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Lace makes a comeback

3 November, 2014

Marès de la Punta Lace Museum in Arenys de Mar / Alex Parício

Fashion store windows are filling up with lace. We take a look at the history of this fabric with a deeply rooted tradition in the Catalan textile industry to discover more about its appeal.

Colette is a studio/store that recently opened in the heart of Barcelona’s old quarter. Its windows boast vintage blonde lace collars, guipure or filet lace trims and lace bridal accessories. The tourists who wander the city’s centuries-old streets frequently stop, drawn by nostalgia for the items on display. “Lace is usually associated with old markets and haberdasheries. It has a long history and contains the essence of the Parisian woman of the 1920s,” explains the designer of the space, Susana Soler. She, like many other people who are passionate about fashion, remembers the beauty of the lace appliqués on the dresses French women sported in the Roaring Twenties.

However, the history of lace goes back many centuries more. Lace production began in Venice and Flanders in the 16th century. “Lace was a consumer item of the aristocracy and upper classes, together with the ecclesiastic hierarchy,” says the director of the Marès de la Punta Lace Museum in Arenys de Mar, historian Neus Ribas. In terms of Catalonia, she says the first news of lacemakers in Arenys de Mar dates from around 1789. This town in the Maresme area pioneered the production of these textile ornaments and boasts a benchmark collection of bobbin lace, with pieces from all over the world.

Young, modern lace

The Marès de la Punta Lace Museum tells the story of a traditional trade that fashion is returning to today in both haute-couture and ready-to-wear designs. “Lace is increasingly used in all sorts of dresses, whether for day-to-day wear, as bridal accessories or for party wear. Most of the designers are including it in their work right now,” says lacemaker Assumpta Riera. She is one of around eighty experts in this art, responsible for passing on the knowledge of how to hand-make bobbin lace to new generations, which she does from the Flor d’Alba Lace Makers Association.

Collaborations with the world of fashion are more common in the case of mechanised lace because, as Riera explains, “manual lace-making involves a great deal of effort and many hours of work”. She does, however, get small commissions from local designers and customers for handmade lace and last year made some pieces for the young designer Guillem Pou, who now works in Italy. His collection entitled “And They, Hare-brained By The Sea” included Arenys lace in all of its designs as a way to “unite tradition with fashion”.

The artisanal work the Arenys lacemakers carry out today was performed by around 1,500 women in the 18th century. They made bobbin and blonde lace in the Maresme coastal area, in towns including Canet de Mar, Arenys de Munt and, especially, Arenys de Mar. It was from there, the town which gave its name to Arenys lace, that lace from the province was shipped to sell in America. “Different products were exported and one of them was lace. Entire families worked exclusively in the lace-making industry,” Ribas says. “Arenys lace was known as ret-fi (thin blonde) and was developed as a replacement for blonde lace, which was made from Chinese silk unsuitable for daily use. It could be said that ret-fi is a technique derived from blonde lace, which also used net as the basis, but it has its own characteristics and is made of linen or cotton, ensuring greater resistance and giving it a lightweight effect”. That is why the fashion world includes ret-fi lace appliqués in mantillas, or Spanish veils, along with women’s underwear and bridal handkerchiefs.

Good examples are preserved at the Marè de la Punta Lace Museum in Arenys. Particularly of note is the lace veil worn by Belgium’s Queen Fabiola in 1958, which was made by the firm Hijos de R. Vives and drew on the work of lacemakers from Sant Vicenç de Montalt.

Local references

History recognises three major lace-making countries, Italy, France and the Netherlands. They were all linen thread producers. In the case of Catalonia, although the lace industry developed around the end of the 18th century, there is testimony of the existence of lace manufacturers from the century before. “They were responsible for distributing designs among the lacemakers and later selling the finished products to stores and end customers,” Ribas says.

The Maresme wasn’t the only place where lace-making was a big industry at the time. The Baix Llobregat was also a major centre of production. “All up, there were around 34,000 women employed in lace-making across Catalonia in the mid-19th century, found right along the coast from Lloret de Mar to Vilanova de la Geltrú,” Ribas says. The manufacturers must be added to this figure, as well. “They also worked with handmade lace,” says Ribas, who has calculated that they were based out of nine factories in Barcelona province.

A reference of that time was Maria Rosa Creixells, one of the best-known lacemakers in the Llobregat area, who moved to Madrid with her husband and became the official supplier to the court of Isabella II. Their daughter, Pilar Huguet Creixells, was one of the first authors in Spain to devote herself to the study of lace. She left written testimony of the Chantilly lace dress her great-aunt María Ana Valls made for Queen Isabella II. “It was during that time, the second-half of the 19th century and so still in the Romantic era, when the most beautiful lace work was made,” says the director of the Marès de la Punta Lace Museum.

Moving towards the future

It is necessary to do a bit more research to understand many of today’s lace designs. One important figure was Marià Castells, daughter of the Castells family firm, who “overhauled the language of lace”, as historian Neus Ribas puts it. In the first quarter of the 20th century and inspired by Art Nouveau, she devoted her life to revamping the iconographic repertoire of bobbin lace. From the Arenys-based company that her parents had established and which she joined after studying at the Llotja School in Barcelona, she went on to adapt the design of the handkerchief that King Alfonso XIII gave his fiancée Victoria Eugenie of Battenberg in 1906.

Fragments of this history can today be found at the Colette studio/store and in the work of other designers, such as Natalie Capell, who also recovers old bobbin and blonde lace to embellish her vintage-inspired bridal dresses.

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