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