December 2014


Web Of Lace
December 2014




Beeralu kotta (pillow) and threads wound around kadhuwas (bobbins). Long ago, the local bobbins were made of very high quality woods like teak. Nowadays, they are made of lower quality mahagony. In the West, they were once made of bone, which is why bobbin lace is also called bone lace.

From the courts of Portugal to the shores of Sri Lanka, the delicate art of beeralu lace has endured over time.


Words Daleena Samara Photography Rasika Surasena


The bride wore stunning pure 100 percent cotton osariya. It was an unusual material for a bridal sari in a country where people tend to prefer shimmering silks for such occasions. Yet her guests agreed she could not have looked lovelier or more charming. The six yards of white cotton were ethereally transformed by exquisite beeralu lace.


The 13-inch pallu or fall was pure delicate beeralu, almost fragile in its loveliness, the long lengths of lace highlighted with gold yarn threading, and ivory and gold beading. Beeralu lace fixed diagonally on the sari created subtle rich undertones. The puffed sleeves of her blouse were fully beeralu. The designer, Tissa Tennakoon, the bride's uncle, explained his vision for the use of cotton and beeralu: lace adds a special touch to a wedding day, and beeralu lace works best with cotton, he said.


That the sari used beeralu lace made it even more compelling because the lace marks continuity, a lovely link in the chain of tradition that can transport you back to another era, across Sri Lanka and beyond. Brides in the Kandyan royal courts wore lace, often beeralu. The 16th century Kandyan queen Dona Catherina wore beeralu lace-trimmed blouses. In the West, royalty and the elite coveted lace.


Beeralu was very much part of the clothing culture of the southern coastal districts, where it put down roots in the 15th and 16th Centuries. The long beeralu-fringed sleeved blouse, known as the kaba kuruthuwa, has been part of the traditional feminine attire of the south for centuries. It was favoured by the likes of southern poetess Gajaman Nona.


It is widely said that the Dutch brought beeralu to Sri Lanka, but it is more likely to have arrived with the Portuguese, who remained in Sri Lanka from the early 1500s to the mid 1600s. Studies have established that the craft was first taught by the wives of the Portuguese colonisers to noble women of the Sinhala courts. Thus the Portuguese word for bobbin lace reinnda became the Sinhala rende, and the Portuguese word for the bobbin around which the thread is wrapped, bilru, became beeralu in Sinhala.


Nevertheless, Sri Lanka's southern lace makers have their own version of the origins of their craft. They say it is the legacy of Kuveni, the mythical queen of the demons who ruled the island before the arrival of the Indian Prince Viyaja and the origin of the Sinhalese race. She is said to have woven lace seated at a rock bobbin on Yakkini Duwa, or the Island of the She-Devil, off the southern coast of Sri Lanka. Kuveni's "bobbin" can still be seen on Yakkini Duwa, which was purportedly haunted and cursed until recently, when an inn nearby began to run tours to it.


The various designs and motifs of beeralu lace are known as beeralu mosthara. The lace is worked on a pillow or kotte made of soft wood, placed on a larger surface padded with coir.


It is raised on short pegs. The wooden part is further padded with paper, and tightly covered with cloth. The thread is wound on bobbins and twisted around pins set in the pattern. The tension of the work holds the design in place.


Long ago in the West, this type of lace was also called "bone lace" because workers who couldn't afford pins would use fish bones to hold the thread in place, and also use small bones as bobbins. The lace makers place their kotte on the floor and weave seated on low benches or on the floor, or place their kotte on a table, and work seated on chairs.


Lace making is said to be a European invention, originating in Flanders, Italy, from where it spread to Spain and across the continent. However, bobbin lace has been found in ancient Egyptian tombs, and also in ancient China. Lace was very much in fashion in the European courts of the 1600s, at the time it arrived in Sri Lanka.


Court fashion trends largely drove lacemaking demand. For example, fashionable ruffs and stiff collars favoured by the elite in the mid 1600s fuelled demand for needle-lace. At the turn of the century, softer collars created demand for bobbin lace. Bobbin lace is one of dozens of different types of lace worldwide.


In Europe, lace making was a hobby of the elite, and a job for others. Queen Catherine of Aragon of England was adept at lacemaking and taught the craft to inhabitants of Ampthill while awaiting her divorce from King Henry VIII, so that they had a means of livelihood. Similarly, lace making began as a popular pastime of aristocratic Sinhalese women and spread over time to the common folk, who found it an important source of supplementary income. In particular, it benefitted women in the fisher communities of the southern coastal belt. The tradition has endured for centuries and helps these women even today.


Currently governmental institutions such as the Department of Small Industries and the National Crafts Council, are taking steps to boost the industry by providing centres where beeralu lace workers can practise their craft and find markets.

She learned to use  the bobbin at a very young age, while still “on her mother’s lap.” Age hasn’t diminished her skills.
The Kapparatota Thanigahawatte Beeralu Rende Maddhyastana, one such government-run centre in Weligama on the southern coast, employs about 200 workers. The centre opened in 2013 and most of the workers are women aged over 65. Many are widows who have lost their homes and families to the tsunami that devastated the island in 2004. They learned their trade from their mothers in their youth, and took it up as an occupation much later, after either doing other jobs or devoting their time to raising a family.


B Padmawathi, aged 79, says she learned to use the bobbin at a very young age, while still "on her mother's lap." Age hasn't diminished her skills. B Gunawathi, 68, learned the craft when young but began work after her children got married. They have passed their skills on to their children. Their work is sold by the centre to retailers in Galle and Colombo.


Today, their precious products have found a market in Sri Lanka's fashion industry. Fashion designers like Tissa Tennakoon and Kasuni Rathnasuriya, winner of the British Council Young Fashion Designer of the Year 2011, are among the present generation of designers who actively use the lace on their creations.


Tissa purchased the beeralu for his niece's wedding sari from a Laksala sales outlet in Colombo. He finds inspiration in tradition. Likewise, couture houses in the West are shining the spotlight on lace. Kate Middleton's bridal gown was made of lace, including bobbin lace edgings, and brought lace back into fashion. Since then, lace has featured in fashion collections worldwide year upon year. Tissa describes beeralu as eternal, a precious material with a beauty that endures.

 

  • image01
    image01

    The bride wore a lovely beeralu sari.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Yakkini Duwa (She-devil's Island) off Thotagamuwa in southern Sri Lanka. The beeralu lace makers of the south swear that their craft originated from Kuveni. The small rock on the island is said to be Kuveni’s beeralu kotte.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    The 13-inch pallu or fall was pure delicate beeralu with the long lengths of lace highlighted with gold yarn threading, and ivory and gold beading.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    This lovely doily and tablemat are from the album of generations of family beeralu works collected by lace maker Jeeva Kumudhini. Her collection was lost when the tsunami destroyed her home in 2004. Surprisingly, she recovered the album, but it was badly damaged and many designs were missing.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Nalini Balasinghe is an award-winning beeralu lace maker. She learned the craft after completing high school and took it up later in life. She won the 1999 Presidential Shilpa Award for Beeralu Lace Making.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Lace of varying complexity. Novice lace makers learn basic patterns and progress to more complex patterns as they develop skill through experience. The most basic is the hatharapata. Once they master it, they go on to making more intricate muthu. The kopi ata is the most complex. A lace worker who has mastered it is qualified to weave any design.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Pure cotton yarn is used to make beeralu lace. It’s surprisingly tough.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    At 79 years of age, B Padmawathi is happily employed making beeralu lace. She learned the craft from her mother, as did W H Gunawathi, 68, (behind). Both women love their jobs and look forward to going to work every day. They can each make about a yard of lace a day.

    Prev Next
  • image01
    image01

    Beeralu lace maker at Galle Museum. Lace workers usually place the kotte on the ground. This woman’s bobbin is placed on a table.

    Prev Next