural Dyes.
In today’s world of mass-produced ‘fast’ fabrics it seems really important to keep connected to historic and traditional textile processes. To me they are as indicative of a nation’s creative identity as their language, food and architecture. In the last couple of years my knowledge of textiles from other countries has increased, as I’ve been lucky enough to do a bit of travelling. During my visits I’ve actively sought the cloth, embroidery and anything textile related that represents each place and been pleasantly surprised most times. From iconic Icelandic jumpers in Reykjavik to the florid bejewelled evening gowns I saw in Palermo – one thing became clear – each nation has its own version of ‘ornament’ – a pattern language that speaks through fibre and craft.
One common ‘thread’ I found on my travels was lace. Decorative, time-consuming and costly when hand-made, over time machinery has found a way to replicate the dainty intricacies of this famously feminine fabric trim.
Land One: Latvia
I don’t profess to know a huge amount of information about its history but I was delighted to find that in Latvia there’s a factory still making linen lace with punch card machinery similar to that of old style jacquard looms. The Lenta Lace Factory in Riga makes all sorts of braids, trims and laces and will produce your designs for a price!
The Lenta Lace Factory, Riga, image courtesy of Cita, Riga
I discovered its existence when I was visiting the Art Academy of Latvia’s Textile Arts department where a colleague showed me a short film of the factory and said there might be a possibility of arranging a visit. Time ran out and although I wasn’t able to visit the factory and see the machines in action, I was able to buy some gorgeous samples at a snip from a fascinating fabric store in Daugavpils on the Belarusian border.
Linen machine made lace by Lenta
We went on a day trip there to the Mark Rothko Art Centre which is built on an old military camp and were able to squeeze in a time-capsule tram trip to Daugavpils which is Latvia’s second largest city.
Mark Rothko Art Centre
Tram Travel – Daugavpils
Land two: Gozo
When I went to visit my sister in her new home on the island of Gozo, Malta I hadn’t expected to find the lace I did for the price I did. My sister had already sent me a snippet in the post, saying that she had bought it from an old lady on the street. It was on a visit to the capital city, Victoria (Rabat), that I discovered the very same old lady making exquisite bobbin lace in the doorway of a crumbly house in an alleyway. This highly skilled woman shared with me that her health had not been so good of late after suffering a stroke and she showed me the personal SOS alarm around her neck that her family had given her to wear.
The Gozitan lace lady & Victoria, Gozo
Undeterred, this formidable lady was determined to continue her art and turn a small income from it. Not only was I super-impressed by her delicate and complex handiwork but also by her stoic commitment to the craft which clearly defined her culture and skills. I bought a beautiful square for a paltry 14 euros and 2m of lace ribbon – which she advised me to make into a hair band – demonstrating with her ancient and oh so magically talented fingers.
Gozitan lace square
Detail of Gozitan lace square
Gozitan lace ribbon
Land Three: Honiton, England
Closer to home, a recent birthday lunch day out with a friend intended to be eaten in Dartmouth was redirected by a train timetable error to Honiton near Exeter, Devon. I’d always wanted to poke around this historic West Country town as I was aware that there was a prolific lace-making history, which is a fundamental element of England’s textile story across time.
The story, like many textile production tales, is one of child labour, poverty and exploitation of workers by the ruling classes and merchants – no surprises here. But the scale of manufacture, the popularity of the product and the demand for Honiton lace across Europe did surprise me as I gazed in wonder at the samples on display and accompanying information at the Allhallows Museum of Lace and Antiquities.
With free entry and a small but glorious selection of curious and fascinating exhibits ranging from lace-trimmed scarlet silk nightwear worn by Mrs Wallis Simpson, mistress of the abdicating King George – to the skeleton of the Honiton Hippopotamus! (I challenge anyone to present a more unexpected and random item to me this year!) The quaint granite building was awash with history and lace items to purchase – again at prices that were impossible to resist. I bought an antique handmade net trim with repeat lace insertions for £2! There was a clear disclaimer stating that all samples of lace on sale were not from the museum’s collection and with a bookcase full of lace publications from the 1980s as well as cards and baskets brimming with lace snippets to suit everyone’s budget coupled with the lace-making demonstration and friendly story sharing by the ladies who maintained the running of this lace temple, we left feeling textile satisfaction.
Net Lace made in Honiton
Lace has always attracted me and I’ve marvelled at its construction and impossible delicacy, awe-struck by any person able to construct it using bobbins, pins and a cushion in what appears to be a bewildering series of twists and turns. It’s been on the edge of my textile radar and one day I’m determined to sit down quietly with someone who ‘knows’ and make my best attempt to master the basics. It’s definitely on my textile technique ‘to do’ list……