A lost art rediscovered
May 26, 1998
Armenian lace -- a lost art rediscovered Some history learned along with needlework
Julie Titone The Spokesman-Review
BONNERS FERRY, Idaho _ Aurelia Riley's fingers fly deftly, as if she were a spider spinning a web. She ties knot after knot after tiny knot.
The result: Armenian lace, a form of needlework that Riley calls a lost art. It is the legacy of a roving artist who visited her Italian family in Western Washington.
``The lady who taught us lived in Seattle, said the 79-year-old Riley, whom everyone knows as Lala. ``She came to the little town of Monroe where we lived, selling her wares door to door.
Riley was a teenager then. She grew up, married railroad man Jack Riley, raised three children. Only in the past few years has she rediscovered the fancy fingerwork and learned something of the painful history of the Armenian people.
She's passing the skill along. Her first students are neighbors Anna May Spalding and Phyllis Collyer.
``I've trimmed some pillow cases, said Collyer, a longtime seamstress. ``Now I'm doing a doily, but it's taking me a long time because I'm always ripping it.
One joy of Armenian lace is that -- unlike crocheting and other kinds of needlework -- it doesn't unravel. An error doesn't mean starting over. That's because it's a series of artfully arranged fishermen's knots, or half-hitches.
``You can cut it to your heart's content, said Kaethe Kliot, owner of Lacis, a Berkeley, Calif., company that specializes in needlework supplies. ``It's a beautiful, simple technique.
Armenian lace requires only a needle and thread, making it a very portable craft, Kliot said. But because there's no gauge to control the uniformity of the stitching, it requires concentration.
Riley is skilled enough in the freehand work that she can watch TV and make lace at the same time.
The knotting technique was first used in Arabia, according to Kliot. It spread to Cyprus, Turkey, Armenia and other Mediterranean countries. But reminding Armenians of that is likely to get an angry response, said Kliot, because of ethnic tensions.
``One woman said to me, `You do not put `Turks' and `Armenians' in the same mouth!
In her search for any information on Armenian lace, Riley learned that centuries of conflict led to the Turkish genocide of Armenians in 1915-16. Some of that history is mentioned in the only two books she has been able to find about Armenian lace, which she ordered from Lacis' catalog of 1,300 needlework books.
``It's not terribly popular, Kliot said of Armenian lace. ``I've been knocking on everybody's door for years, trying to get them interested.
Even in the San Francisco area, Kliot can't get enough people to fill a class on the subject. ``I get an occasional student, she said.
Meanwhile, Lacis can't keep up with demand for books on tatting -- a similar craft, which Riley also knows.
One reason Riley likes Armenian lace is that it's less expensive to make, using perhaps a third of the thread that crocheting uses. Traditionally, Armenians used fine threads: colorful ones for head scarves, white or tan for table linens.
``They used size 100 thread. That's thinner than sewing machine thread, said Riley.
Riley normally works with a size 30 crocheting thread that's easier on her eyes. She makes doilies and trims sweaters and handkerchiefs -- including two hankies for the future weddings of her young great-granddaughters.
With the help of starch and three-dimensional artistry, she also makes table decorations and Christmas ornaments. She doesn't set out to sell her lacework, but has started to get offers to buy it.
``You put these on a piece of blue or green velvet, and it's art, said her friend Pauline Copp.
Riley is talented enough that she can copy crochet patterns using the Armenian knots.
``You need imagination, she said. ``You can make it anything you want it to be.
She swears that the basic technique is simple.
``There's only four steps in doing this knot. You learn that, and you're on your way, she said. ``If you make a mistake, you can clip it off and start again.
She demonstrated how the lacework is created by leaving some knots large, forming picots (loops). Other knots are pulled tight.
Although her three sisters also learned from Mrs. Joseph, Riley was the only one who retained the skill. She never heard how her mother happened to befriend the traveling lacemaker, who visited each summer for several years.
``She'd stay two weeks at our place and then go to California to make lace curtains.
Riley's own children live in Montana, so she can't pass her expertise along to them. But Collyer, her neighbor ``trainee, is in turn teaching her own 4-year-old and 6-year-old granddaughters.
So Mrs. Joseph's legacy continues.
``Nothing is really lost, Kliot said of needlework technique. ``Everything goes dormant for 30 or 40 years, then somebody discovers it.
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