With ethical consciousness growing among customers the world over, many young local fashion designers are looking to the past for inspiration. They have begun to value traditional arts and crafts and in the process Beeralu lace has found its way into high fashion clothing in a big way.
The Sinhala name for lace is Renda – which is of Portuguese origin. This is not surprising because it’s the Portuguese who in the 16th century introduced this refined craft to Sri Lanka. It gained popularity as a national craft by women living on the southwestern coast of Sri Lanka. Older residents recall many women seen seated amidst the sailing boats and catamarans patiently creating the most beautiful designs, while waiting for the men folk to return from sea.
In Portugal, the lace-making industry is still carried out in border fishing villages such as Caminha, Vila do Conde, Setubal and Azurara. Some of the museums in Portugal, such as the Museu das Rendas de Bilros, display well preserved specimens of the articles used in the past in lace making.
Beeralu lace making in Sri Lanka today is purely a traditional cottage industry in villages along the southern belt, especially Ambalangoda, Balapitiya, Dodanduwa, Galle, Habaraduwa and the hinterland.
The art of Beeralu came down from generation to generation to the third and fourth generations and served to augment the family income, while also providing satisfaction to the lace-maker herself. It was a flourishing and profitable hobby with a keen demand from both locals and foreigners. The technical skill of the lace maker depends on the interaction of designer’s talent.
However, the introduction of the open economy in 1977 and employment opportunities opening up for women, village women left their homes to find work in Colombo or in factories. At the same time, middlemen entered the trade and this resulted in minimum income for the end producer of the lace. Beeralu lace thus became almost extinct, save for those who produced lace for their personal use. It became a tradition of the past.
Beeralu lace-making is a delicate and intricate craft. The lace-maker has to first prepare a stencil (or Esbisalaya in Sinhala), and to do so, she needs to know all the different types of knots used in lace-making. The stencil is made on a piece of cardboard using graph paper and the pattern is then traced onto a piece of paper. This in turn is fixed onto the rotatable structure of the Beeralu Kotte or pillow, the wooden implement used to make lace. She will then commence weaving thread (either cotton or silk) over 30 wooden bobbins, following the traced pattern, using pins where necessary in the design to separate the different kinds of knots.
The wooden bobbins are referred to as BILRU (pronounced Beeralu). The different designs produced on the bottom of the lace implement are called Beeralu Mostara in Sinhala. Mostara is the Portuguese expression of ‘design’.
Due to the intricacy of the designs, Beeralu lace making is time consuming. But the end result is an exquisite piece of finely crafted lace in a unique design.
Today, lace-making, like many other crafts in Sri Lanka, lacks training facilities where the younger generation can learn the craft, and also give experienced lace-makers an opportunity to share and improve their skills. If such educational facilities were available, the younger generation who has abandon lace-making for more lucrative jobs elsewhere, will no doubt understand the value of this traditional craft and take it up as a serious profession.