The Unknown History of Italian Irish Crochet Lace
Some time ago I made email contact with Veruska Sabucco, an Italian fiber journalist who shares my enthusiasm for crochet history. Veruska told me about Sonia Brunalti, a scholar who's done research on the Italian version of Irish crochet. I'd come across some exquisite work of this kind from a practitioner in the Umbrian town or Orvieto, but knew little more about it. I'm very honored to present Veruska's fascinating conversation with Sonia, and these intriguing images.
This has been a real labor of love for Veruska and Sonia. CI Readers, please leave your comments and thanks!
Veruska Sabucco: Please give us some overall background information about Italian crochet lace.
Sonia Brunalti: In Italy, Irish crochet lace arrived in the early 20th century, at a time when the local aristocracy needed a way to increase its dwindling resources. It took hold because many women had expert needlecraft skills. Irish lace, born to imitate Venetian needle lace, became both a popular artistic handicraft and a flourishing business enabling women to promote and earn money through their work. To meet the growing worldwide demand for Irish lace, lace-making was organized in an assembly-line manner, with each worker doing a specialized job.
VS: Did Italian women develop their own Irish crochet lace style?
SB: Yes. For example, the Umbria region was fertile ground for Irish crochet. There was an ancient tradition of weaving, embroidery and lace, for example Ars Panicalensis (http://arspanicalensis.altervista.org, http:www.paolamatteucciricamo.com/page15.html)
In 1904, marchioness Elena Guglielmi brought several crochet lace teachers from Ireland to the Isola Maggiore, an island on the Trasimeno lake. They were to teach Irish crochet lace to local fishermenâ€™s daughters, and the technique was given the name punto dâ€™Irlanda (Irish stitch). The school was so successful that more and more pupils came. Women produced exquisite and extremely delicate lace with thin metal hooks working from designs created by well-known artists. A renowned teacher of the art was Elvira Tosetti-De Sanctis, schoolmaster until after World War II. Her name can be found on every popular book about this subject. After the war the school ceased operation.
While Irish lace as a business no longer produced much income, the Irish lace tradition continued at Isola Maggiore as an important artistic expression and heritage. Today, a museum in the Palazzo delle Opere Pie hosts a collection of old and new lace work, and punto dâ€™irlanda is still taught to younger generations. Whenever needlework exhibits are organized, lace from Isola Maggiore is included for its beauty and intricacy.
Particularly in the town of Orvieto, Irish crochet took on a life of its own, developing a deep bond with local artistic treasures and iconography. In 1907, a group of noblemen created a patronage called Ars Wetana (http://www.merletto-orvietano.it/la_tecnica.html), again with the intent of allowing townsfolk the means to sustain themselves by women's work. Ars Wetana is one of the names by which Orvieto Irish lace is still called. Ars Wetana crochet uses a thread much thinner than that used in Irish crochet lace: when it was still available, thread of 250 were used, versus the 100 thickness of today that, to the expert, is considered coarse. Small iron bars were heated and applied on the wrong side of motifs to create a three-dimensional effect.
The Orvieto school used the same techniques as had been employed in Irish crochet: a basic pattern for the shape of the finished piece on which motifs were then basted, then connected with a trellis, or background net, using threads of different thickness for the net and for motifs. Motifs were worked around padding cord to create volume and movement.
But Orvieto crochet departed from the Irish style significantly by using newly imagined designs for motifs, and different types of filler patterns. The typical picot net disappeared. The net was no longer regular, but became irregular, almost improvised, to the effect that motifs, worked with extreme precision, were greatly enhanced. On this new irregular net, along with motifs, small rings appeared, called acinini, used to fill the empty spaces between motifs. Groups of small nebula-like hexagons often filled the center of tablecloths and doilies. From this central point of interest, the real motifs spread.
From this ingenious arrangement of full motifs and ornamental decoration, the Orvieto crochet lace found its original voice. Gone were the Irish flowers. Instead, the Umbria school found inspiration in Orvietoâ€™s famous Duomo (cathedral) reliefs, producing classic motifs inspired by the the Biblical Eve as she was depicted on the front of the Duomo, deers, and mythological birds and gryphons. Crocheted lace reproduces all those creatures in an extremely realistic way, with raised crocheted feathers almost detached from the background. The motifs were surrounded by fluid branching plants, these in turn adorned with delicate ribbing. Overall, this was a true artistic and narrative language.
To understand more about Orvieto crochet, we refer to its iconographic sources. According to the traditional sources, the reliefs on the Duomoâ€™s facade inspired Ars Wetana artists. To look more closely, however, one finds that the main features of Umbria school can be found not on the facade, but inside the Duomo: in its grottesca, found in Cappella nuova (the new chapel), Cappella di San Brizio, or in the marmoreal reliefs on Altare dei Magi (both the chapel and the altar are on the right side of the Duomo). Grottesca motifs have ancient Roman and Hellenistic origins. [Note: in Italian, the term grottesca, with reference to decoration, does not have the negative connotations of English]
The Duomo was built in the late 13th century. During the 15th and 16th centuries and later, other features were added to the building. Because of that, it was itself a sort of archive of iconographic sources and Italian art styles, from Gothic to Renaissance. Due to a lucky chance meeting of art and needs of different ages, we can say that when Ars Wetana took inspiration from Duomo decorations to diverge from Irish style, it took inspiration from an ancient cultural heritage that was at the same time Medirettanean, Hellenistic, Roman and, nearing the late medieval revival, Italianate again. This heritage would last well long after the Duomo building was completed.
We can say that Ars Wetana, by the means of crochet, gave us back the long artistic history that informed Italian culture and sensibility.
VS: What happened to the Ars Wetana school? Is it still taught, are there some samples we can find in museums?
SB: The Ars Wetana patronage ceased in 1974. Now Ars Wetana is practiced in many workshops, and Bolsena Ricama, a non-profit association, represents Orvieto crochet lace worldwide. Crochet lace created by Bolsena Ricama has been shown at exhibits such as Biennale del Merletto in Sansepolcro and in Tokyo for an exhibit of Italian handicrafts. New designs continue to be created by renowned designers, thanks to the narrative quality typical of the Orvieto crochet lace.
VS: Umbria is in central Italy, what about the Northern and Southern parts?
SB: The area of Veneto has always been fertile ground for the development of crafts, especially needle laces, but crochet is also found there. In this area, crochet focused on experimentation and practicality. I think of some work, done with coarse cords, used as edgings for heavy curtains and presented in Italian exhibitions devoted to womenâ€™s work in the first 30 years of the last century.
Most innovative of all is Friulian crochet lace. Technically speaking, it has much in common with Irish crochet lace. For example, depending upon the motifs, it can be necessary to baste the different motifs on a special cloth and then join them with barrettes made with the needle. In this case, we do not have the delicate Irish trellis, but rather the net is sparse. Motifs were mostly geometrical (triangles, lozenge/diamonds, insets in round works, cloves, festoons and so on), and were interspersed with handmade braid or cord (not to be confused with the Irish lace padding coarse cord), spiralling around the full motifs. The most common braid stitch was done making a chain as long as needed and then working some rounds of single crochet around it. The thread is considerably thicker than what is traditionally used in Irish crochet. This art seldom made use of themes such as birds and flowers. The padding cord foundation is also missing in the Friulian style.
In Friuli crochet, thereâ€™s the usual drawing on canvas plate. Motifs, usually geometric, floral and occasionally faunal, are not crocheted around a padding cord. Single crochet stitches are worked back and forth on a base chain, increasing and decreasing where needed. This way, motifs are not tridimensional or dynamic, but static.
As for Lombardy and its surroundings, as far as I know the area didnâ€™t develop its own style. Undoubtedly crochet was fashionable, both in the Irish lace form and Tunisian Crochet as well.
I found in my great-grandmotherâ€™s heirlooms a few spirals, spikes (spighette) and rose motifs. I still have some skeins of her thinnest 100 cotton, and wonder what her project was going to be.
From what I see at flea markets or browsing old exhibition catalogues, I suspect that in Lumbardy doilies, pillows, and blankets of nineteenth century tastes were quite common, at least in middle class homes. Noble and upper class women spent their time crocheting too.
Now, about Southern Italy: crochet is surely a well loved and still practiced craft. In Calabria, for example, it is possible to find unusual heirlooms, where geometrical shapes are often present (probably indicating Greek influence) and considered traditional. We know that crochet has its unshakable place in the traditions of two ethnic groups that, in earlier centuries, settled in the South: the Italian Greeks, called grecanici, and Italian Albanians, called Arberesh. Arberesh, especially, contributed much in shaping our country and played an important part in our history in the late fifteenth century.Traditional Albanian womenâ€™s costume, one of the most beautiful among traditional costumes, features a white shirt with full sleeves and a Mary Stuart style neck, embroidered with needle or crochet lace. You can see all this in local Arberesh museums, or at traditional peasant festivals. Similar items will be found among family heirlooms in Albanian communities in Italy, such as those in the Pollino area or in Sicily.
Letâ€™s not forget Sardinia. There, traditional costumes are colorful, embroidered, and always include shawls. Crochet is used only for wristbands, but itâ€™s so thin and compact that it looks like needle lace. Sardinia is known for its knitted lace, worked with thin cordonnet or fishnet thread, once commonly used by women living by the seaside. A typical subject shows rays radiating from the centre of the work (usually huge tablecloths), with staggered cones or leaf motifs, worked without the aid of a pattern.
Overall, Italian crochet, while it did not develop into a local school, was never just a copy of Irish Crochet, but assimilated and represented the world in which it was being created. The techniques of Irish Crochet were adapted by Italian artisans, using their own iconography and expressive devices, to the world they knew and lived in.
Some useful links:
Museo Caprai: http://www.museocaprai.it/en/stanza_14.html, from there click on 155 bordure fragment, 156 coaster, 157 pelerine, etc; pictures move and can be enlarged.
Orvieto's crochet lace: http://www.bolsenaricama.it
Sonia Brunalti is an archaeologist specializing in history of religions and anthropology. Her love for crochet and textile arts overlaps with her academic interests.
Veruska Sabucco works in the Italian publishing industry as a feature journalist. She writes about crochet, knitting and textile for Leiweb Italian online magazine. She is part of Serpica Naro, a group whose aims include raising awareness that people working in the clothing industry are often underpaid. She's always been interested in the textile arts; her mother taught her to sew. She crochets and is now learning to knit (but she thinks that using DPNs is a sexual perversion).
At the bottom of this page you can see three pictures presenting a very simplified explanation of how Venetian needlelace is constructed.
Figure 1: The leaf we have to create. It will be drawn on a board reinforced with cloth, or on waxed canvas.
Figure 2: The outline will be worked with a strong thread or with several threads together, laying the threads down upon the outlines. The thread is the greenish line from a to b and then from c to d. It will be stitched in place with a second thread (the white lines). The needle will pass from one side to the other of the outline thread. White dots represent the position of the stitches and their frequency.
Figure 3: Now all the outline has been traced. You see the 3 leaf lobes ready to be filled. The motifs are filled with a very thin cordonnet that the needle will anchor to the green outline thread. The rows of buttonhole stitches - represented in this schematic as a series of white vaults - are used to create different kind of fillings. Once the motif has been filled, to create a contrast with the ground stitches (punti di fondo -- in white) and to give the lace some structure, the original thread (in green) will be covered with frequent festooned stitches sometimes alternating with picots (shown in red on the side of the schematic).
Colors have been used in these pictures, but the lace was all in one color, the only difference being between thin and thick threads. Using this complex technique it is possible to realize almost any kind of motifs, thanks to the initial outline and stitching that support the thin stitches on the inside.
To summarize, what is done is to trace a template with designs on a sturdy cloth. The same steps are used in Irish crochet. The motifs are crocheted around the padding cord, checking the art drawn on the cloth. Where, in needle lace, the motif is outlined on canvas using a strong thread, in Irish crochet you work around the padding cord reproducing the motifs drawn on canvas.