Lacemaking in Croatia


Lacemaking, as part of the textile handicraft, has a centuries-long tradition in Croatia. The main difference between lacemaking in Europe and in Croatia lies in the fact that in Europe it was practiced mainly by nuns and by gentlewomen, while in Croatia it spread from convents and mansions to small rural communi­ties. Peasant women made lace to trim their traditional costumes or for sale, the latter providing additional income for the small holdings. The technique they used and the appearance of their laces differed from the contemporary laces in the rest of Europe, which gives Croatian lacemaking particular significance. Although lit­tle research has been done to date into lacemaking in rural communities, the abundance of surviving laces shows how widespread the art was in Croatia. It flourished wherever women, skilful makers of many kinds of textiles, were respon­sible for supplying the household with garments and furnishings. The skill was passed on from generation to generation - from mother and grandmother to daughter and granddaughter.

Lacemaking was also taught in schools and women were introduced to new tech­niques, materials and patterns. But they adopted them only to a certain degree. In the laces which they made for sale to a bourgeois clientele, we can detect the sim­plicity of the original traditional patterns.

Eventually, with changing life styles the need for home-made textiles declined and lacemaking stagnated or entirely disappeared. Today, the chief centres of lace-making are Pag, Lepoglava and Hvar. Lace production in Pag and Lepoglava owes its continuity to lace courses and schools, which were founded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and operated until after the Second World War, as well as to organized sale. In Hvar, lacemaking survived in the Benedictine convent, a much closed community.

The roots of lacemaking are to be found in the rudimentary forms of textile work – the various ways of interweaving threads. Its product is a decorative fabric – LACE. One of the definitions of lace is: ‘Handmade openwork made form linen, silk, aloe, silver and gold thread’. The two principal lace making techniques are needlepoint and bobbin lace. The family of laces also includes filet lace, knitted (with two needles) and crocheted laces, and machine-made lace. The finest lace in terms of quality and craftsmanshift is needlepoint lace and bobbin lace.

The development of lacemaking is based on the mastery of other textile handicrafts, primarily weaving and embroidery.

Lacemaking in Croatia began at the same time as in the neighbouring Mediterranean and Central European countries. The type of lace produced in a particular locality depended on the general cultural influences in the region. On the Adriatic coast, needlepoint lace was made under the influence of other Mediterranean countries. In most parts of continental Croatia bobbin lace was made, influenced by Central Europe. Both types of lace were originally made by nuns and aristocratic women. Evidence of this development can be found in the treasuries of Croatian monasteries, convents and churches, in museum collections and written documents.

One of the most important sources for the history of lacemaking in Croatia are the 15th century regulations issued by the senate of the Dubrovnik Republic, which prescribe the patterns and quality of point de Raguse - lace that rivalled the finest French laces of the time. Unfortunately, after the earthquake in 1667, lacemaking in Dubrovnik withered away. In Drid monastery on the island of Ciovo nearTrogir, a fine specimen of the alb (white vestment) trimmed with 16th century reticella survived until 1949, when it was destroyed in a tire; the Franciscan monastery in Hvar has a fine collection of albs dating from the 16th and 1 7th centuries, while the Benedictine monastery in Zadar has a rich collection of laces dating from the 1 7th and 18th centuries. A notable collection of old lace on church vestments can be admired in the treasury of Zagreb cathedral.

The development of lacemaking in Croatia took a course different from that in the rest of Europe.

Initially associated with the clergy and the aristocracy, lace has survived as Croatia"s ethnographic heritage. It was an integral part of the traditional textile production in rural areas and was used for decorative purposes in rural house­holds, both in traditional costumes and linen furnishings. Based on this tradition, in many regions and places lace schools and workshops were established - lace­making developed into an industry, producing lace for the market. When instruc­tion in handicrafts, including lacemaking, became common in Europe, influence of this development was felt in Croatia directly or indirectly, because the country was for many centuries ruled by Italy, France, Austria and Austria-Hungary (Croatian laces have therefore often been presented as Venetian, Italian or Austrian).

The instruction in primary, vocational and church schools was based on centrally prepared programmes and rarely drew on the local tradition. A very influential lace school, whose influence was felt throughout Central Europe, including Croatia, was the Central Lace Course (Zentralspitzenkurs) in Vienna (1879 - 1918). The school trained many lace instructors and published pattern and design books. The beginning of the 20th century saw the establishment in Vienna of the Society for the Promotion of the Lace Industry, whose president was Archduchess Maria Josepha von Habsburg. The activity of these institutions found an echo in Croatia and led to the opening of a lace school in Pag (1906) and the Trade School in Split (1907). The curriculum of the latter included a lace course until 1940. Despite these influences, lacemaking techniques and lace patterns in Croatia always remained close to their origins. Needlepoint lace retained the reticella and Gothic geometrical patterns, the main characteristics of Renaissance lace.

This type of reticella, which is found all along the Adriatic coast including the islands, was made until the end of the 19th century. The same technique and pat­terns are still used on the island of Pag.

In continental Croatia the predominant type of lace is bobbin lace of rather rudi­mentary workmanship. Lace strips of various length and width were produced for trimming traditional clothes and furnishings. Rough hemp and linen thread as well as industrial thread were used. As can be seen from lace collections in muse­ums in Croatia, bobbin lace yardage was made in most regions of north-western Croatia: Podravina, Medimurje, Hrvatsko Zagorje (Potocec-Gradec, Veliki Bukovac, Ludbreg, Sveta Marija, Lepoglava, etc). Lacemakers sold their products to agents or at fairs throughout Croatia.

The above description also applies to the development of Lepoglava lace. Even when it became an independent decorative product, it was characterized by a rather crude structure obtained by nuanced, thicker or thinner interweaving of threads. The patterns are geometric and floral, taken over from traditional cos­tumes and wood carvings from other regions of Croatia, especially Posavina and Slavonia.

In other European countries, including those bordering on Croatia, the develop­ment of lacemaking is characterized mainly by increasingly sophisticated tech­niques. Patterns and designs were influenced by the prevailing styles in the visual arts: geometric patterns, floral motifs, and anthropomorphic, zoomorphic and mythological figures. The similarity of patterns often makes it difficult to identify the location of origin of a particular lace item.

The rudimentary workmanship and adherence to original patterns and techniques are the two elements by which Croatian laces differ from those made in other European countries.

These differences may be summed up as follows:

  • lacemaking was introduced to Croatia by the clergy and the aristocracy
  • having spread to rural communities, lace was used as trimming on traditional clothes
  • when lace courses and schools were opened, lace techniques were improved and lace was produced for interior decoration and the fashion industry
  • organized and individual sale of lace became an important additional source of income for rural households
  • lace techniques and patterns reflect developments in the visual arts and are an integral part of the cultural heritage of the community

Today Croatia has three main centres of lace production, all of which have a long tradition of lacemaking: Lepoglava in Hrvatsko Zagorje (bobbin lace), the island of Pag (needlepoint lace) and the city of Hvar (aloe lace). Their tradition deserves to be protected and revitalized.

Author of text: Nerina Eckhel, Ethnographic Museum, Zagreb
Black and white photographs supplied by: The Ethnographic Museum, Zagreb
The Museum of Varazdin
Colour photographs by: Vidoslav Barac

(c) Ministry of Culture of the Republic Croatia –

(D.H., 09.01.2009)