Brittany is a relatively isolated region in France’s extreme northwest, and boasts what may be the country’s richest tradition of textile arts–especially lace. Since the Middle Ages, Breton women have woven, embroidered, knitted and laced everything from costumes to tapestries, sailcloth to fishing nets.
Nowhere is the Breton tradition of lacemaking more striking than in the Pays Bigouden, a small sub-region southwest of Quimper, which boasts a tradition of high headgear. No one knows exactly how or when the tradition of these tall coiffes got started, but one thing’s for sure: it’s kept bigoudine women busy toiling away for months during the winter months in a lacemaking frenzy. Some of the more elaborate examples of this traditional headgear are further embellished with embroidery, representing hours of additional labor. The coiffe usually tops off an equally elaborate dress, skirt, and apron, also featuring embroidery and sometimes lace accents.
Up until the French Revolution, tapestry and lacemaking stood among the primary industries of northwestern France. Bayeux and Alençon in Normandy were renowned for their own distinctive lace patterns and smaller towns had their own prolific communities of lacemakers. The lace styles were as individual as the towns themselves: Bayeux was known for black bobbin lace, Alençon for its white needle lace that was so esteemed it was called point de France.
In spite of Breton lace’s far-reaching influence, the tradition of high headgear remains a particularly bigouden tradition, and artisans continue to make these elaborate headdresses today. Typically women don them only during important festivals and folkloric events, but a handful of mostly elderly women continue to wear these fantastic feats of festoonery every day.
For more about the artisanal traditions of northwestern France, read Laura Morelli’s Made in France.
The Venetian Republic began minting a particular type of gold coin called a ducat in the thirteenth century. Venetian ducats were highly valued and actively exchanged in a widespread area across the Mediterranean.
The ducat soon came to be referred to as a zecchino after the name of the Venetian mint, the zecca. Venetian zecchini changed with each ruling doge, and can be dated by analyzing the iconography on each coin.
Eventually it became fashionable for women across the Mediterranean world to stitch Venetian zecchini and other coins to their clothing and headdresses. Variations for the word zecchino–along with a similar Arabic word, sikka–ultimately evolved into sequin to describe any shiny circular adornment used on clothing.
The Ponte Vecchio–the “Old Bridge”–of Florence is the oldest bridge in the city. Constructed between 1339 and 1346, the bridge spans the Arno River, connecting the Piazza della Repubblica with the Oltrarno district.
Both a commercial space as well as a major thoroughfare, the Ponte Vecchio has been a place to browse, barter, and people-watch for more than 600 years. The bridge has hosted shops since its construction in the fourteenth century. Florentines have constructed, reconstructed, renovated, and added onto the commercial buildings on the bridge over that time, and today these structures present a fascinating conglomeration of colors, styles, and functions.
Today the Ponte Vecchio is known for its jewelers who cater to a lucrative tourist trade. For that reason I don’t recommend buying here. Most of the sparkling items in the windows are not handmade, and unfortunately many were not even made in Florence. Still, strolling the bridge and window-shopping are an integral part of the Florentine experience, so don’t miss it! When you’re ready to buy, follow the bridge to the Oltrano district, home to a flourishing neighborhood of artisans who make everything by hand.
1. Pysanky are traditional handpainted eggs made during the Easter season throughout Eastern Europe, especially the Ukraine, Slovenia, Lithuania, Belarus, Poland and Bulgaria. Their origins are lost to history, but ornamented eggs have been excavated from archaeological sites dating as far back as the prehistoric era.
2. Pysanky-makers use the wax-resist method, similar to batik, using a pin-like stylus to draw intricate designs in hot wax. The wax prevents color from adhering to the egg. Artisans apply wax and dye in alternating layers, building the design color by color from light to dark. The process may take many hours.
3. Traditionally people decorated raw eggs, but today many artisans prefer longer-lasting eggs made of wood, ceramic, or other materials.
4. Pysanky decoration varies from region to region, from village to village, from family to family. Many pysanky designs and traditions are handed down over generations, some carefully guarded secrets.
5. Recurring traditional motifs include geometric and plant forms, flowers and birds, and Christian symbols.
For more on pysanky, click here for my interview with Carolyn Flynn of the Albuquerque Journal.
“The connoisseur might be defined as a laconic art historian, and the art historian as a loquacious connoisseur.” –Erwin Panofsky in Meaning in the Visual Arts (1955)
The College Art Association Annual Conference opens today in Los Angeles…
“What a delightful thing is the conversation of specialists! One understands absolutely nothing and it’s charming.” –Edgar Degas
In honor of Chinese New Year, my piece on Chinese silk for National Geographic Traveler…
With the flick of a cigarette lighter, a Shanghai merchant sets the fringe of a silk scarf ablaze. My jaw drops as the fringe singes, then disintegrates into a tiny smoldering pile of fine ash. The merchant smiles. Yes, I know the “burn test” is designed to amaze tourists and differentiate authentic silks from plastic-smelling synthetic threads that curl or melt when burned. Still, it’s impressive that even in China—a country known for mass production—some things remain provably real. Read more of Laura Morelli’s “The Genuine Article” at National Geographic Traveler…