Women Who Embroider the Air
On a small island near Venice, the fine art of handmade lace somehow remains alive. Our correspondent visits with the master craftswomen of Burano to learn their history, their secrets, and the prospects for their future.
By ERLA ZWINGLE
A needle, a length of thread. For thousands of years, women used them mostly for the most practical, mundane work: making, mending, darning. But at some point in the 15th century in Italy, the needle began to dance. Knotted fringes and embroidery, knitting and crocheting had been known forever, but this was different. Millions of microscopic, buttonhole stitches started to form sinuous patterns of swooping arabesques and delicate flowers, and the result was a length of threaded intricacy more like a spiderweb, or seafoam, or frost, than anything ever made before. This was lace, and there was absolutely nothing practical about it. Someone called it “embroidering the air.”
By the late 1600s, demand for lace became so intense that people started smuggling it. Lace was hidden in parasols, bakery goods, and on babies. Corpses would be dressed in yards of lace and the coffin transported to another country.
The world doesn’t need lace any more than it needs madrigals or attar of roses. But, like them, lace fulfills a primal desire for beauty; it also requires a skill that could match elementary neurosurgery.
Once lace was invented, who cared if it was useless? Everyone wanted the forms and fantasies it suggested. Lace soon frothed at necklines, foamed at cuffs and boot-tops, decorated hats, sheets, underwear, carriage-horse trappings, door-knockers, mantelpieces, and gowns for sleeping, weddings, and christenings. Made with linen, silk, even human hair, lace swept across Europe and, for at least three centuries, reigned as one of the continent’s most prized products for men as well as women; it was the pride of families, the vaunt of royalty, the pinnacle of fashion, and the support of entire towns. Or, in the case of Burano, whole islands.
Lace made in Venice, and more particularly by the women on Burano, a small collection of islands 4 miles from the shores of Venice, ruled this product for generations. The wife of King Richard III wore a mantle decorated with Burano lace at his coronation in 1483. Philip II of Spain ordered Mary Tudor’s trousseau from Burano in 1550. Louis XIV wore a collar of Venetian lace at his coronation in 1643. It was listed in dowry inventories and wills along with jewels and land. When laws during the 16th and 17th centuries limited the wearing of gold and gems, it only spurred people to wear equally valuable lace instead.
By the late 1600s, European demand for lace became so intense that people found ways to smuggle it. The lace would be wrapped around a dog’s body, then covered with a false hide, so as not to be noticed when the dog ran across the border. Small amounts of lace were hidden in parasols, books, bakery goods, and on babies. Corpses would be dressed in yards of lace and the coffin transported to another country; after burial, the coffin would be exhumed and the lace retrieved. Sometimes the smugglers didn’t even bother with a body, shipping a coffin that contained nothing but lace. [For a complete yet condensed history, please see our sidebar, “The Evolution of Burano Lace.”]
MASTERPIECES, BUT NO MASTERS
Tourists throng to Burano, not so much for lace but because its vividly colored houses are so pretty. During summers, motorized vaporetti leave from Venice and the mainland every 30-60 minutes, along with private tour boats, delivering up to 8,000 people a day.
“You see that wedding veil?” a woman asked in Burano’s Lace Museum, as she showed me a hundred-year-old gossamer swath of almost invisible netting, 6 feet long, lavished with minuscule flowers. “It took fifty women to make that.” In 1930, some 800 women created 65 feet of lace for the wedding veil of Mussolini’s daughter, Edda.
Many masterpieces, but no known masters. There was no supreme, legendary lacemaker: no Chippendale, no Stradivarius. The inconceivable quantity of fine lace that came from Venice—and later from France, Flanders (now Belgium), and the Netherlands—was created by thousands of anonymous women.
Today, only a few are left. Meanwhile, tourists throng to Burano, not so much for lace but because its vividly colored houses are so pretty. During summers, motorized vaporetti leave from Venice and the mainland every 30 to 60 minutes, along with private tour boats, delivering up to 8,000 people a day—more on sunny weekends. The tourists wander Burano’s twisting small streets taking numberless photographs and browsing in the shops that sell lacy things such as guest towels and toilet-roll holders, buying the Burano cookies called bussolai, and generally enjoying its cheerful atmosphere, and the sense of floating in the lagoon under an enormous sky.
Yet there remains an intimate, domestic character to Burano, which the hordes somehow cannot breach. Perhaps it’s because, unlike Venice, there are no grand palaces, no imposing churches; just ordinary little houses that happen to be purple and green and pink. Families string their laundry out front and leave their boots, mops, brooms and other impedimenta outside the front door; on Burano, the outdoors belongs to the Buranelli as much as the indoors, and people don’t feel the slightest need to put on their company manners just because strangers are walking around. Daily life here has more in common with any really small town—Seward, Alaska, say, or Apalachicola, Florida—than it does with its rock-star neighbor across the lagoon.
“I SLEPT ON THE BAKER’S DOORSTEP”
At 101, Emma Vidal is Burano’s oldest lacemaker, and oldest citizen. When she was a little girl, her aunt would lock her out at night if she wasn’t home by a certain hour. “I would sleep on the baker’s doorstep,” she said, “until he came to work at 3:00 AM, and would let me in where it was warm.”
Behind this colorful façade, there are women who began making lace when they were 10 and are still working today at the age of 86. When these women were growing up, in the early years of the 20th century, school in Italy was compulsory only until the age of 14, and not every child made it even that far. Emma Vidal (vee-DAHL), Burano’s oldest lacemaker, and oldest citizen, began stitching at the age of 8; when she finally put down her needle, she had spent nearly 90 years manipulating a sliver of steel and filaments of cotton to create uncounted yards of exquisite convolutions.
When Emma was born, on February 14, 1916, families in Italy were large and poverty was everybody’s closest relative. To stay alive, the men fished and the women stitched, but for Emma, lace was life. It saved her as a child, it supported her as a single woman, and the dedication that many women devote to their husbands and children she devoted instead to lace.
Like the billions of stitches she has made over the years, everything about Emma is small—her body, her steps, her voice. Now, at 101, she is tiny, almost frail. But in her case, “frail” is a relative term, considering that she lives alone, is completely self-sufficient, survived a recent fall with nothing worse than a banged forehead, and still doesn’t wear glasses. (When she looks at you, the gaze she once focused on her insanely complicated work convinces you that you couldn’t get away with even the tiniest fib.) Again like Emma, well-made lace appears fragile but is extremely strong. The finest needle lace is not woven or even sewn. It is made entirely of knots, each one carefully stitched to the basic “scaffolding” thread that outlines the pattern.
No one looking at these filmy masterpieces can conceive of the harshness of their makers’ lives. “At one time Burano was extremely poor,” Emma once said in a short documentary. “We were hungry, and cold. We didn’t have light, water, or gas at home, and I hardly knew my father.” He died of appendicitis when she was very young, and Emma’s overwhelmed mother distributed the three children among relatives. Little Emma’s lot fell to an intransigent aunt who would lock her out at night if she wasn’t home by a certain hour. “So I would sleep on the baker’s doorstep,” she said, “until he came to work at 3:00 AM, and he would let me in where it was warm.”
Eventually Emma’s mother intervened, taking her out of school and sending her to Burano’s Lace School to learn something useful. “I didn’t do very well at school,” Emma recalls. “I stopped at the end of the second grade.” And so, at the age of 8, Emma took her place among 200 women stitching copies of lacy leaves. In five rows of straight-backed chairs, the women worked silently, all day, striving for perfection under the all-seeing eyes of the Sisters of Charity.
A WORK OF MANY HANDS
I first met Emma at the Lace School—or rather, the Museum of Lace, which now occupies the building that used to be the school. Emma still stops by most mornings to visit whichever lacemakers are there, walking up via Galuppi, Burano’s main street, with steps as tiny as the rede, the diabolically fine netting that was her specialty. Affectionate greetings mark her progress.
Emma made a point of letting me know that her dwindling strength wouldn’t meet the demands of her normal day (her mornings evidently entail extreme housekeeping) as well as interviews with me. I couldn’t even watch her make lace because she had already given it up, although the discipline she imposes on her hair suggests she has not lost her passion for precision.
Burano lace is called punto in aria, or “stitch in the air,” because when the lace is finished it’s carefully sliced away from the underlying base of fabric, no longer attached to anything but itself. “We worked in a line,” Emma explained. “One person makes the first stitches, then passes it to another woman who does the guipure”—the vast array of knots that fills in the design and brings the lace to life. The next add decorations, typically stars or little roses, and on down the line from specialist to specialist.
While this early version of the assembly line offered efficiency, it also required many hands—one reason why the best lace is so expensive. Group work, especially of this magnitude, does not encourage divas, especially in a small town like Burano, where everyone has known each other forever and a word out of place can be harder to repair than a hundred wrong stitches.
“The teacher was very strict,” Emma said. When she presented her work, the nun always found imperfections and would mercilessly cut out the errant stitches. “In the silence, I had to keep on working…”. When I asked Emma which part of the work was the most difficult, I expected her to point to the eyestrain or the inevitable tension in the neck and shoulders. But I was wrong: “Esattezza,” she said. Precision. “There was prayer and silence. It was marvelous. The lace we made was perfect.” She paused. “Non si puo’ capire.” You can’t understand. Of course I can’t; part of lace’s fascination is that its air of splendid frivolity so thoroughly belies the intensity of its creation.
Before leaving, Emma glanced around the museum’s rooms, now hung with paintings and neatly organized display cases. The wooden floors are spotless, the furniture carefully positioned, and the light shining through the former palace’s arching ogival windows gives a faint golden luster to everything. The silence is gone now, replaced by soft baroque music that creates a soothing atmosphere, even though the daily reality here was anything but serene. The few visitors instinctively lower their voices, and almost tiptoe, as if in a sort of shrine, but the votaries have all gone. “My life was here,” Emma said, recalling the years she lived here at the school. And she would have continued here forever, if the noisy world outside hadn’t forced its way in.
LIFE WITHOUT LACE
The Lace School drifted to a close in 1970, shuttered after a century by regulations that would have driven the prices (though probably not the lacemakers’ pay) beyond reason. “Who can pay the women ten euros an hour?” one shopkeeper asked me. If seven women are needed to complete a piece, and if a typical centerpiece requires two months to make, the numbers tell all: Burano lace has become a true luxury product, leaving both supply and demand to diminish by the year. Today, a round, white lace tablecloth measuring 40 square feet costs 8,000 euros ($8,625). And that’s a bargain because it was made 70 years ago, for mid-20th century wages. Today, it’s unlikely such a project could ever be taken on.
And so Emma, jobless at 54 years old, put lace aside and found new work. For the next 20 years she commuted to and from Venice to clean the houses of three families, along with tending to “some little old people.” After finally retiring at 76, she picked up her needle again and, like other Burano women, sat in a shop creating art that few customers understood and even fewer were inclined to buy. Occasionally, she joined museum-sponsored trips to give demonstrations, once traveling as far as Japan.
At one point I asked Emma her opinion of the lace being made today. “It seems the same to some, but it’s coarse,” she replied. “I see the difference. It doesn’t have the finezza [the fineness] that I had.” To be fair, the spiderweb-fine, #300 linen thread (or #500 or #800 even!) used in the greatest pieces can no longer be obtained—the thinnest linen thread of the 1700s was not produced after 1800, and by 1830 there was none left in the warehouses. Over time, the seeds of that strain of flax plant were lost. Today, lacemakers generally use cotton thread, the finest of which stops at #100 (slightly thicker than a human hair, whose average diameter is about 4/1000 of an inch). But when Emma speaks of finezza, she’s talking about much more than thread.
To demonstrate what she meant, Emma invited me to walk down the street with her to Dalla Lidia, one of the four shops that still make and sell handmade lace the same way it was done here for centuries. She wanted to show me the antique lace on exhibit there, which she stated several times is far better than what’s featured in the museum.
Unlike many other shops, Lidia isn’t crammed and festooned with linens and lace; its long, rectangular main room is open, lined with shelves of neatly folded, lace-trimmed tablecloths, curtains, and sheets. The clean-swept counter displays butterfly brooches and lace earrings under glass. An elegant calm suffuses the air, as if you’re entering a private home.
Emma greeted the four or five salesgirls—of course they all knew her—then led me through a narrow corridor whose walls were covered with irreplaceable pieces of framed lace. “That’s ours,” she would say of a piece that, to my eye, was an incomprehensible elaboration of infinitesimal knots but to her was obviously Burano work. “That’s not ours… that’s ours…”.
By “ours,” she meant Burano’s needle lace and not its close cousin, bobbin lace. Some experts say that it is can be almost impossible to distinguish between the two, the latter being woven with wooden bobbins instead of laboriously hand-knotted. How did Emma see the difference? She couldn’t explain it.
Although bobbin lace was also born in Venice, the technique wasn’t favored on Burano; over time, it became the specialty of women further down the lagoon in the equally poor fishing village of Pellestrina. Eventually, French and Flemish copies of the Burano technique and design overtook the market, and Burano began to lose some of its cachet. As fashion shifted to a lighter, filmier look, bobbin lace spread across Italy, and Europe. The renowned Chantilly, Valenciennes, and Brussels lace are all made with bobbins, but Belgian lace is still stitched with needles. Perhaps because needle lace came first, or because it remains the most difficult technique to perfect, the Burano tradition has never lost its primacy.
Three needle laces that derive from Venetian/Burano point—from Alencon, Croatia, and Cyprus—now boast places on UNESCO’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. Yet it wasn’t until 2016 that Burano, along with 15 other towns in Italy, submitted applications for the same designation—a bit late, perhaps, for Burano lace to regain its rightful place in the pantheon of great crafts.
THE SEARCH FOR A MODERN MARKET
With Burano lace, it’s impossible to discern a piece taking form in real time. While Paola stitched, all I could see was the rhythmic, mesmerizing waving of her hands above the pillow, and the long filament of thread as she rapidly twisted and pulled it.
Paola Toselli is 25 years younger than Emma, and is the mistress and guiding spirit of Dalla Lidia. Because Emma had given up her needle and thread, I turned to Paola to help me understand where lace is going.
Like Emma, Paola “learned because I had to”—the post-war economic boom was slow to make itself felt on Burano. When the Lace School closed, Lidia was the first shop to employ some of the many lacemakers who found themselves cast adrift.
In the following decades, only three or four shops followed suit. But where is their market? In Paola’s view, the challenge today is to discover new ways to use lace; otherwise, the idea of reviving a cadre of master lacemakers becomes pointless. “Now we try to do more modern things,” Paola told me. “People think lace is an antique thing so it has to go with other antique things, but no. Lace goes well everywhere. We sold a duvet cover in America with lace worked in love-knots,” a classic knot made of two interlocking, overhand knots. “Simple. Beautiful.” [For more on the ways that lace and lacemaking survives in the modern world, see our sidebar: “The Art of Lace: A Resource Guide.”]
It’s easy to see normal cloth being woven, as the loom clatters and the shuttle flies, or knitting needles producing a garment. With Burano lace, it’s impossible to discern a piece taking form in real time. While Paola stitched, all I could see was the rhythmic, mesmerizing waving of her hands above the pillow, and the long filament of thread as she rapidly twisted and pulled it; I couldn’t even see her slender needle because it almost disappeared in her hand as she made stitch after tiny stitch. Only when Paola stopped to show me the piece could I see what she had done.
Who are her likely customers? “Americans and Japanese, and a few Russians, have the taste for lace,” she said. “The English, no. Absolutely. And not even the French. The Americans and Russians are the ones who seek beautiful things.”
THE VALUE OF QUALITY
The clash of economics along with the rise of “fast fashion” have brought Burano to a precipice. Lifestyles have changed, people are less formal, few can afford big orders. Nobody uses big lace tablecloths anymore, they like placemats; lace bedspreads are out, people prefer duvets. A full trousseau with 24 sets of sheets? Please.
New recruits? I asked hopefully. Paola gave a little shrug. “I teach the girls in the shop. But we don’t know how many will come along. I think very, very few.” At this point, she said, the elderly ladies, the true masters, are simply “working to pass the time.”
It’s the same story across Europe. “Some museum will offer a course, but nothing more,” Paola said. “Even in the Eastern European countries, with technology the manual arts are disappearing. So it’s a risk for the future because it doesn’t interest the girls. If you don’t oblige them to do it, they won’t. I was forced to learn, but in the end I liked it.”
Not long ago, Paola told me, a few lacemakers approached Burano’s public school, offering to teach the children for free, but they were met only with bureaucracy and “concerns”—something about the dangers of needles and scissors—so they gave up.
AUTHENTICITY vs. PROGRESS
If each day of Emma’s centenarian life were a stitch, the resulting piece would cover only about 20 square inches.
Now that tourists have descended on Burano en masse, there are scores of shops selling lace-like things, yet ever fewer lacemakers. As demand rose, machines were developed to meet the appetites of the masses, and their budgets. Today, everyone can wear all the lace they want without ever imagining that if it had been made by hand, that little skirt or tank top would be as valuable as gold or even diamonds.
Tourists barely notice the difference. Most are perfectly happy with the lacy trinkets offered on the street—little framed Rialto Bridges and bell-towers of San Marco, which sell for just a few dollars. These items are not local products, the super-low price alone proves they couldn’t possibly be. No problem! It’s Burano, it’s lace: It’s Burano lace!! In a shop that sells the real thing, the price of even a small brooch in the form of a butterfly ($100 and up) might seem excessive for a batch of knotted thread, yet a small original oil painting for $100 would be a bargain. “Each piece is an original,” said Paola, showing me a framed scene of Burano in colored thread. “I did it in the evening, at least four hours a day, for a year. You can’t sell something like that for nothing.”
And so Paola keeps stitching in a corner of Burano’s culture that has become increasingly invisible to tourists, and thus increasingly incomprehensible. They see Burano’s painted houses but not their inhabitants, they take hundreds of pictures (many traveling across the globe to take yet another selfie), and feel satisfied. By now, this quaint fishing village is as modern as Kansas City, with electricity and heating and real bathrooms and shops that take credit cards—it’s only the shell that looks quaint, and for most tourists the shell is fine. If a visitor pauses to wonder what life was like when Emma was a girl, he or she probably wouldn’t focus on the cold, the hunger, the chamber pots being emptied into the canals. Romanticizing the past is a luxury for people who didn’t live it. For all their insensitivity and disruption, however, tourists have brought a prosperity to the island that was unimaginable until the 1960s.
As Paola stitched, a few curious tourists wandered in to look around. I know it wasn’t high season, but I never saw anyone buy anything. How does the gradual fraying of Burano’s famous tradition make her feel? Paola looks rueful but resigned. “We’re sorry to lose a work like that, but seeing that other arts have disappeared, it will happen to this,” she replied. “It’s a shame, but…”. A little shrug. “It’s a consequence of the life you live today. At one time there wasn’t much opportunity. Very few people went to Venice or Murano. Now they can find other work.”
Why not form some kind of cooperative? “The girls don’t go!” Paola exclaimed. “And there used to be so many—every family had seven or eight kids. Today there are few young people.” Census figures bear her out. A hundred years ago, the population of Burano was about 7,000. Emma says Burano supported 3,000 lacemakers at that time; today the population of Burano is 2,700, and nobody knows how many lacemakers are left. Paola guesses at 200 to 300, maybe. Someone else says 120. But every year there is an average of 50 funerals on the island and only six births. As we sat talking, a funeral bell was tolling outside from the nearby tower of the church of San Martino. The sound is unmistakable: slow, heavy, dark. And, by now, familiar.
STILL TIME FOR A DREAM
I went to Burano on Valentine’s Day, hoping to wish Emma a happy 101st birthday. I found her on bustling via Galuppi, ensconced with three friends in a standard Venetian restaurant that is owned by a relative and where she is therefore welcome to eat every day. “I’m still here,” she said with her customary calm and evanescent smile. “A mystery.” The secret to her longevity? She points upward with a gnarled index finger: “He decides.” A note in one of her birthday cards lovingly distills the spirit of this diminutive survivor: “Wise. Resolute. Serene.”
Much like a piece of Burano lace, the great work of Emma’s life is nearly completed now, at the final stage called pulitura, “cleaning,” when all the random threads from the supporting paper are tweezed away. If each day of her life were a stitch, the resulting piece would cover only about 20 square inches; it might be even smaller because that calculation doesn’t take into account the layers of overstitching that form Burano lace’s high-relief borders.
Nor does it calculate for the spaces where a husband or children might have gone, much like the spaces in the patterns that bring lace to life: sacola’ fisso (each stitch snugged up to the one before it), sacola’ ciara (a stitch, then a space, repeat), riga greca (two stitches, a two-stitch space), greco da tre (three stitches, three spaces). I never asked Emma if she’d had a dream, because girls of her generation didn’t think that way. (From what I could tell, her dream as a child was simply to be warm.) But in fact, even at 101, she does.
“My dream,” Emma said a bit wistfully, “would be that the artistic creation of lace could recover the recognition and the fortune it enjoyed in the past.” After 90 years of this work, she is sure of one thing. “I can truly say that this technique which, pay attention, is not craft but art, has always been both my work and my great passion.” She paused. “It’s like Michelangelo,” she said. I confess that she was right: Non si puo’ capire. You cannot truly understand it.
© 2023 Erla Zwingle, Contributing Editor. All rights reserved. Under exclusive license to Craftsmanship, LLC. Unauthorized copying or republication of any part of this article is prohibited by law.