Lacemaking in Malta and neighboring Gozo trace their origins back to the 16th century. Needlelace was made there as in was in Venice. This continued until the 19th century when the depression that descended upon the islands nearly led to its extinction. Two people are known to be responsible for introducing and promoting a new lace in these islands in the mid 1800’s.
Lady Hamilton Chichester sent lacemakers from Genoa, where the technique of Italian bobbin lace was developed, to Malta. They used the old needlelace patterns and turned them into ones using bobbins, instead of the slower time-consuming needles.
On Gozo it was the promotion by designer, Dun Guzeppe, that made lacemaking a way of raising the standard of living for local families. It wasn’t long after its introduction before the Maltese/Gozo lace developed it’s own unique style from lace on the continent.
One of the most recognizable traits of Maltese and Gozo lace is the creamy, honey colored, Spanish silk from which most of it is made. Black silk was also used until the 20th century when it declined in favor so is harder to find today. Later linen was also used in some pieces used for household purposes instead of clothing, as it was more durable.
Another distinguishing feature of Maltese/Gozo lace is the 8 pointed Maltese crosses that are worked into most, but not all of this lace. These crosses are done in what lacemakers call whole or cloth stitch. (see photo)
The last of the most recognizable features are the leaves known as “wheat ears” or “oats”. They are plump and rounded in shape compared to the long narrow Bedfordshire lace leaves. Bedfordshire lace, which is sometimes compared to Maltese lace, has some similarities and were probably both developed from the Genosese bobbin lace.
It is interesting to note that larger pieces of real Maltese lace are made by piecing together sections rarely wider than 6 inches. One more thing to look for in assessing Maltese design is the more fluid styles. Genoese lace is more geometric and without the swirls developed in Gozo. Another interesting item that lacemakers might find interesting is that the patterns do not have the pin holes pre-marked as in the closely related “Beds” lace.
The study of Maltese/Gozo lace is at best difficult, as there is very little printed material about it. The only author who has written about it in English is Consiglia Azzopardi. She has written 2 books. The first: “ Gozo Lace- An introduction to Lacemaking in the Maltese Islands” and the follow-up. “Gozo Lace – A selection of Bobbin Lace Patterns” 1998. She now has a website too!