A STITCH in Time
What comes to mind when you think of Maltese bobbin lace? Perhaps watching your great grandmother working lace when you were a child, perhaps listening to stories about where your mother’s most prized tablecloth came from, memories of hawkers at Gozo selling their lace products or images of British royalty wearing our Bizzilla. Even as lace-making slowly and silently fades into our cultural history, we all have some story to tell or some experience to share.
The project A Stitch in Time aims to bring women together, especially women who have faced or are facing difficult life circumstances. In collaboration with Hajja, a social enterprise run by Bibiche Rath, a number of weekly sessions are held where the participants of the project learn new bobbin lace stitches, document their progress, share their lace stories and memories, share jokes and laughter and learn about the cultural history behind the lace. Each session provides a safe space for an exchange to be made: sharing and learning, dotted with moments of calm silence broken only by the relaxing chime of the wooden bobbins knocking each other as they are worked.
Lace can teach you a lot about life and about yourself. It tests you, to see how you deal with making mistakes. It tries your patience, tauntingly only showing you where your bad stitch is 20 minutes and 2 rows later. It teaches you perseverance and resilience as you are faced with the choice to either leave the mistake in, like a permanent blemish and reminder that your piece is flawed, or to undo the work, understand what you did wrong and redo it. It helps you be self-compassionate, because even though you feel frustrated that you made a mistake and need to unravel rows of work, you learn to be kind to yourself, to acknowledge that your are only human, and humans err. Making mistakes is a part of life that we learn important lessons from. Finally, it gives you that sense of accomplishment and with it comes a sense of appreciation for the precious hard work that goes into such a small piece of lace that you and others make. Lace (and friendship) truly are priceless.
When the Covid-19 pandemic struck our islands, our project was threatened by the lock-down. We couldn’t meet every Monday in a group to work lace anymore because of the risk of infection. So two months into the sessions, we were faced with the possibility of being forced to end the project. As we all moved to our homes to work from there, we needed to find a remote solution to keep up the contact with participants. Soon enough we found a way to make the project work, by using recorded tutorials, our Whatsapp group for the project, and Zoom. All participants had a smart phone, through which they could all participate in a Zoom video call. The Arts Council Malta were very understanding and supported the necessary budget changes so that we could accommodate this shift in the way we would meet. Mobile phone holders with flexible necks were purchased and supplied to all participants including the tutor, to free up our hands to work the lace while chatting and following the tutor on Zoom. Some participants needed coaching on downloading and using Whatsapp and Zoom. The tutor had never made video tutorials and being on Zoom as a group took some getting used to. Most participants did not have the materials they needed like the threads, additional bobbins, the pillows, pins and the patterns to make new stitches. Bibiche from Hajja painstakingly prepared and made special Bizzilla Boxes with all the necessary supplies, measuring out different threads for different stitches and organising them with colour codes. Then she made personal deliveries across Malta to get them to the participants.
The challenges were many, but together, we overcame them all. The need to reach out to the participants, even more so as they isolated themselves for their own safety, is what drove us to find a solution. The sessions were originally meant to bring women together, to promote good mental health and to combat social exclusion – and never were those aims more meaningful than in the middle of a global pandemic. Our Arts Council Malta project monitor gave us some great feedback, hailing it as an example of best practice. Ms Annalisa Schembri commented on the “intelligent way (we) got the project to become Covid-proof by pivoting online and acting in an agile way to adapt to the current scenario.” “This gave you the opportunity to problem solve and do things differently from usual, hence developing different skills and approaches towards project management that you might take on even when events in person can take place”, she said.
As difficult and challenging times show the significance of working together and being innovative, we’ll always remember the women who were part of the meeting between a historical centuries-old artistic and cultural craft and modern day technology.