Interviews & Conversations Projects

Sri Lankan Lace Makers

During my time in Sri Lanka I approached a small cooperative: a woman-led lace-making enterprise founded by Leila in Weligama, at the south of the island.
I wanted to document what I knew was considered a waning art and see who was still creating the intricate handcraft, where and how.

I asked my make-shift translator to both ask the three women present and to help explain to me why lace was disappearing from the island. He spoke for a long time lime about the 2004 tsunami and told me how it had wiped out far more women than it had men. He explained how the swathes of fabric, Indian sari-style, encased the body making it hard to swim for the few who knew how to. Men, on the other hand, many being good swimmers and fishermen at the coast had faired better.
With many of the older, knowledge bearing, women, gone the already fragile cottage industry of Beeralu lace making had almost been entirely lost.

Lace making, which is over 600 years old in Sri Lanka, is considered an important part of local heritage on the island even though it has Dutch and Portuguese origins. traditionally, housewives have made the lace as a side income. Their husbands are out fishing and between cooking, cleaning and child minding these women work on a complex and intricate craft. It is a craft passed down from women to their female family members and friends.

Leila, the lace shop owner, has a weathered face. Our translator pointed at her vast array of awards while she stood by silently but persistently pushing the lace in my direction. She was proud and also a dogged sales lady. Not many tourists look for lace anymore. Sales are needed badly in order to support their meagre side incomes through hard and long labour at the loom.

We walk out of her little shop and sit with the other lace-making ladies working in the light breeze which comes off the ocean across the road. The intricate lace design is drawn onto graph paper and then attached to the kotta boley (a paper wrapped cylindrical chunk of coconut husk) with pins which mark out the full pattern. Hundreds of silver topped pin heads create a maze soon to be spun and knotted into a detailed textile. The weaver guides the fine cord or thread around each pin manually, using an often hand carved spindle made from local wood.

The use of the little bobbins is part of what gives the lace its name; in Sinhalese it is referred to as beeralu rende. The word beeralu is derived from the Portuguese word ‘bilro,’ (meaning bobbin), while ‘renda’ is Portuguese for lace.

Ranjeny, Leila and Marleny sit watching myself and the translator chat about the 2004 Tsunami. The ladies look down occasionally at what they’re doing but mostly they work from muscle memory, their hands speeding across the surfaces of the bobbins as they grab and push and twist the threads into form.

Leila has been making lace since she was 10 years old. She teaches her two daughters to make lace and will most likely start teaching her grandchildren soon. The 3m long piece she has been working on has taken her one month. She’ll sell the length of lace for about $30.00 once she has finished it she says.

I asked her how many bobbins she had worked with at any one time. “I work with up to 50 bobbins sometimes. I’ll use them to make one single piece of lace work”. “But how does she possibly remember what she’s doing?” I ask. “I watch the marks on the paper”, she says simply, her bobbins click as they fall. Her hands are a blur but she still looks up at me.

Young people don’t like to do it anymore,” Lucky, my translator, tells me. “Some do it if they are without work or maybe have a little free time at home, but they have other things they want to do now. After the tsunami not many people make lace anymore; the old people moved away, they moved inland. A lot of people became scared of the ocean”.