I awake to the sound of moving water. The sliding door that opens to the ship’s balcony is ajar, and below is the azure Adriatic Sea, splashing against the hull.
It takes me a moment to remember where I am — on a Viking Star ocean cruise ship sailing along Croatia’s Dalmatian Coast, headed today for the little-known island named Pag.
There I will visit a school renowned for the traditional Croatian art of lacemaking. The voice of my heritage calls me to this place; it reminds me of my grandmother, who would have been delighted to see me explore an art she knew so well. Her needle-lace patterns filled our home when I was growing up — our house was replete with doilies, table runners, tablecloths, and lace-fringed pillowcases.
We leave the ship and board a shuttle bus, crossing the bridge that separates Pag from the more populated mainland region of Zadar. As we approach Pag, the island is reminiscent of a moonscape. Its pale rock stands out against the dark blue sea. The vegetation is sparse and people are few.
The central square of Pag Town is surrounded by buildings made from a white sedimentary rock mined on the island. Pag has been inhabited since the Stone Age, and today it is known for two things, both referred to as “white gold” — salt and lace.
Salt-mining has brought commercial wealth to the island, and lacemaking has created a cultural wealth. Pag’s lace is a legacy, with diverse decorative patterns handed down from one generation to the next.
Upon entering the Frane Budak Pag Lace Society’s school and gallery, a mural-sized black-and-white photo catches my eye. Rows of serious-looking young girls, flanked by a few even more serious-looking adults, comprise the first lacemaking class, 1904.
I turn to look at an elderly lady sitting nearby. She appears somewhat frail, yet strong in the determined concentration she applies to her lacework.
She’s making needle lace the way I remember my grandmother making it; a semi-circular, hard pillow rests on her lap and her hand moves dexterously with a needle and white thread, following the lines of the pattern drawn on heavy backing. The lace is later removed from both pillow and backing.
Many Pag lacemakers are known to weave freehand, without drawings to guide them. They are inspired by the designs of their ancestors, and add to those their own creativity. I’ve heard that the Croatian name for Pag’s lacework translates as “the architecture of air,” which seems fitting, given its lightness and the profound design intelligence of its patterns.
Pag lace has long been known as a luxurious material, favoured by royalty such as the Romanian Queen Elisabeth of Wied and the Austrian Archduchess Maria Josepha, who was so enamoured with the lace she kept a lacemaker from Pag at the royal court. It was in the late 19th and early 20th centuries that Pag lace became well-known in Europe, and it was initially associated with high fashion, used on collars, cuffs, hats, and dresses.
Pag lace also evolved in two other ways. It became important in the creation of church décor, including priests’ vestments and altar cloths. And secondly, it became an important part of bridal dowries.
The director of the lacemaking school — which is also a gallery showcasing the lace and its history — says that in this part of the world, lace is a symbol of bridal purity. The more lace that decorates men’s shirt fronts, handkerchiefs, and pillowcase borders in a bridal dowry, the greater the honour and status of the bride and her family.
It’s no wonder that in 2009, UNESCO recognized parts of Croatia famed for lacemaking as areas to protect for their Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Three areas of Croatia were honoured: Pag, with its needle lace; Hvar, with its lace made from the dried agave plant and woven by Benedictine nuns; and Lepoglava, for its bobbin lace.
Before leaving the school and after having looked at the lacework available for purchase in the gallery, I look again at the quiet elderly lacemaker near the entrance. I notice a small, brown, weatherbeaten leather valise at her side. It is filled with lacework. I point to the valise, and she puts down her lacework to open it. I buy two pieces of lace that look like snowflakes.
When I give her the money, she smiles and puts her hand over her heart. With the Viking guide to translate for me, I ask her what it takes to be a good lacemaker. She replies, “Patience and clean hands.”
Martin Buber, a great existentialist philosopher of the early 20th century, once wrote, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveller is unaware.” As I leave Pag, I recall that quotation. I was pulled to Pag’s lacemaking school by the thread of interest my grandmother had spun. And, once there, the region’s unique heritage and artistry unfolded before me in a rich and beautiful pattern, intertwining past and present.