Weaving and Believing

Agave Lacemaking by the Benedictine Nuns on the Hvar Island

By Croatian National Tourist Board

Island of HvarCroatian National Tourist Board

In the busy historic center of Hvar on Hvar Island in Croatia, a unique lacemaking tradition is preserved by Benedictine nuns.

Hvar agave lace, made only in this monastery, is part of a national lacemaking tradition in Croatia that, along with bobbin lace from the northern town of Lepoglava and needlepoint lace from the island of Pag, was collectively added in 2009 to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

Hvar Island

Despite the strong lace tradition, Hvar Island is best known as an attractive summer resort.

A photo of AgaveCroatian National Tourist Board

What is Hvar lace?

Like the lace of Pag and Lepoglava, Hvar lace is prized for its painstakingly intricate patterns and details made up of thousands of fine threads. What sets Hvar lace apart from others is its source material—it is made of the fibers of agave plants that grow on the island. Agave, also called century plant, has thick, spiky leaves that yield abundant fiber, though they can only be harvested during certain times of the year.

Geometric Hvar laceCroatian National Tourist Board

Once harvested, the fiber is pulled into fragile threads, made longer by a series of tiny knots that are indiscernible in the finished lace. The threads are soaked, dried and straightened before they’re ready for weaving.

Lace detailCroatian National Tourist Board

Tradition holds that the nuns do not make lace when the bura, or north wind, is blowing, as the cold air makes the fiber threads too brittle to work with. The jugo, or southerly wind, is preferred, as it creates warm, humid conditions that make the thread more pliable and durable.

A flower made of laceCroatian National Tourist Board

The nuns begin by attaching a spider-web-like framework to a piece of cardboard—this is the skeleton of the design. Tenerifa, one of the three styles of Hvar lace, adhere to a pattern of concentric circles, often in a sunburst pattern. Tenerifa s mreškanjem is similar, but uses netting as a base for adding circles and other design elements.

Circles and geometry elementsCroatian National Tourist Board

The third style, mreškanje na okviru, applies geometric elements to one or more square grids. Every artisan nun has her own signature style as unique as her fingerprint.

Old town buildings on HvarCroatian National Tourist Board

History of Hvar lace

The Benedictine Monastery of Hvar dates to 1664, when the family of Croatian Renaissance poet Hanibal Lucić (1485–1553) donated his palace to establish the monastery and the attached Church of Saint Anthony (Crkva sv. Ante).

The Benedictine nuns lived in seclusion there for well over a century before opening, in 1826, the first girls’ primary school in Hvar.

The view over HvarCroatian National Tourist Board

The nuns began making their special type of lace in the mid-1800s. Local history holds that sailors or fishermen from Tenerife, Spain, first introduced the delicate lace to the monastery, after which the sisters started to copy the technique.

Lace on tableCroatian National Tourist Board

They found a ready supply of agave plants on Hvar, since the plant had been introduced from the Americas centuries before and flourished in Hvar’s Mediterranean climate.

Closeup shot of elements made of laceCroatian National Tourist Board

Lacemaking became the nuns’ primary activity and remains so today. Hvar lace is one of the most popular souvenirs sold on the island. Visitors to the monastery can tour a small lace museum and see the sisters working on their meticulous craft. The UNESCO inscription has helped draw attention to this exceptional form of craft and will help to ensure its continued production and appreciation.

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