Watch Maltese Lace-making
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The longest-ever serving British monarch was Queen Victoria - who by all accounts and images recorded of her was a sour faced old bag. She was famously ‘not amused’ on many occasions but history reveals that all you needed to change her face from its default state of ‘like a slapped backside’ to ‘beaming smiles’ was a scrap of Maltese lace!
Legend has it that in 1881, a fine example of the exquisite craft that had come from this small outpost of her empire, Malta, was presented to Queen Vic during the 'Exhibition of Industries' in London.
The queen most definitely was ‘amused’ at this point. She fell in love with the superbly intricate fabric and made sure everyone knew it. This was, possibly, a less than subtle hint for family members about what they might get her for future birthdays and Christmas presents – though judging by her portraits, no-one ever did!
The important thing was though that the queen has spoken! If this stuff was good enough to adorn the queen’s table then many of her subjects wanted it too! So, as a result of her uttered preference, lace from Malta was suddenly all the rage and highly desirable.
Demand soon outstripped supply by such an extent that the more popular Maltese designs were copied and sent to China for mass production. But even with a substantial degree of outsourcing to the Orient, Maltese lace made in Malta remained massively popular and the industry prospered.
The art still flourishes today, supported by the hundreds of thousands of tourists that visit the island. The Maltese were making lace, however, long before it landed a royal seal of approval. The island can trace its lacy history back to 16th century Venice when ‘needle lace’, as it was then called, was first brought to the island.
Manufacture of lace by hand continued until the 19th century when lace-making suffered a massive dip. A great depression had descended and decorative cloth did not feature nearly so highly on the agenda as staying alive!
But survive the process did and thanks not only to Queen Victoria's endorsement but also to two other people, who championed lace on and from these islands in the mid 1800s.
Lady Hamilton Chichester was the first. She sent lace-makers to Malta from Genoa to teach the locals the techniques of producing Italian bobbin lace. They could produce the same traditional Maltese lace designs using the much speedier Italian bobbin method in a fraction of the time of the old Maltese needle lace method.
Across the Gozo Channel on the sister island, a designer called Dun Guzeppe was promoting lace production as a method by which Gozitan families could improve their standard of living. His preaching caught on and before long Gozo lace had developed a style all of its own – easily distinguishable to the expert from the Maltese variety and other European examples.
The practice continues to some extent on Gozo to this day and you might well be lucky to catch a glimpse of this historic tradition as you stroll through some of the villages on the island. The women here sit in the shade near their front door and charm tourists with their fleet and nimble finger work. If you show enough interest then you may be invited to have a quick go – under strict supervision, of course.
Sadly, genuine, hand-crafted lace is becoming more and more rare in Malta and you need to beware of cheap machine-made imitations of inferior quality when souvenir shopping. There are some places where it’s still possible to watch this dying art though, aside from the streets in Gozo. The best options are the craft villages on each island. You’ll find these at Ta’ Qali, near Attard on Malta while the Gozo equivalent is in Ghajnsielem.
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