A pair of hands dexterously passes back and forth, crisscrossing bobbins of cotton so quickly that it is hard for an onlooker to discern what is going on. As the process continues, a beautiful piece of delicate white lace starts to appear. The handcraft of bobbin lacemaking was once a common sight in Portugal and, though rarer now, it remains of the country’s finest traditions.
From Vila do Conde in the north, down to the town of Peniche near Lisbon, and through to the Azores islands in the Atlantic Ocean, lacemaking has been a speciality craft of Portugal for centuries, with centres of expertise dotted across the country.
Beside the sea
Many of these are coastal towns, and there is a clear link between lace and the ocean. A Portuguese saying holds that where there are nets, there is lace: traditionally women made lace while the men were out at sea. Lacemaking was a skill handed down from mother to daughter, generation to generation. Bobbin lace, made on a pillow using pins and wooden bobbins entwined with yarn, was particularly common. Originally this yarn was linen thread, but lacemakers later used cotton to create their intricate patterns.
To this day, the legacy of Portuguese lace can be traced around the world. During the Age of Discovery, Portuguese colonists exported the art of lacemaking, taking it to Sri Lanka in the 16th century and to Brazil in the 17th century.
With the advent of industrialisation, the craftsmanship began to wane. However, in recent years there have been initiatives to preserve the practice of lacemaking. Peniche, for example, is home to a lacemaking school. A lacemaking festival is held annually in the town, usually on the third Sunday of July, bringing together lace enthusiasts from across the world. Last year Portuguese lacemakers created the largest piece of bobbin lace ever recorded: at more than 53 square metres it has a place in the Guinness Book of Records.
A fine art
A love of lace is timeless almost anywhere in the world, but Portugal has a particularly strong heritage of the craft and is increasingly reinterpreting the fabric for modern use. A number of the country’s leading designers regularly use lace in their collections, including Luís Buchinho, a long-standing name at Portugal Fashion, the nation’s leading fashion event.
‘Lace has always played an important role in my collections, especially those where I want to enhance the more feminine side of an idea,’ he explains. ‘I love its delicacy, and the way it creates such beautiful lines around the body.’ For spring/summer 2016, delicate lace ran throughout Buchinho’s collection, giving the looks a glamorous, seductive edge.
High fashion interpretations
For Susana Bettencourt, the use of lace is an important way to highlight Portugal’s heritage. Having been brought up on the Azores islands, she has close ties with the craft, which she was taught by her aunt and grandmother. ‘This craft is part of what I am and is therefore a great part of my label’s identity,’ she says. It’s something she has decided to carry into the 21st century by making it modern.
‘In every collection, I find different ways of combining the two worlds of technology and craftsmanship,’ she adds. ‘Sometimes I use digital programming to represent our craft in pictures; other times I respect bobbin lace and crochet techniques but use innovative materials that give a different aspect to the craft. It depends on the concept, but the possibilities are endless.’ Ways of Seeing, her spring/summer 2016 collection, brings together handmade crochet and bobbin lace pieces, and includes chunky knit stitches and jacquard as well as digital embossing techniques on jersey fabric.
Lace made precious
It isn’t only ready-to-wear designers who have fallen for the charms of lace. Lisbon jewellery label Ricardo e Ricardos has also revisited the craft. The designers have teamed up with the Peniche town council to produce a collection of gold and lace in which elegant cross-shaped pendants, heart-shaped earrings and lattice rings are beautifully ornamented with lace, diamonds and precious stones.
Lacemaking may be one of Portugal’s oldest traditions, but as the nation’s contemporary designers turn to the craft and reinterpret it for a new audience, this most delicate of fabrics is finding a place in the modern world.