The art of lacemaking spread from Italy, the Netherlands and Germany to the territory of Slovenia predominantly in the 17th century. Although in the past lacemaking was practiced in numerous towns and even rural areas, it struck the deepest roots in the old mining town of Idrija, reputed for its mercury mine.
The improvements in mercury extraction technology, which were introduced in the 17th century, deprived many women of their source of income. And so they began to devote more and more of their time to making bobbin lace in a variety of patterns. Lacemaking soon became an important handicraft, ensuring a means of survival to many families who would hardly have been able to make ends meet with only a miner’s salary.
The lacemaking craft spread from Idrija to nearby and more distant places, and also became popular in many other parts of Slovenia. But in the centuries that followed, lacemaking survived mainly in Idrija and in certain parts of the Gorenjska, Notranjska and Littoral regions, while in others, mostly towns such as Ljubljana, it almost disappeared.
All the “art” of Idrija lace (and thus Slovenian lace) is in the use of a special lacemaking technique and, most of all, in its original patterns. These have been given domestic names and are clearly distinguishable from other famous European styles.
Yet the making of bobbin lace was not reserved for women alone. In the city of Ljubljana, where this craft disappeared as early as in the 19th century, lacemaking was practiced by men as well. Toward the mid-18th century, and especially in the 19th century, the demand for bobbin lace grew intensively. This is why lacemaking spread to the broader surroundings of Idrija and even to more distant areas.
At the beginning of the 20th century, more than 1,790 persons in Idrija alone were engaged in the making of bobbin lace. During this period there were 2,000 lacemakers at Zirovsko and 950 in Zelezniki. Such dynamic development following the more modest beginnings of this craft encouraged the establishment of the first lacemaking school in Idrija in 1876. This school still operates today and is the only specialized school for teaching one of the many domestic crafts still alive in Slovenia. Later on, lacemaking schools and courses were introduced in other parts of the country as well.
The development of lacemaking flourished until the beginning of World War I. Up to this time, Idrija's lacemakers received the highest awards for their products at World's Fairs in Vienna and Paris. Although a relatively effective system of teaching lacemakers was introduced in the 19th century, lacemaking skills continued to spread in a traditional manner — by being passed from generation to generation. Schools and training courses helped to raise the technological level and perfect the skills of lacemakers, which was necessary in order to withstand strong competition on the domestic and, in particular, foreign markets.
The oldest lace was made from coarse, domestic, linen thread. Its main buyers were ecclesiastical and temporal lords, while in the 19th century bobbin lace also became popular among the peasant population. In the 18th century, silk, and in the century that followed, cotton thread, began to be used in lacemaking.
Up to the present time, Idrija faced the competition of two other important lacemaking centers encompassing the Selce and Poljane valleys, i.e: the towns of Ziri and Zelezniki and their surroundings. Present-day Slovenian lacemaking thus has three strong centers, accompanied by many smaller ones. Fortunately, a growing interest for the art of lacemaking is apparent in all parts of Slovenia. Not only are the treasures of our heritage being preserved, they are developing in new directions in search of new design solutions.
Heritage thus serves only as a historically verified starting point in the search for new forms of creativity which are not merely a reconstruction of historical memory. Lacemaking in the past and its present-day revival are characterized by an important advantage stemming from its history: lacemakers did not require workshops or complicated tools for their work — that's why they gathered at one another's homes to make bobbin lace. On hot summer days they worked outdoors; this allowed them to socialize and give their creativity free rein in the natural environment of their gardens. And precisely this component of mutual communicaion during work is what one misses most in this modern, alienated world.
Written by Prof. Janez Bogataj, Ph.D., Department of Ethnology and Cultural Anthropology, Faculty of Arts and Sciences, University of Ljubljana.