Many inhabitants of Poland remember well the intricate, snow-white tablecloths of various shapes from our grandmothers’ homes. In Poland, it is mainly Kraków and nearby Bobowa, in the Małopolska region, that are famous for their handmade embroidery using the lace technique. In the various cafés typical of Kraków’s Kazimierz district, lace tablecloths have become an indispensable element of the décor. And although the art of lace-making is nowadays primarily associated with folk art, its roots go back to the Jagiellonian aristocracy and Kraków’s trade contacts with late-medieval Europe.
History of lace
Bobbin lace is considered the noblest of lace techniques. It is a type of woven lace that is made using bobbins, usually wooden, called blocks. The lace is made on a special pad or roller with a pattern on it. The technique for creating bobbin lace involves interlacing pairs of threads as in loom work.
Opinions on the origins of lace-making are divided: some scholars believe that primitive forms of lace may have existed as early as antiquity, but most believe that it appeared in the late Middle Ages. It certainly gained popularity in the 15th century, however, when it was used as an ornament on textiles for liturgical use. Its centre of production and where its flourishing peaked was Italy.
A travelling tradition
The art of lace-making spread from the Apennine Peninsula to the whole of Europe: not only to neighbouring France, where lace appeared in the 16th century, to Spain, the Netherlands and England, but also to the Polish Crown. Traditionally, its appearance in Poland was associated with Queen Bona, as her dowry included fine lace decorations. A lot of lace decorations were also left behind by Anna Jagiellon, and some of them can be found at the Wawel Castle.
The custom of making lace for their own use was brought to Kraków by burghers from those countries with which Kraków, as a Hanseatic city, carried out intensive trade. It is likely that lace had arrived in the country on the Vistula River even earlier, thanks to contacts with Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and the Habsburg dynasty.
Beyond social divisions
Lace became more and more popular among the noblewomen, and gradually also among the other social classes; collarettes, lace collars and coifs were popular. Masters of this art were often invited from Italy, but it was also manufactured locally, including in Kraków’s monasteries – many of which have preserved fabrics richly decorated with bobbin lace, such as the makatka with a scene of the monastery of the Discalced Carmelites on Wesoła Street, or the maniple (vestment) in the collection of the Dominican Fathers’ monastery, both from the 18th century, or the earlier corporal from the turn of the 16th and 17th centuries.
In many portraits from the 19th century, we see middle-class ladies dressed in lace. This was the result not only of changing styles, but also of a change in the perception of embroidery itself, which had become an occupation for ladies from respectable families. Learning the craft was part of the education, at first of aristocratic women and, over time, also of the bourgeoisie.
It was an activity testifying to resourcefulness and high skills, for, as Michał Hankus writes in the catalogue accompanying the 2018 exhibition ‘Lace – Tradition – Reactivation’ organised by the Kraków Museum, the bobbin lace technique is widely regarded as one of the most difficult, and the works produced in this way are among the most expensive on the market. For example, the wedding lace of Princess Lubomirska, decorated with lace, which can be admired in the Princes Czartoryski Museum, has become legendary.
Lace in Kraków
The high price did not, however, hamper trade in quality products: there were many haberdashery shops in Krakow, including in the Sukiennice. A great fan of lace was Helena Modrzejewska. The actress, adored in her time, helped finance the establishment of the National Lace School in Zakopane in 1883. Commonly known as Szpulkarnia, it operated until 2008 and had a major impact on keeping the tradition of lace-making alive in Poland. In Kraków it was possible to learn embroidery at the Professional Female School on Syrokomla Street, which had opened a year earlier.
Extremely valuable photographs by Stanisław Kołowca from the 1930s, documenting the art of lace-making and the collections of the defunct Museum of Artistic Industries, have been preserved in the collections of the Museum of Kraków.
What determines the uniqueness of Kraków’s bobbin lace is the form of transmission of this skill, which has survived thanks to direct teaching in a master-apprentice relationship. Bobbin lace survived thanks to Zofia Dunajczan, born in Oświęcim in 1904, who taught this difficult art in Kraków after the Second World War. After Dunajczan’s death in 1986, she was succeeded by her pupil Olga Szerauc, who ran the lace-making workshop until 2009 – by which time she was already over a hundred years old.
Today, Jadwiga Węgorek, who in 1999, after six years of apprenticeship with Olga Szerauc, started to run the handicraft workshop ‘Czar nici’(‘Charm of Threads’), maintains the lace heritage. Today, she is recognised as the most outstanding Polish lace maker specialising in the bobbin method: she regularly represents her art at exhibitions and competitions in Poland and abroad.
In May 2014, Ms Jadwiga was honoured with the ‘Silver Cross’ for merits to folk culture from the President of the Republic of Poland. She was one of the initiators of the inclusion of Kraków’s bobbin lace on the National List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, which took place in 2016. This opened the way for efforts to inscribe this tradition on UNESCO’s Representative List of Intangible Heritage of Humanity, where Kraków bobbin lace would join the nativity scene.
Lace makers’ presentations are increasingly accompanying the various craft fairs in the Main Square and other historic squares of Kraków, and the art of lace making is, after years, beginning to be perceived again as a distinctive tradition of the city. More than 200 people have already attended workshops conducted by Ms Jadwiga alone, and embroidery techniques are steadily gaining in popularity in the general wave of the renaissance of interest in crafts and handicrafts.
For this reason alone, the future of Kraków’s lace can be assured.