Philomena is perhaps one of the last of the Bruges lace makers in Kochi. The 78-year-old from Aroor is known for her complex patterns using 26 bobbins. Lace-making and hand embroidery came to Kochi through missionary nuns and thrived in the city’s convents. While lace making is almost extinct, the art of embroidery is not only thriving but has evolved from period motifs and a set clientele to contemporary designs and a global market.
St. Elizabeth Convent in Kattiparambu is one of the hubs of lace-making and embroidery. In an airy, spacious hall filled with sea breeze and bright sunlight, a group of women are immersed in embroidering patterns on cloth. “The hall used to be full of girls but now there are just 35 of us,” says Sister Teresa Varghese, who is in-charge. “There are no lace makers anymore.” Founded by the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary, this unit is “more than 100 years old” and is the largest among the six units the convent runs.
She recalls how, in the 1950s and 1960s, lace-making thrived in the city and girls and women from almost every household were engaged in it. They continued the art taught to them by European nuns and most homes had the curious set of wooden pins held by pins on a pillow. By the 1970s and until the early 1990s, women in Kochi made Bruges lace, also called bobbin or pillow lace.
Petit Point and more
But embroidery seems to have survived, whether it is Petit point, shadow work, cross stitch and rare filet work. These are much in demand and “we have to turn customers down. Where are the girls?” asks Sister Teresa.
Leena Joseph is finishing a nine-yard sari with a three-inch border in Petit point. The exquisite panel of colourful flowers, which will sell for ₹1,50,000, took five months to create and involved the work of 12 women. The most expensive is an eight-inch border, which sold for ₹ 1,85,000.
Leena displays samples of the kinds of embroidery: a menorah or Jewish lamp stand in pink shadow work, cross stitch flowers spread out on a kurta fabric and Petit point motifs. In a quiet corner, Jessie is engaged in the rare craft of making filet lace. Created on a knotted net, this type of lace is made using a long blunt needle and thread. “This art too is dying,” says Sister Teresa. “It requires special talent and is not easy.” Jessie who is from Manassery came to the unit as a 10-year-old and Sister Teresa refers to her as a “treasure” for her fine work and dedication.
There is a sense of sisterhood among the women. As they focus on their precise work, they chant prayers in unison. According to Sister Teresa, their earnings depend on the number of hours they put in. “It could be between ₹3000 and ₹9000. Some do only a three-hour shift as they have to work at home also.”
Lace making and embroidery once flourished in the homes and convents of Kanamally. The decline, says entrepreneur Tom Edwards, from the area, is due to women switching to better-paid jobs. Another factor is the flood of machine-made but exquisitely embroidered pieces from China.
Old world style
The Little Queen Embroidery at Synagogue Lane in Jew Town showcases fabulous lace-edged and embroidered handkerchiefs, doily sets, runners, table mats, coasters, table cloths, frocks and kurtas. The fabric is largely pure white organdie which is set off by the delicate old-world lace. “We set up this shop 50 years ago. Lace making is a dying art; we are reviving it by engaging senior women who once were engaged in this,” says the proprietor, Thomas P.E., as he rattles off the names of the various embroidery stitches: French knot, smocking, hardanger, herringbone stitch, button hole… His unit in Aroor employs 13 women. He explains that Bruges lace is also called Venetian lace and that some designs use 28 or 42 or 68 or even 86 bobbins. He worries that the art will die out, as the younger generation looks for greener pastures.
Down the road from Thomas’ store is Sarah Cohen’s Embroidery Shop. Sarah was one of the last of the Paradesi Jews and died in 2019 at the age of 96. She was known for her decorative Jewish embroidery. “Sarah aunty used to embroider caps and scarves and sacred textile for the Synagogue. Her sewing machine was given to her in 1943. I learned the art from her,” says Taha Ibrahim, her aide, since he was a boy. He shows the variety of embroidery and lace items at the store, which he has pooled in from convents in Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Andhra. The traditional Jewish embroidered pieces, using golden thread, are the showstoppers at the store.
Sandhya Gupta who runs Embroidery Factory works with several embroiderers “handpicked for their natural talent”. Sandhya, who came to Kochi 27 years ago from Hyderabad, has a diverse range of clients spread across the U.S., the U.K. and West Asia. “Embroidery work from Kochi is known for its fine craftsmanship,” she says. “Embroidery has always been a popular way of personalising clothing and accessories and people are using it to add their names, initials and even personal messages to their clothing and accessories.” She highlights trends such as embroidery as surface embellishment on western clothing and the introduction of geometric and abstract shapes and bold bright colours in floral motifs. “It’s all very modern.”
The Bruges lace products in the stores of Kochi come mainly from a convent in Mulagumoodu, near Nagercoil in Tamil Nadu. Over a phone conversation, Sister Selvi, administrator of the Infant Jesus Technical and Educational Institution, Mulagumoodu says, “There are 85 women at our centre and we have three teachers dedicated to teaching how to make Bruges Lace. Our products are mainly sold to VTI in Chennai and in Kolkata and Ooty. Many boutiques and individual clients from Kochi buy our products. We recently did a wedding sari for a Kochi client. The 5.5-meter sari in complete lace took six months and 15 women to finish it. It was priced at ₹245,000.”