Sri Lankan women generally don’t swim. They wear long robes covering their legs and ankles. Swathes of fabric, Indian sari-style encase the body, making it hard to swim even if they knew how. Men, on the other hand do swim. They do this from an early age and many become fishermen. The 2004 tsunami, which hit many coast lines, including Sri Lanka, wiped out more women than it did men and it nearly killed the already fragile cottage industry of Beeralu lace making.
Recently I spent some time in the south of Sri Lanka. It’s an area known for its lace making women who sit, under the palm trees, close to the beach, weaving and throwing their bobbins: creating magic. The process of making Beeralu is fascinating. I found it rather unbelievable and wanted to see it for myself.
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. It is mostly housewives who make 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. Lace is a specialized craft, one which is slowly slipping away. I had to go in search of it and only found three local ladies who were still practicing, teaching and selling.
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. It may be a dying art here and 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 few 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 until a fine beautiful textile begins to emerge.
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. After the tsunami not many people made lace anymore. Many people moved away, they moved inland. A lot of people became scared of the ocean”.