Clementina Brescianino

It is believed that in Italy the art of macramé first appeared in Liguria, making this region an essential point of reference for historians. The excellent research carried out by M. Daniela Lunghi and Loredana Pessa is considered a benchmark: Macramé - The art of knotted lace in Mediterranean countries, 1996, published by Sagep, Genoa.

Rather than attempt my own summary of the things I would like to convey to all about macramé, here are just a few excerpts from this beautiful, well-researched volume, which also contains a vast list of reference works and a wealth of images, which I hope will arouse your curiosity and interest.

"It would be too simple to affirm that macramé was invented by sailors. In fact, although they did use knots to make small items such as belts, hammocks and small bags, a great deal of time, a bright, clean working area and delicate hands were needed to make lace for a hand towel or a linen tablecloth... conditions hard to find on board a merchant ship. The sailors on the sailing ships off the coast of Liguria had a different, albeit important task: that of selling the lacework created using this technique in the ports of call. According to an ancient custom, as early as the XIII century, on the merchant ships that sailed from Camogli, Sori, Recco, Rapallo, Voltri, Pegli and Genoa, the personal luggage of any sailor contained a certain quantity of "paccottiglia", meaning various items such as linen cloths from Chiavari...lacework and silverware. These goods were sold when they disembarked, above all around the ports of South America and those in the Pacific. The women in Liguria helped out with this small yet highly profitable trading business by producing items such as lacework and fishing nets. This is how certain fashions started off in Latin America..." (p.26)

The origins of knotting techniques that were the basis of what is now known as macramé date back to the origins of weaving, and the solutions created by weavers to fix the warp threads of the finished product and stop the weft from moving downwards, causing the weave to come undone. The most decorative solution consists in creating a fringe at the bottom of the woven fabric, forming regular groups of threads. These were plaited and knotted together, creating an intricate, lacy edging, ranging from either a single row of regular knots up to a true type of lace. The use of knotted fringes to ornate garments was recorded as early as the Assyrian period in the 9th century BC One example of these rare museum exhibits is the tunic from Roman Egypt which dates back to the 1st century BC was found in the excavations of 1978 of the fortified city of Qasr Ibrim on the Nile" (p.27)

However, it is not possible to determine exactly where or when the art of macramé began, because the technique of intertwining vertical threads, of various types of textile fibres, which are knotted to form a woven fabric without the use of a loom, is common to all ages and civilizations." (p.30)

"A great modern scarf from Columbia proves how the art of macramé spread throughout the American continent, where it is also referred to as "Mexican lace". It is now difficult to understand whether this is a legacy of pre-Columbian civilizations or if it was brought from Europe by the Spanish conquistadors." (p.32)

"All the definitions given until now for the term "macramé" agree unanimously on its Arabic origin; some researchers affirm that macramé was used in Arabian countries as early as the XIII century to create ornamental fringes and embellish garments. Macramé derives from the Arabic mahramatun (handkerchief) or migramah (ornamental fringe), from which the Ottoman-Turkish words mahrama and makrama also derive (meaning hand towel or headscarf with an embroidered or woven decoration).
Rather than an invention (we have seen just how widespread and old this knotting technique is), some of its applications, terminology and above all the spreading of this art in the Mediterranean area are considered to be almost certainly from the Arab world.
It is in fact very widespread in countries which came under Islamic influence, such as Moorish Spain and Sicily, or in cities such as Genoa where there was a great mercantile trade and many contacts with the Moors which lasted for several centuries." (ibidem)

"In confirmation of its Arabic origin is the fact that in Andalusia, where objects have been produced for several centuries using the art of knotting, macramé takes its name from the so-called 'morisco fleco' (Moorish fringe)".(p.63) "...Thin ropes of macramé have been used to make harnesses for donkeys, mules and oxen in Liguria and Sicily since the start of the last century. Sicily is another region which has strong ties with the Arab world which date back a long time." (ibidem)

"In the second half of the nineteenth century lace became fashionable everywhere. Alongside mechanical production which mocked long-gone patterns at very low prices, the first collections were started with the essential aim, rather than preserving the art, of creating collections and samples to be used in lace-making schools and cooperatives, which were set up for charitable and moral purposes and were sponsored by enthusiastic noblewomen."(p.69) (followed by a number of quotations )

"In 1883, after several attempts, M. Charles Wetter invented so-called "chemical" lace, with which it was possible to imitate, with amazing results, historical types of lace such as reticelli lace, the more complex Venetian lace, Irish lace, filet lace, Sol lace and also macramé... I have often noticed that both contemporary Italian stylists and the fashion magazines refer incorrectly to "macramé" as a type of mechanical lace with a certain consistency, used for lingerie or to ornate feminine garments." (p.72)

"Between the end of the 19th century and the early 20th century, there was a great revaluation of applied or decorative arts, favoured by the Art Nouveau style, which gave rise to typically national variants in all European countries and in the USA, with different characteristics everywhere." (p.77)

It would be too simple to affirm that macramé was invented by sailors. In fact, although they did use knots to make small items such as belts, hammocks and small bags, a great deal of time, a bright, clean working area and delicate hands were needed to make lace for a hand towel or a linen tablecloth... conditions hard to find on board a merchant ship.
Amongst the various techniques in the textile industry, macramé is also coming back into fashion, with an enthusiastic response." (ibidem)

"After World War II, the interest for decorative arts in general, in particular for feminine arts, seemed to fade away. This was the case especially in Italy, perhaps due to a phenomenon of refusal: feminine arts had been subject to a great deal of propaganda under the Fascist regime which had used them rhetorically to support the ideal that a woman should be devoted exclusively to having children and taking care of the home." (p. 79)

"In addition to the lace-makers who nowadays craft items in macramé only occasionally, either for themselves or a restricted number of customers (until just a few years ago many nuns practiced this art in convents dotted around Italy), some contemporary artists have revalued this technique.
Macramé is not an applied art, in fact, but one of pure and original creative expression, free from any traditional, practical usage. (p.82)