The creation of lace is one of Malta’s oldest and most-celebrated traditions. Known in Maltese as bizzilla, the custom is often called a ‘local craft’. However, Annamaria Gatt – a lacemaker since 1988 and a key member of OIDFA: The International Lace Organisation – thinks otherwise…
“Lacemaking is an art more than a craft,” says Gatt. “From table pieces and bridal veils to sacred vestments and furnishings, it’s pure artistic expression.” In the summer of 2019, Annamaria collaborated with Caroline Tonna, curator at Palazzo Falson, to hold lacemaking workshops at the medieval palazzo in Mdina.
The Knights of St John brought lacemaking to Malta in the 1600s when bobbin lace was in high demand for the clothing of noblemen and the clergy. Quick on the uptake, Maltese women and children started making lace to provide their families with additional income. But, the art came alarmingly close to extinction during the economic depression of the 1800s.
Luckily, some people assisted its survival. Among them were Lady Hamilton Chichester and Lady Sarah Austin, who provided new contemporary patterns and sent Genoese lacemakers to Malta to teach Italian bobbin lace. Meanwhile, Dun Gużeppe boosted lacemaking in Gozo by supplying the Casa Industriale orphanage with teachers, designs and thread.
It is, however, Queen Victoria who remains the most famous admirer of Maltese lace. In fact, sculpted on the queen’s lap in her statue in Republic Square in Valletta, you’ll find a Maltese lace shawl. Her love for the art increased its popularity, and she even displayed pieces at the 1851 Great Exhibition in London.
The 16th-century lace in Northern Europe was made by weaving fine flax, silk and even human-hair threads using needles or wooden bobbins on a drawn pattern. When lacemaking reached Malta, coarse cotton, wool and linen were commonly used but still with the delicate stitching of the north. Materials aside, it was always the lacemaker’s precision and creativity that determined the quality of the lace.
Traditionally, the pattern is drawn on parchment paper, which is attached to a hard ‘pillow’ made of straw and paper. Pins are poked through the pattern to position the bobbins, and then threads are wound around each bobbin. The lace is spun by twisting and crossing the bobbins under and over each other.
Maltese lace is a descendant of Genoese lace, but with characteristics that set it apart. You’ll commonly hear that it features the eight-pointed Maltese cross – a claim harking back to the 1851 Great Exhibition where the cross was the identifying hallmark of the Maltese lace on display.
For Gatt: “Maltese lace isn’t just about the Maltese cross; it’s about technique. It uses three distinctive stitches: the English stitch, ball stitch and fat tallies. Lacemakers can also add individualistic flair to the pattern’s background. Interestingly, we find the same designs in Maltese furniture, embroidery and wrought iron too.”
Another common claim is that Gozitan and Maltese lace are not the same, but Gatt is keen to bust this myth as well: “The distinction stems from a lot of history on the Maltese side being unknown, while Gozitan lace has been researched more thoroughly. Personally, I call it the lace of the Maltese Islands.”
Gone are the days when women would sit in doorways click-clacking bobbins. Aside for the occasional resident in Victoria’s alleyways in Gozo, this is now a rare sight. To preserve tradition, lace artisans teach the technique in specialised classes and have established organisations like the Malta Lace Guild.
Gatt speaks of keeping the art alive: “Innovation is vital for survival. I still keep traditional designs, but I also use unconventional materials, such as metallic thread, horsehair, wire and bright colours. OIDFA lacemakers also participate in congresses abroad to learn new techniques and impart their own knowledge.
I’m a teacher and, at school, we’re breathing new life into lacemaking by enticing pupils. We’ve got 10 boys who are very talented lacemakers. We’re always discussing gender, behaviour management and active learning, so the boys’ participation breaks the stereotype.”
But, parents are hesitant about publicising their sons’ lacemaking, says Gatt: “It is still considered a female-only art. But, if we stuck with tradition, we wouldn’t have female bus drivers or male cooks. We’re encouraging creativity regardless of gender or age – it’s Maltese lacemaking with a twist.”
If you’re thinking about giving bizzilla a go, Gatt recommends attending a class: “Workshops empower our cultural identity and are more common than you may think at first. Everyone sits, chats and learns together, so it’s such a lovely experience.”