Fabric for a king made by mermaids: Burano lace

Shopping Essentials

Where: Burano, Laguna Veneta, Adriatic Sea, near Venice, Veneto, Northern Italy.
What’s in store: Historic lace pieces of amazing craftwomanship – taking 30 years to produce a tablecloth.
Bag a bargain: 
The original article comes with a sky-high price tag, but see historic pieces and buy a factory replica at Dalla Lidia (Lace Gallery).

Background to Burano

Burano is a 40-minute six-mile boat ride to the north of the lagoon in Venice. It has a population of 7,000. Burano offers a different pace of life to Venice – this is the life of the lagoon. There is only one modest guest house on the island and islanders treat the streets like their front rooms and can be seen outside doing such activities as ironing, making lace, and frying fish.

Burano’s lace making traditions

While the men of Burano fish, the women uphold the island’s lace making traditions. The story goes that a sailor, leaving his fiancée at Burano, came across a mermaid while out at sea who shook her tail and whipped up a crown of sea foam which became a bridal veil for the sailors betrothed. Later the young girls of the island copied the veil with needle and thread. The reality is that the women of the island used to repair their husbands fishing nets while they were away and probably started lace-making out of boredom.

The Burano tradition of the ‘punta in aria‘ (air stitch) dates back to the fourteenth century, when the Duchess Morosina Morosini, wife of Doge Morosini, set up a lace workshop on the island and employed over 100 people. By the sixteenth century, the lace was renowned for its quality across Europe – Louis XIV of France wore a black collar of Burano lace that took two years to make. By the eighteenth century, Burano lace had lost much of its cachet and became perilously close to extinction, but it was revived in the late nineteenth century by Contessa Marcello and by the start of the twentieth century Venice and the islands between them employed some 5,000 lace makers in seven major factories. Nowadays, real Burano lace is a phenomenally expensive luxury and a dying art since it takes three years for ten women to make a single tablecloth.

Where to buy Burano lace

Choose carefully if you plan to buy lace on Burano as these days much of the cheaper stuff is imported from China. You can still occasionally see women working away at their lacy creations in the shade of their homes and in the parks. The Museo del Merlettoexplores the craft and history of Burano lace.

For a closer view of Burano lace without the cost visit the Dalla Lidia – Lace Gallery. The gallery houses both modern and antique pieces of various shapes and workmanship including a fan belonging to Louis XIV, a 1,280 centimetre long mat, a bedspread made for Napoleon Bonaparte’s son, a handkerchief for the coronation of Napoleonembroidered with a design of five eagles, and eighteenth century embroidered parasols with ivory handles. The shop has the island’s best and widest variety of items for sale including handkerchiefs, tablecloths, and spreads.


By Nicole Dudley