The lacemaker's wrinkled hands are surprisingly agile. This seventysomething lady in Prainha, on the northeastern coast of Brazil, rapidly maneuvers two dozen wooden bobbins, which make a pleasant clicking sound as she works. Seeming to read my mind, she smiles and says that her fingers have worked these bobbins since she was old enough to follow her mother's directions. Incongruously, her frenetic movements produce a miniscule lace fragment. In fact, a full day's work yields just a few inches of delicate finery.
The extraordinarily laborious craft of bobbin lace (renda di bilros in Portuguese) came to Brazil along with Portuguese colonists who claimed its beautiful northeastern coastline as their own in the 17th century. Portugal already counted a rich tradition of lacemaking, and colonists continued the practice in the New World. Mostly the province of women, lacemaking was passed down from mothers to daughters, who learned by watching and repeating their motions. While their European ancestors considered lace a luxurious fashion accessory, in the New World, the craft seemed a natural extension of more mundane trades that were already vital to the seaside culture: the making of baskets, hats, hammocks, and fishing nets. Early colonists made lace to pass the time and supplement their families' income, making doilies, collars, and tablecloths out of white and colored linen threads.
Lace can be produced either with a needle and thread (needle lace) or by interweaving threads wound on bobbins. Bobbin lace is the predominant type of lace made on Brazil's northeastern coast. The technique begins with a pillow, almost always homemade, and stuffed with cotton, grass, or even banana leaves. The pillow forms the workspace for the rendeira, or lacemaker, who props it in her lap or places it on a special wooden stand made for that purpose. She then covers the pillow with a lace template on paper or cardboard. A collection of pins—commercial sewing notions or, in a pinch, cactus thorns—holds the design in place on the pillow.