Maltese lace

Detail of a modern piece of Maltese lace. Detail of a modern piece of Maltese lace. Courtesy Textile Research Centre, Leiden (TRC 2007.0645).

Maltese lace is a form of guipure bobbin lace that was introduced in the early nineteenth century by Genoese lace makers to the Mediterranean archipelago of Malta, and in particular to the island of Gozo. It is normally made of an ecru coloured, silk yarn, with the Maltese cross as a characteristic element in the design. Black samples are also made, and especially from the late nineteenth century Maltese lace is often made of linen.

Maltese lace is associated with Lady Hamilton Chichester (Lady Harriet Anne Butler, died 1860), who in the 1830s introduced lace makers from Genoa (Earnshawl 1982:107). She was the wife of George Hamilton Chichester, 3rd Marquess of Donegall (1797-1883), a prominent member of the Anglo/Irish aristocracy. Lady Hamilton Chichester worked with Sarah Austin (1793-1867), who was a prolific translator from German to English and mother of the famous explorer and Middle Eastern specialist, Lady Duff-Gordon. Sarah Austin visited Malta with her husband, the English legal theorist, John Austin (1780-1859) in 1836. Their aim was to help local women with new sources of income, namely silk lace that was becoming more and more popular with fashionable ladies as part of their crinoline dress ensembles.

Coloured postcard with a Maltese woman making lace (TRC 2020.4905).Original Maltese lace is characterised by plaited strands or braids, small, plump leaves, sometimes known as ‘wheat ears’ or ‘oats’, as well as by the Maltese cross, which has four, equal length arms. Furthermore it generally shows a geometric overall design. Apart from the Maltese cross, all these characteriscs are shared with original Genoese lace. The cross was apparently added in the 1830s by Lady Hamilton Chichester because Genoese lace was very similar, and by adding the Maltese cross it became quickly identified with the island by locals as well as the tourists who were buying this type of lace (Earnshaw 1982:108).

To the left: Coloured postcard of the early twentieth century with a Maltese woman in traditional dress in front of an upright lace pillow. Courtesy Textile Research Centre, Leiden (TRC 2020.4905).

Maltese lace is normally worked on a long, narrow pillow (trajbu) that is placed almost vertically. It is about 60 cm long, and made of dry straw wrapped up in hessian cloth. This bundle is subequently covered in cotton, newspaper and flour paste. After having been dried in the sun, it is covered with brown paper. The bobbins (combini) used are normally very long, thin forms of wood with no beaded spangle at the lower end. They are normally made of the wood from a fruit tree.

One of the first times this type of lace was exhibited was in the Great Exhibition in London, in 1851. In the Malta section to the catalogue to the Great Exhibition, for example, there were references to lace collars, black lace collars as well as knitted laces (Anon 1851:165). Queen Victoria seems to have been a great admirer of Maltese lace, and she is said to have submitted a sample of lace to the Exhibition of Industries, in London in 1881. Her statue in Republic Square in Valletta, the Maltese capital, shows a shawl being displayed over her lap, and the garment may represent a sample of Maltese lace.

Whether or not she preferred Maltese lace made of silk or of linen remains a moot point; since the late 19th century, linnen was widely used for the lace, although linen lace was mostly used for larger pieces, such as table cloths and curtains.

It is alleged that samples of Maltese lace were sent to China to be copied; this story may reflect a modern reality.

Maltese lace was very popular from the mid-19th century onwards and was copied in Britain, for example, with the newly ‘invented’ Beds Maltese (Bedfordshire or Bedfordshire Maltese) lace form, a style of bobbin lace that was somewhat disapproved of at the time by lace traditionalists (Earnshaw 1982:108). It soon went out of fashion, partly because of the costs of its production.

To the right: Sample of twentieth century silk Maltese lace, courtesy Textile Research Centre, Leiden (TRC 2020.4881).

Another derivation, so it seems, is Hainault lace, which resembles Bedfordshire lace and which was developed in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in southern Belgium.

The TRC in Leiden has set up an online exhibition on the subject, 'Maltese lace' (2020).

Sources of information:

  • Anon (1851). Official Catalogue of the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations, London: Spicer Brothers.
  • Azzopardi, Consiglia (2007). ‘Lacemaking in Malta’, The Gozo Observer, no.16, June 2007, pp. 27-18. Available here
  • idem (2020). Maltese Lace History & Mystery, Four Centuries of Bizzilla.. MaltaKite group.
  • Earnshaw, Pat (1982, 1984). A Dictionary of Lace, Aylesbury: Shire Publications Ltd.
  • Levey, Santina (1983). Lace. A History. Maney Publishing.
  • Maltatina, 'Bringing Maltese lace making back to life', 2 July 2019 (click here)
  • Special portal for information on Maltese lace, see

WV, 9 May 2021.


Last modified on Monday, 10 May 2021 16:22
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