It is said that cotton in Malta was first introduced by the Arabs in around 870 A.D. Maltese women quickly became experts in weaving and dying, and during the time of the Order of the Knights of Saint John, the making of lace (‘bizzilla’) was highly-prized, especially since this craft was very popular, and demand for lace-making continued to increase.
Weaving, embroidery and lace-making were encouraged, both by the Church and the local aristocracy, who loved to adorn themselves and their clothes with it. Life in Malta and Gozo was relatively harsh and craft industries became a main source of income for rural families.
At the time, lace made locally was primarily needle lace. Although during the 16th century, the production of lace was prized and cherished, it almost died out at the end of the 18th century, when the islands were taken over by the French. The craft was however revived during the 19th century, when a British lady, intrigued by this art, sent for bobbin lace makers from Genoa in Italy, to come to Malta. The Maltese used their old traditional needle lace patterns and transposed them into the bobbin lace method of crafting, which was quicker. It was not long after its introduction that Maltese lace developed its own unique style, which became very popular overseas, especially with the British upper class.
The production of bobbin lace, also called pillow-lace making, was particularly popular in Gozo. The demand for lace became so great, that a number of schools were opened, the first one being known as ‘tal-Grieg’ in Rabat, Gozo, and also another important one, called Casa Industriale, was opened in Xagħra some time later.
Generally, Maltese lace is made out of fine cream silk, although sometimes linen and other types of thread are used. The thread is wound around the upper part of the bobbin, which helps the lacemaker manipulate it better. It is then weighed down so that the thinner strand of lace becomes even in thinness. Lace is made on a pillow, locally known as ‘trajbu’, made out of a bundle of dry straw stalks. The bundle is then wrapped up in a piece of hessian cloth and sewn up tightly. The lace pillow is then covered with cotton, several sheets of newspaper, and flour paste, and left in the direct rays of the sun to dry. It is finally covered in strong brown paper. When the ‘trajbu’ is ready, the pattern is pinned to the upper end of the lace thread and then woven around the pins. The lacemaker starts filling in the bobbins, which are usually made of fruit tree wood with thread. This method is also known locally as ‘għazel’.
Motivated by the positive demand, the art of lace-making spread from mother to daughter and across neighbours and friends. Women used to take out their ‘trajbu’ on the doorstep and work while chatting with their acquaintances and passers-by.
Gozo lace in particular is known for a number of particular patterns and motifs. These include the Maltese 8-pointed cross, as well as a motif of closely worked leaves known as “wheat ears” or “oats”. Lacemaking is a work of art; the minute attention to detail, the hand-crafted patterns, and the patience needed to stitch such intricate work, is not something which everyone is capable of doing. Unfortunately, many traditional patterns and original designs were lost with the passage of time, and yet, lacemaking remains one of our most important traditions.
In order to further nurture this craft, in 1996, a Lacemaking Programme was created at the University of Malta – Gozo Centre, to teach lace on a higher accademic level.
The Lacemaking Programme resulted in the setting-up of the “Koperattiva Għawdxija tal-Bizzilla u Artiġjanat” and the Malta Lace Guild was established in 2000. In 2005, the Malta Lace Club (‘Klabb tal-Bizzilla Maltija’) was also created in order to foster the socialising of lacemakers.