Women started making lace as a fancy substitute for embroidery because it could be transferred easily from one garment to another as fashions changed. Before long, it was an industry.

Here is a timeline of what came to be famously called Burano lace, as it evolved from aristocratic pastime to international commodity:

1546:  The first dated book of geometric lace designs is published in Venice.

1597: Morosina Morosini Grimani, the doge’s wife, sets up the first needle lace workshop in Venice; she employs 130 women to make what is already becoming famous as Venetian lace for herself, as well as for gifts. “Punto in aria,” or “points in the air,” becomes the hallmark of Venetian needlework as it is not stitched onto fabric but only onto itself.  Demand explodes.

1614:  On Grimani’s death, the Venetian government turns lace from private production into a business. The guild of the Merciai (dry-goods merchants) takes over the job of organizing the women, moving most production from Venice to Burano due to the island’s lower costs. Women are set to making lace at home, in the orphanages, and in the convents. The resulting lace boom, from 1620 to 1710, makes the guild one of the richest in Venice.

1664: Jean-Baptiste Colbert, Finance Minister to France’s King Louis XIV, looks at the court accounts and decides that France is spending too much money on Burano lace. He sets up a Royal Workshop in northern France, in the town of Alencon, and induces some women (eventually 200) to travel from Burano to teach their techniques. Called “Point de France,” the Alencon lace, virtually identical to Venetian punto in aria, costs less, and the French aristocracy loves it. The French government now makes a profit from lace.

1665:  Desperate to stop more lacemakers from slipping away, the Venetian government issues a drastic decree:

Anyone who practices his art in a foreign land will be ordered to return; should he disobey this order his nearest of kin will be imprisoned. On his return he will be pardoned for the offense, and employment will be found for him. Should he not return, an emissary will be commissioned to kill him, and the next of kin held in prison will only be released on his death.”

Meanwhile, other countries such as Flanders (now Belgium) and England attempt to protect their national lace production by imposing high import duties on Venetian lace. The demand does not subside and smuggling lace becomes a business in itself, as lace is hidden in parasols, baked goods, even coffins.

1734:  Intense competition from French, Flemish and English lace, which is sold at cheaper rates than the local product, suppresses demand for Venetian lace, which finds itself struggling with the ruthless realities of commerce and fashion.

Meanwhile, foreign lacemakers invent a new weapon. They replace the needles with bobbins, which are small wooden or metal weights that hang from myriad threads pinned to the pattern on a pillow. The bobbins allow for weaving the lace, which is easier, faster, and cheaper than needle lace. “Bobbin lace” is also often softer and filmier. This suits the changes in fashion, and collars made with Flemish bobbin lace become all the rage.

In response, dauntless Venetian lacemakers emulate the lighter bobbin lace with needle and thread, creating a new type known as punto in aria di Burano, or simply punto Burano. Experts praise this new Burano lace as being “more noble” and even “superior to” the lace from Flanders. And the international competition continues.

1750: By now, Venetian lace is being overtaken by the cheaper Flemish and French laces, so Venetian businessmen Benedetto Ranieri and Pietro Gabrielli decide to produce imitations in Venice of the foreign product. For their enterprising scheme to revive local production, they are granted a tax exemption for 10 years by the Venetian Senate.

1758:  Ranieri and Gabrielli’s business venture is a great success. Their operation involves 15 masters and 600 lacemakers, most of them working at home or in Burano’s charitable institutions for women. In 10 years they produce 289,000 “braccia” of lace of varying width. (One braccio is 6 feet, so these makers created an expanse of lace that ran 1,734,000 feet, or 328 miles.) To combat imitations, and in an early example of branding, the lace is marked with a guarantee of authenticity: a lead seal stamped with the winged lion, symbol of San Marco, the city’s patron saint.

1797: Napoleon conquers Venice. Lace and other attributes of the hated aristocracy fall into disgrace. Burano lace survives for a while, but now is made only in small quantities at home. The love of lace, however, is only dormant.

1800:  Joseph Marie Jacquard invents a device that automates patterning by employing a “chain” of punched cards. The “Jacquard” system of punched cards is now considered a crucial step in the history of computing hardware.

  1808:  John Heathcoat invents the “bobbinet machine,” which makes a perfect net fabric by reproducing the basic hand movements of a manual bobbin-lace maker. The result, first called “bobbin net,” now more commonly called tulle, is a still highly-prized fabric.

1813: Eureka! John Levers adapts the bobbinet machine by adding the pattern-weaving Jacquard apparatus. Now named the Leavers machine, it’s still considered the most versatile of all machines for making patterned lace. Industrial production soars as virtually every type of hand-made lace acquires its machine-made copy. Lacemaking on Burano gradually disappears. 

1872: A disastrous winter freezes the lagoon; the fishermen are unable to fish and Burano is reduced to near starvation. To create another source of income for the islanders, a group of Venetian noblewomen establishes the Scuola di Merletti, or lace school, under the patronage of Countess Andriana Marcello and the Queen of Italy, Margherita di Savoia. Cencia Scarpariola, the only woman on Burano who still knows how to make the Burano lace, is engaged as teacher. The School is a success, and Burano lace is once again bought by European nobility: the Princess of Saxony, Countess Bismarck and Princess Metternich of Germany, the Queen of the Netherlands, and more. 

1880: Twenty-four of the 30 patients at the female insane asylum on San Clemente, a small island in the Venetian lagoon, are listed on the books as lacemakers. The cause of their insanity is probably not lacemaking but the rigors of life on Burano. After the freeze of 1872, the women are undoubtedly suffering from famine, disease, malnutrition, stress, filth, and general destitution. Burano’s plight is so dire that the Italian government launches a national fund-raising drive to save the Buranelli from extinction.

1970:  The Lace School closes.

1978:  The Consortium for Burano Lace is founded by the city of Venice, its Chamber of Commerce, and the Andriana Marcello Foundation to “relaunch” lacemaking.

1981:  The Museum of Lace is created in the Lace School building, organizing occasional special exhibitions and courses.

1995:  The Consortium is disbanded as a result of bureaucratic and administrative reforms, and the museum is closed for a long period of restoration and reorganization.

2011:  The Lace Museum reopens. About 27,000 visitors a year come to look at the 200-odd pieces of antique lace dating from the 16th to 19th centuries. Scholars can now consult the Archives of the former School, a trove of 100 years of documents recounting the resurrection of Burano lace.

© 2020 Erla Zwingle, all rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of this article is prohibited by law.

Published: April 12, 2017