Early Period Armenian Needle Lace

Goal

To show evidence that Armenian needle lace has a much earlier history than the 16th century, which is quoted as when lace originated.

Research and Documentation

In Lace: Origins and History, Samual Goldenberg states that lace as we know it today originated in Europe during the early 16th century. This claim is repeated in the Lace: A Sumptuous History exhibit at the SFO museum, History of Lace by Bury Palliser, and A History of Handmade Lace by F.Jackson, although where in Europe is still much debated. I seek to provide evidence that Armenian needle lace has a much older history going back to at least the 12th century if not much further.

Egyptian Bead and Network Dress,
Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, London, discovered 1923

While commercial lace as we know it today is believed to have developed just prior to the sixteenth century, dresses of elaborate netting and beads have been found in the tombs of ancient Egypt; the Bible mentions “They that work in fine flax and weave net-works.”; and centuries-old Scandinavian burial chambers have yielded fragments of delicate gold embroidery from the 9th and 10th centuries. These are not examples of modern lace, but examples of fine textile work completed early in our known history that may have evolved into the earliest forms of lace.

Gold Embroidery,
New York Times: “’Allah’ Is Found on Viking Funeral Clothes, Oct 14, 2017

Armenian Needlelace and Embroidery by Alice Kasparian, which is the most comprehensive work on Armenian needle lace and is referenced as a credible source by most experts since it was written, states that there are 3 things that have to be present to substantiate the claim that Armenian needle lace was being made earlier than the 16th century. The first thing that is needed is the raw materials. Because of the renowned historian Serik Davtyan,we know that going back to at least the 5th century, Armenia had access to and was producing silk, cotton, linen, wool, and hemp. The second is dying materials. Since there are physical carpet remains dating back to the first millennium, we know that the Armenians had access to this, even if this wasn’t used for needle lace as most lace was white, undyed or was made of metallic thread. The third items that are needed are tools such as needles and cutting implements, all things that have been found in archaeological digs in this region and were used in carpet making.

Copper Medallion, Arubani and husband Khaldi, found in Teishebaini, 1939

Armenian needle lace is reputed as having the oldest history of pure lace. Made with only needle, thread, and scissors, Armenian lace is said to have been around for more than 3000 years. In 1939, the ancient city of Teishebaini was discovered and excavated by Karo Kafadarian and Boris Piotrovskii. It was built in the mid-7th century BC to protect the eastern border of the ancient kingdom of Urartu. Found at this site was both jewelry and statues depicting the goddess Arubani. In all of the images, she is wearing a veil that is edged in scalloped lace pattern. I believe that this is the earliest known depiction of Armenian needle lace.

Arubani, statue found at Teishebaini, 1939

This style of head covering with its lace edging is still used today by women in this region when attending church services or in weddings.

Modern Armenian women worshiping in church

Delicate silk veils edged in lace of gold thread were worn by queens and nobles, and there are examples of delicate lace of gold thread from the 17th century from ecclesiastical garments.

Ecclesiastical cope, first half of the 17th century, with gold needle lace along the edge.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Armenia! Exhibit

There are also depictions in illuminated manuscripts of this kind of lace edging being used in the 12th century.

Ritual Book of Ordination, 1248.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art: Armenia! Exhibit

The textile crafts of this region, including needle lace, were almost exclusively crafted by the women in the family. In Armenia, every girl was expected to learn how to make this lace from a very young age. It was an important part of her bridal trousseau, and girls were expected to weave the cotton and silk fabric as well as adding the lace embellishments on table clothes, bedding, and other household linens. Armenian lace was not part of the commercial lace trade in Europe, and wasn’t part of the lace industry at all until well into the 19th century. Lace was made by families for families or as gifts.

Armenia is one of the few places in the world to have a continuous physical record of their textile crafts dating from the first millennium BC. The oldest carpet fragment in the world is the Pazyryk carpet, now located in the Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, is believed to be of Armenian origin as it is knotted with an Armenian double knot that is still used in carpets made in Armenia to this day.

Pazyryk Carpet, 5th century to 3rd century BC, Hermitage Museum.
Wikipedia

This kind of strength of tradition and culture, despite the many hardships as their land was conquered by the Byzantine Empire, the Persian Empire, and the Mongols throughout the centuries, is why it’s easy to substantiate and find evidence that Armenian needle lace has a much older tradition than the 16th century.

It is my belief that only the delicate nature of this work keeps us from having extant samples of this beautiful craft.

Citation

Goldenberg, Samuel. “Lace: It’s Origins and History.” Lace: Origins and History, Brentano’s, 1904, pp. 1–1.

Kliot, Jules, et al. “Lace: A Sumptuous History.” Lace: A Sumptuous History | SFO Museum, 5 Feb. 2014, www.sfomuseum.org/exhibitions/lace-sumptuous-history.

Palliser, Bury, et al. History of Lace. Sampson Low, Marston & Company, Limited, 1902.

Jackson, Emily, and E. Jesurum. A History of Handmade Lace. Batsford, 1989.

Isaiah, 19:9. New Testament: King James Version. American Bible Society, 1999.

Davtyan, Serik. Haygagab Djanyag. Dilizhan, 1967 – this book is only available in Armenian, and references to this source are through interpretations and references in Wikipedia.

Kasparian, Alice Odian, and Dickran Kouymjian. Armenian Needlelace and Embroidery: a Preservation of Some of History’s Oldest and Finest Needlework. EPM Publications, 1983.

Lindsay, Ian, and Adam T. Smith. “A History of Archaeology in the Republic of Armenia.” Journal of Field Archaeology, vol. 31, no. 2, 2006, pp. 165–184., doi:10.1179/009346906791072016.

Hagop, Kevorkian Fund. “Armenia!” Metmuseum.org, 22 Sept. 2018, www.metmuseum.org/exhibitions/listings/2018/armenia.

Arey, Mark. “Submission, Sexism, and Head Coverings.” Public Orthodoxy, 1 June 2017, publicorthodoxy.org/2017/06/01/sexism-and-head-coverings/.

Tashjian, Nouvart. The Priscilla Armenian Needlepoint Lace Book: Containing Full Directions for Making Edgings, Insertions, Round Doilies, Square and Triangular Insets. Priscilla Pub. Co, 1923.

Wulff, Hans F. The Traditional Crafts of Persia. M.I.T. Press, 1966.

Leslie, Catherine Amoroso. Needlework through History: an Encyclopedia. Greenwood Press, 2007.

22 Replies to “Early Period Armenian Needle Lace”

    1. I can’t wait for my next project, which is going to be about showing me learning how to make the lace and the different fibers! Thank you so much for checking out my exhibit!

  1. Thank you for sharing your project with us! I admit I don’t know much about this type of lace, but I am fascinated. I can’t wait to see any further information you find, and see some examples if you get to making it!

  2. Well written and researched! I look forward to leaning more about this very intriguing topic and seeing your next steps. Thank you for sharing! <3

  3. What a fun project, Aoife! I look forward to seeing more about this topic and this culture, and I eagerly await being able to see it produced: needle lace fascinates me.

    1. I am so glad that you look through my exhibit! I am working on fiber comparisons right now, but should have some finished needle lace pieces here in a little bit. That is going to be my next A&A presentation I think.

  4. Thank you for putting together a fascinating look at needle lace.

    Yours was the first display I looked at because I was so excited to see it! I’d love to talk sources and techniques with you sometime, as needle lace is also something I’ve been trying to learn to do, and also learn more about. It’s often treated as merely the transition from earlier forms of lace to bobbin lace and too seldom gets explored on its own. At least that has been my experience as I’ve tried to research it. Though I’m looking to incorporate it into my (early 16th C German) garb, I’ve been looking for period examples of it anywhere I can find them, and it is not an easy topic to find much mention of at all. I appreciate a little-researched topic!

    Keep up the good work.

  5. You have inspired me to further explore some techniques that I haven’t touched in decades. Needle weaving as lace and trim is something to pick up again with my current projects.

    I understand your tying in the Egyptian and other contemporary lace making. Additional information on how this skill/technique might have crossed over to Armenia would be beneficial to your overall presentation. I especially look forward to seeing your further exploration on this subject.

    Aryana Silknfyre, Laurel, AnTir

  6. Very nice information! Do you make lace yourself? It would be nice to see this kind of lace being made up close. I love getting information on subjects that are off the beaten path. It opens up a whole new experience. Thank you!

  7. I’m glad you chose an Armenian subject, not just because I’m Armenian, but it’s a culture not explored much in the SCA. Your organization of your documentation is excellent. I did get list a bit when you mentioned Egyptian and other cultures since your focus was on Armenian. Since the subject was on Armenian lace, mentioning the Pazyrk carpet also diverted from the subject (unless there was evidence of early lace,) I commend you for your excellent first time effort. I encourage you to continue with this path, it’s a tremendous start. Keep up with your research, and look into university and museum sites where there may be folks to help with transportation. I’m happy to help you, but I can barely read and write Armenian. If you have any questions, please contact me.

    1. I am so glad that you liked it! I was hoping that you would! It is my first A&S event, and I was very nervous! I was trying to reference early period textile crafts, even if they weren’t from the same culture, to add substance to my argument that this art is older than most commercial lace. I look forward to continuing work on this!

  8. Outstanding reference work. Thank you for letting us follow along with your thought process. The one item that may be contentious is the statue wit the “ruffled edge/lace edge” veil. Most of the similar images from Europe have been interpreted as being ruffled. I love the support for your interpretation, and prefer it!

    1. Thank you so much for your comments! I am continuing my research, as well as working on learning how to make this myself! I can’t wait until my next presentation on my working process!

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