With their unassuming appearance, these two bobbin lace pieces may at first seem like mere objects of craft, evocative of a time when lace adorned everything from haute couture fashion to the furniture of our grandparents’ homes. However, the significance of these two lace pieces goes far beyond their simple motifs and the delicate warmth they inspire. Created by the students of the National Lace-Making School in the remote village of Zakopane in Poland around 1967, these lace pieces hold layers of stories and histories waiting to be unraveled.
The art of lace-making in Poland has a rich history that dates back to the 17th and 18th centuries with lace workshops and schools popping up across the country. However, it was mainly in the south of the country where lace-making centers gradually began to emerge. The historic city of Krakow and the nearby village of Zakopane in the Tatra Mountains are famous for their handmade embroidery using lace techniques, and lace pieces have been an indispensable element of the decor in the region. Unfortunately, the tragic fate of Poland during the times of partitions between Russia, Prussia, and Austria led to the collapse of the country’s crafts for some time, including the developing art of lace-making. As a result, the 19th century was a time of regression for hand-made bobbin laces, happening not only in Poland but also throughout Europe.
However, by the end of the century, the art of lace-making was revived. Schools and lace-making centers were re-established, and lace became a source of income for poorer communities. This also coincided with the emergence of an artistic legend surrounding Zakopane, which was mainly associated with the local bohemia of the early 20th century. This made the end of the 19th and early 20th century a breakthrough period in folk art and brought a general interest in Podhale, the southernmost region of the country, and its craft traditions. In such a cultural atmosphere, the National School of Lacemaking was founded in Zakopane in 1883, mainly thanks to a donation from the famous Polish actress Helena Modjeska. This was one of the world’s first vocational schools for women, and among other similar schools in the region played a crucial role in the revival of the art of lace-making in Poland. This was mainly animated by wealthy patients receiving treatment in the health resort of Zakopane. And they had the idea to preserve the region’s heritage for future generations.
The education at the lace-making school was free, and some students received a small allowance. The best students were given the opportunity to complete a central lace-making course in Vienna, which allowed them to obtain a lace-making teacher’s license. Back in that time these southern regions were still under the rule of the Austrian monarchy, and Viennese influence was still a very prominent one. Still, through the more or less 125 years of its history, the school took part in developing original designs and the artistic style that gradually became an important element of promoting Polishness and was presented as the national style of the country. The lace pieces produced by the students were sold, and the income from them was paid to the girls, after deducting the cost of the material. The school also taught reading, writing, arithmetic, and various lace-making techniques, such as Czech and French guipure, Venetian lace, and reticella.
Some of the best lace patterns were created by Polish artists during this time, giving the folk character of bobbin lace extraordinary wealth. The Lace-making school played a significant role in the culture of Zakopane in the first half-century of its existence. It was then that the need to create a separate style of lace, characteristic of the Zakopane region, arose. Many prominent educators and artists have worked in different periods in the school and have shaped its unique style. The first half-century of the school’s existence was recorded in the cultural history of Zakopane as a period of searching for a style for lace that would correspond to the local folk tradition. Patterns were initially borrowed, mainly from Italian, French, or Brussels lace. The appearance of the first designs of “Zakopane lace”, drawn from the rich art of Podhale is associated with Karol Klosowski, the outstanding artist, painter, and lover of Podhale that between 1913-1932 was a teacher of drawing and composition and gave the school the character of a real artistic institution.
After him, for economic reasons, there were significant changes in the design and technique of lace production. designs were less sophisticated, mainly because of the lack of materials, threads, and tools. At this time lace was no longer associated with luxury, it was a natural finish of the fabric and has acquired the characteristics of folk craftsmanship available to the general public. The school operated throughout the period of World War II, protecting girls studying there from being deported to work in Germany. After the wars, the school was renamed several times and had different managers. Maria Bujakowa was the director from 1946 to 1969, the time that the lace pieces in the Helen Louise Allen textile collection were made (and they had been purchased from famous Cepelia cooperatives that started to sell Polish crafts internationally). She was instrumental in the introduction of weaving the Podhale kilims with geometric, vegetable, and animal patterns, traces
of which can be seen in geometric leaves and bird patterns of the two lace pieces in the Social Thread As Maria Bujakowa was the headmaster of the school for twenty years, she managed to implement a number of ideas and experiments. She ran the embroidery department herself, developing new methods and techniques paying particular attention to the need to create artistic textiles based on regional motifs. She also encouraged artistic abilities and in this period students were involved in all steps of the production, from design to fine-tuning the details and technical arrangements.
Although in the following decades, many enthusiasts and dedicated individuals worked to maintain the tradition of the Lace School and craft arts that were already facing a decline in many parts of the world, the school began to experience a crisis in the 1990s, and unfortunately, after 125 years of operation, the Lace School was closed in 2008.
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Atefeh Ahmadi is a Ph.D. student in Art History at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.