The art of lacemaking in Burano: a long, precise, and precious work of sharing

2 November 2021

Venice, 15 October 2021 – Fast step, hands ready to sew, a tiny wooden seat with footboards, curtains open overlooking the city’s square, glasses and tools of the trade. This is how the lacemakers of Burano prepare themselves for another afternoon working with their needle, thread, and their personal little pillow, in order to create another work of art part of Italian history.

They chat together, one in front of the other, talk with anyone curious to know more about the secrets of their art. They make fun of each other saying “she’s the chatty one” and “she’s the best one”. They’ve known each other forever but still, at 80 years old, have the same light in their eyes when showing someone a little hand-made lace rose; that very same light that they used to have when they were kids, when their grandmas gave them, for the first time, a very thin needle, and a white cotton thread.

Love and passion that Burano’s masters of lace have for their art can be felt and seen from their movements, their silences, their concentration, and their red eyes. They never take their gaze off their work. Their hands know, by heart, how to intertwine to create, beginning from a drawing on paper, a precise and unbreakable work of art. We can feel it from the fact that they still sit, as volunteers, at their age, inside what once used to be the flourishing Scuola di Merletto di Burano (Burano Lace School), today a museum that carries on a tradition that runs the risk of being forgotten.

There are just six of them left in Burano, and among them Mary Costantini and Romana Memo who, on the occasion of Venice 1600 years, want to tell their story and their work as lacemakers. What keeps them together, as in the past, is the passion for a job that is shaped by sharing spaces, time, and love for what they do. Lacemakers work alone but together with others, sit in front of their house with neighbours, grandmas, mothers, nephews and, as it used to be in the past, with friends, chatting with one another and recalling memories.

«I have been doing this job since I was 6» - recalls Mary Costantini, master of the lacemaker in Burano – when you are a kid, you do laces as a game, although this is, as a job is very peculiar and if you want to do it, you must love it. My mother wanted me to learn how to embroider but she didn't like it. I didn’t want to be neither a seamstress nor an embroiderer, I am terrible at it. With lace is different, I can work from morning to evening without even realizing that time has passed. The lace was my path and now I can say that time proved me right »

Burano lace creation stages are seven. We begin from a drawing and later we proceed with the warping, which sees two layers of fabric overlapped with three sheets of straw paper, a sheet with a drawing and another sheet of wax paper, sewn following every angle of the drawing. Then, the first stage begins, which is the base, the so-called Ghipur and the punto Venezia (Venice stitch), characterized by little string bars that connect different parts of the drawings. There is also the punto Burano, a tiny string net, the relief and in the end, in the final stage: the punto cappa con picò, the scalloping.

In the past, every lacemaker of the Scuola di Merletto di Burano (Burano Lace School) specialized in one specific stage of the work. So, there were seven different specializations: the drawing experts, the warping experts, Ghipur experts, those who just did the Venice stitch and those who just did the Burano stitch, the master of relief and scalloping. Although everyone knew every step of the process, they used to focus just on one step, because by repeating the same gesture on and on they became faster and more precise, essential elements that turn this textile tool, produced in a tiny venetian island into one of the most important and appreciated handicrafts of the world.

«It appears to be all the same – says Mary while recalling the story of the Lace School where she studied – although any stitch has its own way to be. Once there used to be a lot of work to do, and every person studying at the school used to specialize on a specific stitch. I have always loved to do the first stitch, the base of the whole work, the so-called “Ghipur”; that was my job. Times have changed and so today I do the whole process, from beginning to end ».

The lace of Burano is traditionally made with white cotton string. Cotton is the best material with which we can do this job since it is very resistant and flexible. Moreover, choosing the white colour, apart from being an aesthetic choice, has a structural meaning since the colour maintains the structure of the string solid. So, once finished, the lace of Burano becomes an object that lasts through years and washes without being damaged.

« The latest news about lace – say the masters of laces Mary and Romana – is that it has been decided to use a colourful string, although this tends to break and fray. We work by doing a lot of tiny knots and passages, so the quality of the string is very important. Differences between the use of white and colourful strings are very clear and for this reason, we never use colourful strings although it has become a trend now »

Anyone who wants to see them working or wants to ask them for a lesson to learn how to do the Venice stitch can found them at the first floor of the Museo del Merletto di Burano (Lace Museum of Burano), sit on their wooden chairs, the same that they used when they were kids and were attending the first lesson at the most famous school of laces of the world. They come in pairs, in the afternoon, sit, work, and stay at disposal of anyone who wants to dedicate little time to this precious craft.

Patience, precision, and a very ancient technique handed down from hand to hand which is stil, today, untouched: these are the ingredients of the lace of Burano, a product that once finished is unbreakable. Clothes get ruined, as happens for fabrics, embroidery split apart, colourful strings get thinner, but a lace of Burano is forever. It is here that this precious art is running the risk of disappearing while leaving, through an apparently fragile but indeed unbreakable product, a sign in time and history.