The peaceful island of Burano is the undisputed capital of Italian lace history. A 45-minute boat ride from the Piazza San Marco, Burano is worth the trip to see lacemakers work their magic. Today, Burano is known for its quiet alleys, its brightly painted houses, its picturesque fishing boats, and its lace shops selling everything from doilies, tablecloths, babies’ baptismal gowns, jewelry, and many other knickknacks.
Rare Beauty: The Art of Burano
You should understand that purely handmade lace is extremely rare today. Much of the lace on Burano is made using the hybrid technique described above, relying on machine-sewn designs with hand finishing. The island’s shops also sell many pieces that are exclusively machine-made. Beware: some of these are not made on Burano at all.
Lacemaking machines weave cotton thread many times faster than the human hand. By contrast, even a small finished piece of handmade needle lace can take weeks to craft. Therefore, the price for handmade lace is typically many times more than a machine-made version of the same kind of work. Today’s labor prices make handmade work cost-prohibitive except for expensive custom work on a small scale or hand-finished details on a machine-made piece.
Even for machine-made lace, however, quality may vary widely. The easiest way to recognize a lower-quality piece of machine-made lace is that the stitches appear extremely tight and the finished product feels stiff. The designs are so flawless that only a machine could have made them, giving an overall sterile and lifeless effect. By contrast, handmade laces are delicate and contain imperfections only the human hand could create. However, some machine-made lace is so fine that it is difficult even for experts to tell the difference.
The Lace Museum
The old lace school on Burano closed in 1961 after a series of financial difficulties, but a Lace Museum was formed in 1981 and it now occupies two former gothic palaces. The museum should be your first stop on Burano, as you can usually watch lacemakers working there firsthand. Before buying, it’s important to view authentic Venetian lace from past centuries. The collection includes a rotating exhibition of several hundred authentic pieces, so it’s a great place to train your eye.
If you have your heart set on handmade lace, you can commission a company such as Jesurum or an individual lacemaker to craft a custom work for you. Keep in mind that these will be small works. A large piece could take years or longer to craft entirely by hand, and would command a tremendous price.
It’s a good idea to buy from the museum shop or directly from one of the lacemakers you may see gathered outside, working a pattern with needle and thread. Venice is one of the most tourist-trap-filled cities in the world, so always buy from a reputable source and be careful that you’re not paying an exorbitant price for a hastily made piece that may have been fabricated elsewhere.
Price point: Genuine, handmade lace from Burano should cost at least ten times more than its machine-made counterpart, based on the number of hours that go into its making.