CharacteristicsStraight bobbin lace, worked in strips and joined together Usually using silk threads in cream, ivory or black-more recently in cotton Uniform threads with no gimp or raised work Designs: geometric and repetitive Clothwork pattern areas, usually including the Maltese Cross Frequent use of fat wheat-ears with pointed ends,(point desprit) often grouped in star formations resembling tiny stylized flowers Grounds: varied arrangements of twisted and plaited brides combined with wheatears.
In the 1830s Malta was suffering from famine. Lacemakers from Genoa come to Malta to pass on their skills. This charitable act is said to have been the work of Lady Chichester Hamilton, mistress of Lord Nelson, living in Malta, a British naval base. It is she who suggested to the Maltese people that they add a distinguishing feature, the cross of the Knights of St John, (monk knights of Jerusalem in the Middle Ages). This became known as the Maltese Cross.
The Goanese (residents of Gozo) called Maltese lace, ‘the lace of Friar John’ who was supposed to have introduced lace into Gozo in 1846.
After the Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in 1851, Maltese lace flourished; Flounces, fichus, collars, jabots and huge triangular shawls worn over the wide crinoline dresses of the 1860s.
After 1951, the English Bedfordshire and Buckinghamshire lace manufacturers copied and adapted this lace and the product was called Bedfordshire / Maltese. Generaly none of these laces included the Maltese Cross. Good machine copies were available from 1865.
The disappearance of lace from dress in WWI marked the end of the lace industries in Europe. However, the Maltese lace industry survived on a reduced scale by supplying souvenirs to the British troops stationed on the island and to the tourist trade which followed.
Between the two World Wars, a great deal of household lace dressing table sets, place mats etc. in white and ecru cotton were made and imported into Britain along with thousands of lace hankies with skimpy Maltese lace edgings.
By the 1970s, the standard had deteriorated so much that Maltese lace bore little resemblance to that of a hundred years before.
The technique was copied throughout Europe and Asia-Ceylon, Madras in India – brought by the missionaries.
Earnshaw, P. A Dictionary of Lace, Shire publications, 1982
Gwynne, Judyth, The Illustrated Dictionary of Lace, Batsford, 1997
Toomer, H. LACE: A Guide To Identification Of Old Lace Types & Techniques
Batsford, London, 1989. IBSN 0 7134 5701 5.
© Valerie Cavill