Threads and Imagination
2 December 2023
Is it possible to live without high culture? It is, but what would be the point? And since humankind invented something as refined as lace, then it clearly needed it to be truly happy.
“Good heavens!” someone exclaimed. Silence fell, the words seemed to hang in the air. Someone else added, “Yes, let’s make that the title of the exhibition.”
So what was so heavenly? Lace, made by humans, not machines. Finessed, complex like a spider’s web, delicate; ephemeral yet tangible. Works by the hands of dozens of women skilled in weaving and using threads to draw patterns on fabrics, made possible by their eyes and minds. The eyes must have spotted a potential in the threads, and the minds executed the idea.
The exhibition Good Heavens! at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków was launched in May 2023. Until the end of December, it presents the most beautiful, interesting and captivating lacework and embroidery made over the course of 30 years by ladies from the Association of Lovers of Traditional Folk and Artistic Handicrafts at the museum.
‘Good Heavens!' exhibition at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, photo: press kit
It tells the story of history, tradition, beauty, imagination, patience and respect. The protagonist is Cracovian bobbin lace, added to the National List of Non-material Cultural Heritage in 2014.
A truly royal gesture
What are the origins of lace? “That’s simple: it’s a signifier of luxury. People have always adorned their clothes and other textiles, and lace was a status symbol. It was difficult and expensive to make, and you had to pay for the materials and the long hours of work,” explains Dr. Justyna Łukaszewska-Haberkowa, cultural historian and president of the Association of Lacemakers in Kraków. “You can live without lace, but handmade lace certainly underscores the value of clothing and one’s social status. It undoubtedly is and was an element of high culture. Is it possible to live without high culture? It is, but what would be the point? And since humankind invented something so refined as lace, then it clearly needed it to be truly happy.”
Lace was first brought to Poland from Italy by Queen Bona, and her craftsmen taught the art at the Polish court. A truly royal gesture, to give lacemaking a cultural significance. “After Queen Bona, Anna Jagiellonka fell in love with lace – she frequently posed for portraits in gowns richly adorned with lace,” explains Robert Piaskowski, Plenipotenatiary of the Mayor of Kraków for Culture.
Bobbin lace was developed a little later in Flanders and Bruges, and it was quickly popularised all over Europe. Technique varied from place to place, but one thing was constant: lacework always added elegance and grace. In the 19th century, great lacemaking schools opened in the UK, Belgium and France. The one in Poland’s mountain town of Zakopane was founded by actress Helena Modrzejewska and it operated until 2008. Lacemaking was also taught in Bobowa (the lace won numerous medals and awards all over the globe) and at the Women’s Vocational School at Syrokomli Street in Kraków.
Fragments of lace collars by Elżbieta Filipowicz, LUD-Art Association, 'Good Heavens!' exhibition at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, photo: press kit
Once someone tried their hand at making lace, they stuck with it. It was passed down generations, from home to home, from mother to daughter. It changed address, moving from courts to bourgeois homes and to the countryside. “Lacemaking is a heritage of royal and aristocratic families, but, just as it always has, it brings together women of all statuses – first aristocrats and nobles, and now women from all walks of life and backgrounds, including young women who discover it as a community. Lacemaking never asks about ancestry,” adds Piaskowski.
Masters and pupils
It’s impossible to explain how bobbin lace is made – you have to see the process for yourself. It’s certainly complicated, and if you’ve never held a needle or crochet hook, you won’t understand it immediately. To make bobbin lace, you need humility, patience and calm. You also need wooden bobbins, a roller or pillow, pins, needles and of course thread – not to mention imagination… So how do you do it? Every experienced lacemaker will say it’s nothing special: you weave pairs of threads just like you would on a loom.
“I think the phrase ‘Good heavens!’ also applies to lacemaking itself – the process really looks unearthly, especially for people who encounter bobbin lace for the first time,” explains Jadwiga Gruca, president of the Association of Lovers of Traditional Folk and Artistic Handicrafts.
Is lace just a reminder of old times, grandparents’ houses where the table was covered with a lace tablecloth? Not at all! Bobbin lace survives in Kraków. After the Second World War, the craft was taught by Zofia Dunajczan, and later the workshop was run by her pupil Olga Szerauc until 2009. Szerauc also had a pupil enchanted by bobbin lace: Jadwiga Węgorek. She started lacemaking workshops, where Justyna Łukaszewska-Haberkowa took up the craft. “The art survives thanks to the relationships between masters and pupils,” adds Łukaszewska-Haberkowa. “That’s what makes Cracovian bobbin lace so special.”
Spiders, Czech braids, leafwork
But not all lace is equal. Depending on technique and appearance, we can list several styles: crochet lace (of course you need a crochet hook), filet lace (made using blunt needles), tatted (shuttles or special needles or hooks), needle lace (made by weaving the thread onto a piece of fabric which is later removed) and Tenerife lace (requiring special forms and needles). According to experts, bobbin lace is the most noble of them all. “It includes distinctive elements such as spiders, Czech braids, varied splices and delicate leafwork,” explains Łukaszewska-Haberkowa.
Fragments of a pattern sampler by Cecylia Wiążewska, LUD-Art Association, 'Good Heavens!' exhibition at the Seweryn Udziela Ethnographic Museum in Kraków, photo: press kit
“Lace brings together the past and the present, and it does so in a finessed, beautiful and noble way. It is an archetypical way of remodelling and ordering our world,” says Piaskowski. “I am delighted that the lacemaking tradition is on the National List of Non-material Cultural Heritage, paving the way for its addition as another Cracovian element of the UNESCO List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage.”
The exhibition at the Ethnographic Museum presents more than just bobbin lace – and that’s important, because the world of lace is incredibly diverse. Let’s take a close look at them all, find similarities and inspiration, and see where lacemaking worlds come together.
The world doesn’t seem enough – to truly admire lace, we need to look to the heavens.
photo by Grażyna Makara
Journalist at Kraków’s Gazeta Wyborcza since 1999, writing for the newspaper’s Duży Format and Wysokie Obcasy supplements. She lives in old Nowa Huta. Author and co-author of several books.
The text was published in the 4/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.
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