Category: Lacemakers in Slovakia

Problems of Price, or Who Buys Coloured Laces?

Snuggled amongst the thick forests and hilltops of the Low Tatra Mountains, Central Slovakia, the village of Špania Dolina appears to have an isolation ideal for preserving centuries old craft traditions like bobbin lace making. Accessible only by a single, small road that winds its way from the steep valley below, it is full of picturesque stone cottages built up the steep mountainside. Public transport to and from the village is sparse and in winter heavy snowfall cuts it off from the outside world for days at a time.

Špania Dolina was founded in the mid-thirteenth century, when the discovery of an exceptionally high content of copper and silver in the local rock led to the establishment of primitive mines in the local area. In the early 15th century, the powerful Augsburg banking family, the Fuggers, formed the world’s first mining corporation together with the Hungarian Thurzo family, in order to invest in and exploit the riches beneath Špania Dolina (and other villages in the local area). Seeking qualified labour, the Fugger-Thurzo corporation invited German and Bohemian miners familiar with the newest technology of the era to settle in local villages. Špania Dolina – known then as Herrengrund – became the site of a very successful mining business with two large shafts, one accessed directly from the centre of the village. It is thought that the technique of bobbin lace making was brought to the area by the wives of these miners. While the mining industry provided a steady employment for local men for almost three centuries, lace making established itself as a local cottage industry as women supplemented the income of their husbands by making and selling lace.

The lace produced in mining villages tended to be white or cream in colour, made of finely spun linen and metal thread. As lace was a commercial product, the styles produced followed the dictates of fashion. While most of the lace was meant for the rising urban bourgeoisie, lace makers in mining villages also had regular markets among certain villages in rural areas where peasant women relied on a steady supply for the decoration of their costume.

By the mid-19th century, however, the local rock was depleted of valuable metals and the mining boom was well and truly over. Both of Špania Dolina’s mining shafts were closed, starting a long, slow decline of the community into poverty and hardship. The lack of local employment led villagers to seek a life elsewhere; some emigrating as far away as North America. Well into the middle of the 20th century, it was common practice for male villagers to work as migrant labourers in mines and factories elsewhere, leaving behind their wives and children. According to the village Kronika – a record of the village complied by schoolmasters and mayors over more than a century – Špania Dolina’s population fell from 1106 in 1893, to 706 in 196, and eventually having only 150 inhabitants in 1990.

During this time, lace making remained the only constant source of income available within the village. The cottage industry helped keep families afloat, and children were often required to make lace to help support their families until they could leave school at the age of fourteen for jobs as servants or as unskilled labour in the nearby city of Banská Bystrica. Lace making was an integral part of the socialization of children and part of social life: in the evenings, women would gather at the homes of friends and family and make lace in small groups – a custom known as priadky. It was also sold to the owners of the village shop and to shops in Banská Bystrica. A few lace makers, called ‘flagniarky’, would purchase lace from their fellow villagers and travel across Slovakia, and beyond to Hungary, Romania, Croatia and Slovenia to sell their wares. These travels were often undertaken by unmarried young women in small groups who were relatively free from household responsibilities. In other words, without lace these communities would not have remained financially and socially viable.

Ironically, Špania Dolina today prospers on its past marginalisation. The end of the mining business allowed the recovery of the local ecosystems which had been destroyed by the industry, granting Špania Dolina much of the pleasant, romantic charm that attracts domestic and foreign tourists alike. Declared an architectural heritage site by the socialist Czechoslovak government in 1965, the fact that most villagers lacked the funds to modernise their homes now plays to the village’s advantage. Lace making, for so long associated with poverty, has now become a celebrated local craft. Indeed, by the time I started doing fieldwork in the village, craftswomen in Špania Dolina were already used to getting attention from not only from ethnographers, but also the local and national press, as well as domestic and international television crews:

I am always getting letters, because many people know me as a lace maker. From America too. Now Polish TV came when the Pope was here in Bystrica [visit of John Paul II in 2004]. Well, they came here first of all for the lace. And I asked ‘what did you come for?’ And they said for our Holy Father and for lace and please make some lace. And they filmed me. They were interested in it, because they make lace in Poland too. They make a lot of lace there. People are interested, because it is handicraft. When they see those bobbins, well that alone says something’.

Lace and lace making offered a window to the outside world for these craftswomen, most of whom were elderly, spoke no foreign languages and had travelled little beyond the borders of Slovakia. As lace diffused out of the village and – quite literally – into the wider world, lace makers would find themselves receiving postcards, letters of thanks and photos from Europe and beyond.

Lace also facilitated cross-cultural encounters within the village itself. Many lace makers made a large amount of smaller, relatively inexpensive lace edged doilies, furniture covers and tablecloths for the tourist season. They chose designs that were not laborious, but had proven popular with clients in the past. One lace maker who I visited frequently made all her lace in one design, and selected the colour of her materials according to what she perceived was the taste of German tourists. Local lace makers claimed that while Slovaks preferred their lace white, cream or the colour of unbleached linen thread, Germans and Americans liked pieces where brightly coloured threads were used to create or encircle motifs in a neutral hue. Indeed, it was generally acknowledged amongst the craftswomen I knew that Germans and Americans loved brightly coloured lace, and gaudy artefacts. However, despite their regrettable lack of taste, they were thought to be the nations most partial to buying lace and having the deepest purses.

Tourists were always welcome clients. Attracted by Špania Dolina’s architectural heritage, the mountain scenery, paths marked for walking and hiking, or the lace itself, both Slovak and foreign tourists wandering into the village usually had little prior knowledge about the number of craftswomen working there, how to approach them or indeed, whom to approach. They most often bought from the first (and only) lace maker they encountered and were unaware of the individual variations on the local style that marked out the product of one lace maker from that of her colleagues. Lace makers saw no incentive to change the relative lack of information for visitors. In fact, in some ways, it worked to their advantage: tourists did not spend much time deciding on which piece they would like, they generally payed willingly and were not very knowledgeable in terms of quality or skill. Best of all, tourists disappeared taking their piece and the secret of the price away with them.

Price – and sales in general – were a touchy subject. Most of the lace makers I encountered appeared to negotiate the price of their products at the moment of sale, working with a ratio of social distance (that is, acquaintances were charged least for a piece, strangers more, and foreign tourists the most). When tourists tried to haggle with them, however, they were accused of wanting to buy the lace ‘for nothing’. Lace makers did not agree on any general pricing system, or advertise and sell their laces together. Rather, every lace maker worked for herself, leading to the feeling that they were all competing for the same clients and income. Sales were the stuff of local gossip. Lace makers I visited would speak of their own sales as lamentably few and far between and then wonder out loud whether their friends and neighbours ‘were working’ (probably hoping I might provide the answer). The assumption was that any women who were making lace were doing so for a client.

Because sales were such a difficult subject, lace makers constantly sought to deflect attention from their commercial endeavours. Sales involved an elaborate ritual of verbal disclaimers and a display of specific body language. Typically lace makers would excuse themselves with financial problems or told the client that sale ‘covers the cost of materials’, and they made sure to underline their own incompetence in retail matters by saying that they didn’t ‘know how to set a price’. The sales I observed were generally accompanied by squirming, cast-down eyes and phrases such as ‘I really don’t know what to ask’ and ‘I don’t sell expensively, I’m not that sort of person’.

However, this was more than simply a performance designed to protect lace makers from criticism or make the buyer feel they got a nice discount; many craftswomen found sales genuinely shameful and delegated commercial transactions to a friend or relative. These people usually worked voluntarily to facilitate orders and relay payments for finished pieces, making use of their own social and professional connections in order to place lace artefacts in commercial outlets. Such work was understood as ‘favours’ and ‘helping out’ amongst friends and family, and never paid. In this way, sales remained hidden from public view and lace makers could feign disinterest in the commercial aspect of their practice. However, it also meant that the line between favours and commercial transactions became blurred, complicating their relationships with friends and family.

All images by the author; except the blue/white lace sampler (sourced from

Making Lace in Central Slovakia

Doing fieldwork amongst bobbin lace makers in the Central Slovak villages of Staré Hory and Špania Dolina in the mid- to late 2000s, I was faced with an unexpected paradox: when speaking to me, artisans would present their craft work as a pleasurable hobby, then as menial labour, and later as a dangerously addictive obsession. In the very same conversation, I was told that making lace was ‘work’ and a way of ‘making do’ in times of economic hardship, and barely a breath later artisans would claim that craft practice was nothing more than a personal indulgence and a ‘labour of love’. Artisans seemed equally ambivalent in their descriptions of their experience of making lace itself. They would emphasize the emotional and therapeutic aspects of craft practice, and then warn me that it could develop into an obsessive ‘sickness’ or a kind of nervous disorder for which there was no cure. The process of making was described in terms of mastery and control, but also in terms of submission brought on by a seduction of the craftswoman by her own tools.

 The lace making village of Spania Dolina in Central Slovakia.

Weaving lace, I was often told, is an emotional experience. This was most eloquently expressed by the lace maker I call Hana Majerová, who saw her special relationship with the craft as stemming from her memories of family life in the village of Staré Hory:

……very few of the women who do it today, have developed such an emotional relationship with it as I have, literally emotional, because for me, just the sound of the lace making, for me it is magical. It…already when my grandmother used to do it and I sat beside her as a child, it……is peace and quiet. And that is why I have a very good relationship to it, because….today, when people run, fly about, chase each other around, they don’t have time and I can afford to – quietly, with calm nerves and a calm soul – just sit and work.

Hana expressed the opinion that women in lace making clubs pursued technical perfection for its own sake, and that they could not have such an emotional bond with the craft because they had no kinship connections to the lace making communities in Staré Hory or Špania Dolina. Yet, I found that regardless of their family background, the vast majority of lace makers presented lacemaking as evoking emotion. I found that many of my informants fell into lace making a time of change or crises in their lives. Women continually pointed out that it ‘took the mind off’ marital problems or the grief at the loss of relative:

(And when you started, what interested you in it?) I’ll tell you, when you want to make lace, you have to concentrate on it, especially when you are a beginner as I was. And all your worries are set aside. When my husband was very ill, I cried all day, but when you make lace, you have to concentrate on that work… concentration on something else.

A characteristic description of the effect of intense sessions of lace making was the loss of the sense of time passing. Apart from making them ‘forget the time’, lace makers also told me that while making lace, there were periods when they lost awareness of what was going on around them. The American-Hungarian psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has described this experience as a state of ‘flow’. Characteristic of this ‘flow’ sensation, is that the actor – completely engrossed in their activity – concentrates on the skills needed to perform the task and the limitations and possibilities presented within, reflecting little on what may happen around them. I found that learning a new stitch or a new pattern was well-known a source of such a ‘flow’ experience for local lace makers. As the lace maker Jana Horvathová recounted:

And this, when I was learning………I couldn’t learn the half stitch. The lady who taught me would ask ‘What are you doing?’ And I (would say) ‘I’m undoing again’. And now look how nice it is! I like doing it now. And I was giving up, ‘I won’t do it’ I said.

The pleasure with which Jana described how she finally learned the half-stitch illustrates how the acquisition of skill was experienced emotionally. Jana had quite literally mastered the half-stitch because it was only when she was no longer engaged in a frustrating battle with bobbins and thread which did not respond to her efforts that she experienced the ‘flow’ sensation which followed confidence in craft activity.

 A lace maker from the village of Stare Hory, Central Slovakia, shows off a lace tablecloth.

Mastery, therapy, and control, however, were only some of the terms which lace makers used to articulate the emotional outcome of their tactile involvement with their pillow. Indeed, compulsion and obsession emerged as the ‘darker side’ of craft work in my conversations with them: there was apparently a constant danger that the therapeutic value of lace making could be subverted and rather than the lace maker gaining control over the process, it would force her into submission. All my informants described lace making as their love, but also as a curse. Craftswomen warned beginners – half mockingly, half seriously – that lace making is a ‘sickness’ which will never release them once they have come under its spell. Several lace makers told me that they became ‘unwell’ if they did not have an ongoing project pinned on their pillows at all times. This meant that they suffered from a sorts of nervous frustration which could only be mitigated by vigorous activity:

I feel totally sick if I can’t work [make lace]. Sick. I cook, I clean and clean.

Receiving new designs, lace makers described themselves as grabbed by an irresistible urge to execute it, and stubbornly refused to complete other tasks before they had mastered it. Upon encountering a problem, they stayed up long after the rest of the family had retired to bed to battle it out with the pillow, or found they could not rest:

Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up. To see whether I can master it or I can’t master it.

This submission seemed not only to have a pleasurable aspect, but also an addictive power. The un-worked pillow often came up in conversation as a picture of seduction, the pillow itself often being treated as the lace maker’s partner (or adversary) in the process of production. It was not unusual for artisans to stroke (or hit) and speak to their pillows (‘Sit still’! or ‘Now, look what you have done’!).

The author making lace while doing fieldwork.

Lace makers were keen to emphasize the pleasurable aspects of lace making (the paired aspects of therapy and submission). However, as I befriended different artisans, I began to hear them speak of craft activity in much more instrumental terms:

Well, in the summer I don’t make much anyway, when it is so hot, your hands sweat. (So one can work better in the winter?) Yes! (But there isn’t any light?) During the day I work 2-3 hours, and then again in the evening…Everywhere the light has to be turned on at 4 – 5 o’clock, so I work until 9 – 9:30, but only with the white thread. I can’t work with the dark ones, because that is [too much] on the eyes.

Jozefina Mišíková was a lively elderly lady, who at the age of 70 began selling her lace by renting stands at folk festivals and seasonal markets across the country. Mišíková reasoned that she was lonely after her husband’s death, but also that she needed an extra income to supplement her meagre old age pension. Despite her advanced age, she was not only willing to travel several hundreds of kilometres to attend festivals, but she was also a very astute saleswoman, quickly mapping which festivals were worth attending, as well as the tastes of various groups of clients. Mrs Mišíková’s efforts to gain a small income from her craft work were not unique: Whether in Banská Bystrica town, or in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory, lace making emerged as a way of ‘making do’, that is, of supplementing the income from employment, old age pensions, and social benefits. For some informants, like the 26-year-old designer Jaroslava Genderová, who worked for a local clothing manufacturer in Banská Bystrica, ‘making do’ through lace making was a vital part of the family’s domestic economy – the manufacturer she was working for was limping towards bankruptcy and owed her several months wages. As another lace maker living in Špania Dolina told me: Well in this day and age every crown is precious. I don’t mean just for me, but for the other ladies too, for everyone.

The history of lace making as cottage industry in the villages of Špania Dolina and Staré Hory means that the craft has always been associated with the need for ‘making do’ in these communities:

(So you learned how to make lace as a small child?) Yes, probably about at the age of 9. I started working then……every day, I had to make such two-three forms (worth), and then mother went to sell it, when there were 5 meters. Because that is how we made our living. Father was always ill. So, my mother worked and I did too, she taught me.

This lace maker’s description of her childhood in the 1940s was typical of that of many of my elderly village informants. The association of lace making with poverty alleviation was further strengthened after the Communist Party’s collectivisation of craft work through the ÚĽUV2 and the organisation Kroj (literally ‘folk costume’), in the early 1950s. As one of my lace making teacher told me:

We used to get orders for holidays, where it had to be done, Sunday, not Sunday, holidays no holidays, it had to be done. So many times I worked all of a Sunday or holiday, so I could get it done. She knew who would do it. (Did they pay more?) No, well they did, but not much. You got more for being able to do more and more complicated (designs). I tried. Those who didn’t need to, didn’t.

Ana Paličková’s statement that ‘(t)hose who didn’t need to, didn’t’ take on difficult orders reveals a pragmatic attitude contrasted to women’s propensity to call their lace making a ‘hobby’ or ‘obsession’ at face value. Moreover, Mrs Paličková’s comment shed light on the apparently addictive nature of lace making practice: It not only suggested that craftswomen were able to resist its seductive aspects, but that lace makers highlighted various aspects of their craft practice according to the context in which it is spoken of. For example, the lace maker Dagmar Babjaková described lace making both as an obsessive hobby (‘Well, when I have a new pattern, I get up at five in the morning. It won’t (leave me alone), I have to get up’) and a source of income (‘Well, in this day and age every crown is precious’). Pleasure and pragmatism, just like submission and mastery, were not incompatible, but appeared to be used instrumentally by craftswomen in conversation.

When I left the Slovakia and began writing up my findings, I assumed that the experience of lace making as both a pleasurable hobby and as drudgery was unique to the Slovak environment – that is was the result of the harsh economic climate following the end of communism, alongside specific local traditions of domesticity, ideals of femininity, and traditions of lace making as a way for women to supplement the income of their male family members (fathers, husbands, brothers, sons). And yet, when studying the historical experience of lace makers in England in the 19th and early 20th centuries, I found that craftswomen expressed many of the very same mixed feelings of enjoyment, obsession, and distaste towards the craft (see the blog post: Pleasure and Pain: What can lace makers’ tools tell us about their lives?). This begs the question of whether – and to what extent – such feelings are the result of the experience of craft work itself, and how much this experience of making is itself influenced by the social and cultural context in which it takes place.

[All names have been changed to preserve the privacy of the participants]

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