The Malta Independent 3 June 2020, Wednesday

Probable development of Torchon bobbin lace stitches

Friday, 6 March 2020, 09:38 Last update: about 4 months ago

Iris Galea Lowell

The lace of today is the result of efforts made in previous centuries. During the Miocene period, Pierolapithecus (an extinct species of primate), wove the first stitch to make his nest. This was before man diverged from the apes, around thirteen million years ago.

We have to remember that no twine, rope or thread will survive all this time, unless charred by fire. He carved on stone and painted on rocks. He left his trail in mud which later hardened into rock. With a sharp eye and some knowledge of times and symbols, we can form a rough picture of what he did and what he went through.




Before Homo, we already had the basic of weaving, we had the cloth stitch. This stitch is basic to lace makers and weavers. This stitch is thirteen million years old. Men did not have thread in the same way we understand today, but he had tree roots and leaves. He wove them together much like apes and monkeys do today. A long time passed before he started to make rope. By twisting grass blades together he made twine, then he twisted twine to make rope. Homo heidelbergensis moved out of Africa and into Western Europe. He made fishing nets to catch river fish as there was a scarcity of food. These fishing nets were very irregular however they still caught fish to eat. Now we have the gauze stitch (fillieri) which we can place around this period, together with the half gauze (punt xkora). So these three stitches were imprinted into our genes.


Upper-Palaeolithic cultures

Homo travelled from Africa into Europe. Many cultures developed with their own skills. I will mention the more important ones that deal with lace-making. The Khormusan culture is dated around 42,000 /32,000 BP (before present) in Nubia and Egypt. It was long before the kingdoms of northern and southern Egypt were formed, and this culture lasted till around 18,000 BP.

Little is known about this culture expect that they made tools from stone, animal bones and hematite and made arrow heads much like native Americans. They give us a picture of how they migrated from other parts of Africa to Nubia and Egypt. They were also known to have practiced hunting, fishing and were good gatherers. Since they practiced fishing they also knew how to make nets from rope. They mastered net-making with holes large enough to catch fish. The rope was probably made from a variation of the Dogbane plant, as its fibres become stronger when immersed in water, and this made it excellent for fishing nets. Dogbane grows not only in Africa but also in America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

The Ibero-Maurusian, ca. 25,000-11,000 BP, which stretched from along the coasts of Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia were also using pebbles and seashells as part of their industry. DNA findings from this period show an ancestral Natufian lineage. This means that Natufians mixed with the Ibero-Maurusian of North Africa. Natufians (12,000-10,500 BP) made nets with plaits. There is evidence of these nets in the Nahal Hamer cave in Israel.

So now we have another stitch, the plait. It is believed that Ibero-Maurusian at some point crossed from North Africa to Western Europe. This gave rise to The Magdalene culture (17,000 to 12,000 BP). They spread from Spain and Portugal through France, Germany, Poland, Southern Britain, Eastern Europe and Russia. From the caves in Alta Mira in Spain and Lascaux in France we know that they possessed painting skills. They made small nets for fishing seafood like crabs, mussels and sea snails.

If their representations were a kind of superstition that might have led them to make a big catch or just a wish to catch the right amount of fruit is difficult to say, but such urge made them make nets with representations they wanted. So now we have the gauze stitch, the half gauze stitch, the cloth stitch, the half stitch, which is an incomplete cloth stitch, and the plait. Many representations could be made on these stitches.

Hence we have the beginning of the Torchon lace. All countries with a strong lace tradition were once occupied by the Magdalene culture. The names given to the Torchon stitches are the same we find in fruit of the sea. In Maltese we say Imrewħa (fan stitch) but the fan is a kind of sea cockle, a stitch called 'granċ' (crab or square tally) is a sea crab that lives by the coast. The same is repeated in nearly every country that has a strong lace tradition.



In Africa, the Halfan culture (22,000 to 16,000 BP), which was around between the late Palaeolithic and early Mesolithic eras, used much of the fishing techniques used by the Khormusan culture. The Halfan culture is believed to be descended from the Khormusan culture. They were geographically located in Nubia. They were known for their rock paintings. They also moved into what is now Egypt following the Nile River.

Their knowledge of net-making for catching fish and fruit of the sea would have helped them develop a certain superstition to make perfect holes for their nets and make them smaller than those used for larger fish. They placed nets on river banks and waited until the next day to pull them ashore.

Many other cultures following the Halfan culture led to the creation of the northern and southern kingdoms of Egypt. Two important points to consider are that, around 8,000 BC, there was a great migration of people towards the Nile River and these people brought with them their skills and knowledge. They became a more centralized culture, having more time to develop their skills. At around 5,000 BC, the Badarian culture made furniture, geometrical houses, pots, vases, cups, plates and figurines. They traded shells from the Red Sea. Since they were also becoming religious, they made representations of what they believed could make a good catch of fish.

From the 4th millennium BC, the idea of developing inventions and discovery in Egypt became prevalent. The desertification of the Sahara at around 3,900 BC brought with it a migration towards the Nile River. Other cultures followed the Badarin culture, until Egypt became two separate kingdoms of North and South. These two kingdoms later united under Pharaoh Menes in 3,100 BC, producing one of the oldest civilizations. Weaving and net-making developed into what we call lace, having stitches such as the beetle (il-ħanfusa), the lotus flower (il-fjura), the palm, (il-palma), the ball stitch (punt tal-balla) also called kat stitch in English and 'point du neige' in French, the leaf ground (art tal-qamħ), falling leaves (il-maqrut) and the fly (id-dubbiena).

Temple worship continued to increase, and so did votive offerings. There are many lace pieces in the Cairo Museum, which gives us a good idea of what this early lace looked like and what they represented.

In the middle kingdom, between 2,100-1,800 BC, Pharaoh Akhenaten wanted a monotheistic religion and priests belonging to other religions were afraid of being persecuted. 

They migrated from Egypt to other Mediterranean countries, including Malta. We know that we had a temple dedicated to Osiris. These Egyptians brought with them their knowledge in terms of new stitches. Lace was already being worked on across the islands from older cultures like the Magdalene.

Egyptians also had hairpin lace, wove linen and silk. During the early Naqadan culture 4,000 BC, Egyptians traded with China, through the silk route.


Mediterranean basin

The formation of the Mediterranean began around 5.3 million years ago. The Atlantic Ocean started to fill the low lands of the Mediterranean basin, creating two great lakes - one on the east side and another on the west. Between these two lakes there was dry land. Around 10,000 BC, Mount Saturnine exploded, causing a great earthquake which separated North Africa, what is now Morocco, from Gibraltar. The Atlantic sea poured in, forming what is now the Caspian Sea. It continued to pour in forming the Aegean Sea. Saturnine disappeared, leaving only islands near Greece. So the straits of Gibraltar and the other Mediterranean Islands took their current form. From this time onwards, North Africa became separated from Europe. Malta was submerged for some time. 


In Europe

Before the Magdalene culture there was the Solutrean culture (19,000-15,000 BC). Apart from their skills in art, they perfected the creation of needles with perforated holes right in the middle, and used rounded needles and pins. This was the beginning of sewing. They used bones or horns to make their tools. These remains were found in Spain, France and England.

Around 15,000 BC, the Solutreans seemed to have disappeared from Europe. They are believed to have crossed over to another land we now call the United States of America, starting the Clovis culture and taking with them their knowledge of rope-making, net-making and skills in bone tools. It is believed that they had travelled much like the Inuit people of Alaska.



The Solutreans spread across America and became predecessors of around 80% of North American tribes. While Egyptians became a monarchy, they had a more centralized government.

Exiled Egyptians and adventurous sailors sailed across the Mediterranean Sea and into the Atlantic Ocean, arriving in America. The Atlantic Ocean was narrower than it is now. Remains of marijuana leaves found in Pharaoh Rammeses III tomb show that there was a trade route between Egypt and south-eastern part of America. This trade brought skills across the ocean.

Tribes on the south-eastern parts of America and Mexico encountered Egyptian trade and exchanged skills. The Cherokees used the double flute and women wore a head band on their forehead, much like ancient Egyptians. Creek Indians and Cherokees wove. It is not impossible that both tribes made Torchon lace as well, a skill later abandoned with the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers in 1500 AD.

The Pilgrim Fathers brought with them Christianity and the art of lace-making which by now had reached high levels of expertise in Europe. The Comanches developed the pierced leather lace. Around 1400 AD, the Spanish sailed near California and occupied that part of America. The Spanish brought with them their own techniques of dyeing, weaving and lace-making. 


Back in Europe

Cardial cultures (6,400-5,500 BC) from the Levant became good seafarers and occupied most of the Mediterranean, starting from North Africa, to Spain, France, Italy and Malta. They used shells to adorn their pottery, usually with the Cardium shell. They did not only bring with them their skills but also their goats, sheep and dogs. From goats they had meat, tools from bones, thread from the gut, fuel from dung, milk, goat hair and wool to weave. Lace continued to be worked in small areas throughout Europe. This made Torchon lace very popular and common. Hence the term 'peasant lace.' It was lace that meant something for the wearer and for the maker.

Working according to pin-holes has a mysterious awe on the maker, who does not know what pattern lay hidden within the pin holes, before each pin is put in place. Only when the first repeat is done, will the maker have an idea of what pattern lies hidden. One must pay attention as pinning in the wrong place or making extra holes would distort the pattern.

In the west coast of Northern Italy lies Genoa, a city that has been inhabited since the 5th or 4th millennium BC, by Ligurians, Greeks, Etruscans and Romans. Ligurians had inhabited northern Italy, France and Spain. Liguria still exists in Italy. Ligurians were an indo-European people who joined the Celts. They wove wool, silk and used metal like bronze and iron. Unlike other cultures that were Cro-Magon, Ligurians like Kabarian, were a modern man.

In around 2,000 BC, the Polada culture settled in what is now Lombardy. The Polada had farming, husbandry, fishing and domesticated their horses. From Genoa we get the Genovese lace, which resembles the Cluny lace in France. Both laces are guipure lace and in both cases we see the slender wheat ear. It could have come down from an earlier Torchon tradition, but we do not see the fat wheat ground seen in the Egyptian lace. It seems that both traditions were in Malta. By the Middle Ages, Genoa was trading extensively with other Mediterranean countries, and this trade exchanged skills and ideas. It also influenced the Maltese archipelago's laces.



Hebrews leaving Egypt during the Exodus took with them their lace-making knowledge. This typical lace is made with a kat stitch (punt tal-Balla) or gauze stitch. Ground and pairs enter the design and leave again to continue the ground. The design is usually the vine branching with birds and other flowers. This kind of lace is found in museums in Israel.

In Malta we also encounter such designs in old churches, as the vine is a strong symbol of the Eucharist, together with the wheat stalk. In Israel we find Nazareth or Babila lace - worked with a needle instead of bobbins and no designs are followed. The design is invented as it is being worked. These kinds of lace-making are the beginning of figurative lace which competes with Torchon lace. Many times, the origins of the Torchon lace is lost and only the geometrical names survive among lace makers who continued to work both.



The first apostles and disciples of Jesus dispersed across the Mediterranean, fleeing from persecution. They evangelize the towns that received them and carried with them the knowledge, skills and Hebrew culture they grew up with.

During the persecution, they conveyed their message in hidden symbols. For example they used the fish to denote their Christian faith. Most apostles were fishermen by trade and the fish came to symbolize Jesus and his mission (the Ictus; meant Jesus Christ Son of God Our Saviour) and the church itself.

Persecution subsided,  and symbols remained and entered the liturgical worship. Laces adorned liturgical furnishings. Symbols from Torchon laces that had some liturgical meaning found their way in church furnishings, others that had no meaning were left out as something pagan.

An example is the fan stitch that symbolizes the fan cockle, but in Christian tradition it symbolizes baptism. The top shell (sgora /zugraga) symbolizes the Holy Trinity, but the date muscle (tamla) was omitted from Torchon church lace for it did not have any liturgical symbol. However they were still worked for secular or everyday use.

As Christianity gained its freedom as a religion, more artisans were employed who worked without fear of being condemned for their work. From the merging of Hebrew Pictorial lace and Torchon lace, church laces emerged that denote the holy Eucharist by representing the whole wheat stalk or grape leaves.

This continued to evolve until it stopped abruptly during the bubonic plague of 1334, when most of Europe's population was wiped out. Many lace-makers died during the plague.

Lace was later revived by copying old pieces. This was done either by redesigning the whole pattern, by placing an old piece of lace on a pillow and working exactly the same pattern or by reintroducing it through trade from other countries outside Europe. It was also a time of great emphasis on Christ 's passion.

The cross and suffering took on a new meaning. Christians saw their daily suffering as participating in the passion itself. At this point we have the cross stitch (Punt msallab) and the picot stitch (punt xewka), which together with the plait (il-malja or ċumbatur) would represent the crown of thorns.


In Malta

Before the Mediterranean was formed, Malta was a land bridge between Europe and North Africa so cultures simply crossed over, settled or left for another place. Each culture left its imprint on these islands. We have the Magdalene cultures, the Cardial cultures, the Ligurians, the Egyptians, the Romans and so on. They came and left but those that remained continued the trade of their ancestors.

Malta's damp climate does not permit textile to survive for all these thousands of years. We do get a glimpse of what they wore through their pottery and stone figurines. For example, the statue known as the priest is topless but is wearing a long skirt which is made in Dudu knitting (Tom knitting). So from the statue itself we know what they wore and make an approximation of how it was made. A pot at the archaeological museum in Valletta has pitted holes, resembling a net. Some pottery has the same patterns used in lace-making, for example the serpent, which denotes the goddess Ínanna (a Summerian goddess).

The Maltese slender pillow called l-għasluġ or branch used for narrow edges and the mushroom pillow used in Honiton lace dates from these early times.

The middle kingdom of the Egyptian Dynasty (2,500 - 1,800 BC) saw a community in Malta which left remains like the amulets found at tas-Silġ. They brought their skills with them which, included lace-making. Stitches such as the spider, the beetle, the leaf ground (l-art tal-qamħ), the fish stitch (punt ħuta), the half stitch, the kat stitch (punt tal-balla), the lotus flower (il-fjura), the diamond (il-maqrut), the cobweb stitch (punt għanqbuta) and the shape of the bobbins, were probably developed at this time.

Malta passed from Phoenician, Punic, Carthage and Roman rule. Under the Romans, Malta had a huge weaving industry, as mentioned by Cicero in his In Verem.

With the advent of Christianity, new dimensions were added, such as giving shape to what is conveyed, for example the vine leaf with was worked in cloth stitch on a net stitch ground.

Certain representations were discontinued under the Arab rule (870-1091 AD) as this was offensive to them, but reappeared when count Roger I of Normandy freed the island from the Arab rule.

His son, Count Roger II (1127 AD), leased the islands of Malta to the Genoese rulers. This was during the feudal times in Malta. The Genoese brought their skills through trade and as new owners of these islands.

They brought the slander leaf called the wheat ear, and new techniques of lace-making. During the feudal period, Malta passed under the house of Hohenstaufen (1194 AD), the king of Naples, king of Sicily, and king of Spain each leaving their mark in techniques, trade and artisanship. 

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