Legend has it that the skill of making lace from agave leaves arrived from the Canary Islands around the mid-nineteenth century. A seaman brought back a sample of Tenerife lace from his latest trip, you could imagine as a gift for his sister, who may have been a nun, or attended convent school. The sister spent time studying the techniques involved, and very soon the nuns of the Benedictine convent were creating even finer work, they say, than the original sample.
Agave plants are not native to Europe at all. Agave comes, in fact, from America, in particular Mexico where it was a staple of the Aztec culture – for food, drink, clothing and really just about anything! Spanish and Portuguese explorers brought back samples of these amazing plants starting in the 16th century, and they became very popular across Europe, especially so during the 19th century for gardens. By now it can be found growing wild in many parts of southern Europe, where they apparently enjoy the climate. Well frankly, who doesn’t? Now I’d always thought these plants grew around the Mediterranean naturally, so how and when did agave get to Hvar? Most likely one of the garden collectors ordered plants, perhaps even Hanibal Lucić, though he may have been a little too early.
Agave americana, or American aloe as it’s sometimes called, is not related to the genus aloe, but is a monocotic succulent – a rather LARGE one! Each rosette of leaves will grow and grow for years, maybe up to 30 years, until finally shooting up a whopping great flower stalk, at which point it dies. By that time the rosette can be several metres across, and the flower spike can reach 8 metres. Impressive! One of its popular names is the “century plant”, though it doesn’t take quite that long to flower! Various types of agave leaves are suitable for producing sewing thread – which is particularly handy as it can come with a natural needle attached! Youtube is full of survivalist tips on how to extract thread from agave leaves in case of emergency. I think you’d have to be pretty desperate to use it for surgery, though!
In the new world, agave fibres are used by the Navajo people for rope, and the needles make good awls for their basketweaving. The type of agave that came over to Europe seems to yield a more refined thread, suitable for creating delicate lacework. Tenerife was well-known for its lace – specific patterns and techniques were developed there, including a way to extract useable threads from agave leaves. Although lace from agave threads is no longer produced in the Canary islands, here on Hvar the Benedictine nuns continue to do so, creating their own very beautiful and incredibly delicate designs.
Lacework is a strong tradition in many areas of Croatia. For example on the island of Pag, where designs are passed down from mother to daughter, they create beautifully intricate pieces of needle lace. In Lepoglava, in the interior of Croatia, the women use bobbin-lace techniques to to create their own lovely version, also based, I understand on Tenerife lace. And here on Hvar, the nuns have their agave lace.
The Benedictine convent and the attached Church of Saint Anthony the Abbot date from 1664, when the Lucić palace was bequeathed to the Benedictine order. The first two nuns came from the island of Pag, and over the years, the convent has run the first girls’ public school on the island (from 1826-86). And in the mid 19th century, they took up making lace from agave leaves.
To extract the filament, the green agave leaves must be picked at a certain time of year and specially processed to produce a delicate white thread of consistent strength and length. By custom, the thread is not worked during a bura, as the cold dry air makes it brittle. It’s much more suitable when a jugo blows from the south, bringing warmer, humid air!
The nuns use three variations of tenerifa in their designs, known as tenerifa, tenerifa s mreškanjem (tenerifa with netting), and mreškanje na okviru (filet embroidering). You can tell the individual work of each woman, as the sisters have their own preferences and styles.
Basic tenerifa lace is created on a piece of cardboard with the pattern marked out in holes, and the foundation of threads set up as a kind of spiderweb. The lace is worked as knots in the web with an embroidery needle. Typically, the design produced uses elements of a sunburst pattern. When the work is complete, the threads holding it to the backing card are carefully clipped, leaving a perfect lace round, and the card ready for the next piece.
Tenerifa s mreškanjem uses the same basic method, but incorporates netting techniques for developing the design. A netting needle is used to create circles of eyelets (mreška) around the central part.
For mreškanje na okviru, decorative motifs are embroidered on a fine network of small square eyelets.
The convent has a display of the sisters’ work, where you can see the different designs – and admire the creativity and patience of the women who made them. The threads are so fine, almost invisible, that it must take really keen eyesight and nimble fingers to work. Imagine embroidering with white fishing line and you’d be pretty close. On our visit, one of the sisters was kind enough to show us her work in progress, and explain all about the techniques. They do have some pieces for sale, both original work and as designs on mugs, coasters, etc.
The Benedictine convent is the former family house of the 16th century poet, Hanibal Lucić, and part of the exhibition display includes a preserved kitchen from that time, as well as church vestments and other objects. The museum is open Monday to Saturday 10am-noon & 5-7pm. Hvar’s agave lace is part of the UNESCO protected heritage program, along with the other Croatian lace-making traditions.
Links to find out more:
UNESCO Cultural Heritage: Lacemaking in Croatia
TZ Hvar Souvenirs: Agave Lace