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MALTESE LACE of the NINETEENTH and TWENTIETH CENTURIES

Its History, Technology and Economic Appreciation (Aspects)

Consiglia Azzopardi

March 2013


This study is a follow up to another one investigating artistic considerations and technical innovations of lace made in the Maltese Islands until the end of the eighteenth century; this thesis covers the characteristics of lace made during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, meriting its name as Maltese Lace.

Historic events that led the Maltese Islands to pass from under the Order of St John, the French, the British and beyond, depict demographic patterns and social classeswherein lace making had prospered. Different cultures introduced into Malta affected the administrative and spoken language of the inhabitants, which accounts for the terms in lace vocabulary. The church was directed to use its influence to promote lace education as a means to relieve unemployment, often acting as saviour of ecclesiatical vestments. Philanthropists settling in Malta contributed to the rediscovery of lace and its development according to the fashion in Europe, thus attracting Royal interest in Maltese Lace.

Although lace historians credit Maltese lace to British philanthropists, tracking the whereabouts of existing lace artifacts shows that the Rennaissance in the industry took place in Gozo, as an immediate result of Genoese lace workers who settled in Malta as political refugees during the Risorgimento. The theory that the Bishop Conservatory in Gozo housed the early lace teaching was confirmed by a contemporary, Dun Giuseppe Diacono, who was the only writer to document the history and development of the lace technique branching off in Gozo. Artists and teachers, artisans and merchants, working together with the new technique in Gozo, succeeded in producing masterpieces imprinting Maltese Lace with the most typical Maltese Cross and the borrowed wheat-ears stitch which they named Moski. Experiments at simplifying the technique caused stages to develop one after the other; Census statistics show that production was all the time subject to the economic situations mainly as a substitute to the decaying weaving and spinning industry.

International and Maltese Exhibitions held during the nineteenth century confirm the dominance of Gozo’s contribution in quantity and quality to Maltese Lace. The glorious days during the third quarter of the nineteenth century expose the important role of Maltese Blondes in white or black, with short periods producing yellow and multicoloured silk laces. Masterpieces remaining in the island are those found in Church and with its high-rank ministers – Bishop and Monsigneurs. The rest, being commercial laces, were exported thus forming the bulk of Maltese trade until the turn of the century.

The last decades of the century witnessed the opening of a model school-factory catering for female education and for the establishment of an industrial system training employment from the home. Dun Giuseppe Diacono, promoter of the House of Industry in Gozo, who was also the designer to supply the house, exploited the foreign market by designing for the fashion of the time. Leaving behind him a legacy of original designs for Gozo Lace, he established a picture of the standard achieved by his time.

Blue print designs were a new development of the early twentieth century, resulting from the formation of the Malta Industries Association with Cecilia de Trafford as the key-player, again in Gozo. In reaction more prolific designers cropped up during the twentieth century and there were yet more masterpieces produced that ended up with the Royal family. A set-back to the lace industry in Gozo, caused by industrialisation and the opening of textile factories, resulted in some years of lacuna after which lace emerged as an art and no longer as a substantial industry.

Prospects are being studied in the light of modern means of education and employment. Scientific teaching will help with the conservation of heritage pieces and augurs a sound hand-over of our traditional Maltese lace in the hope that it will be better appreciated by the future generation.

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Last Updated: 10 May 2013

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