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 Post subject: Hand made lace in Sri Lanka
 Post Posted: Sun Jul 23, 2006 2:53 am 
Hand made lace in Sri Lanka
Beeralu renda -- the lucrative cottage industry

There are three main types of hand made lace in Sri Lanka - Pillow lace, Needle point lace and Crochet lace, the essential differences being the method of making. In the very recent past Belgian Lace which has been long known in Europe, highly priced and more intricate was introduced to Sri Lanka.

by A C B Pethiyagoda
@ Sunday Island / 22 July 2006

What is now a lucrative cottage industry, beeralu renda, was introduced to the Southern costal areas of Sri Lanka by the wives of the early Portuguese, the first foreign conquerors, in the mid 16th century. While their men folk, particularly in the army went about razing Buddhist and Hindu temples and plundering anything of value connected with these religions the women folk contributed to enrich our cuisine as well with numerous ways of cooking rice, fish, meat, sweet meats and potent alcoholic drinks distilled from sweet toddy, the sap from the inflorescence of the coconut palm. These two aspects of early foreign influence make interesting historic accounts of their own.

Sinhala men were encouraged to make copra, (sun dried coconut kernel) cultivate cinnamon, gather cloves, cardamom and pepper from the humid rain forests in the hinterland of todays Southern Province for export to Europe where spices from the orient were rapidly becoming popular and thus in great demand. In the two or three centuries which followed these times the Dutch and the English gave an impetus to the industries and occupations and enriched themselves not only from taxes but from trading in the products.

Decades after the first Portuguese lace makers Sinhala women in the Courts of the Kings of Sitawaka and Kotte learnt the art. Noble women of the time like the Walauwe mahatmiyas and their lama-atinies (young daughters) thereafter gradually took to the hobby. The products of their efforts were for their own use and as gifts to friends and family members. Later the skill filtered down to women who made it a source of income and a livelihood. Today beeralu renda makers have benefited by the encouragement and assistance given by a few NGOs, particularly Agromart Foundation, the Department of Small Industries and the National Craft Council. There are about 300 commercial lace makers in the Southern Province alone, about half of whom lost their businesses to the waters of the Tsunami. Agromart distributed over 120 beeralu kottes (pillows) valued at around Rs. 120,000 collected from generous donors and from its own resources.

For some strange reason the two Government organisations were reluctant to part with information on their role in developing the industry over the telephone. They themselves had questions like who are you? Why do you want to know? etc.

During the last two decades or so the industry has been introduced by Sinhala women moving from the Southern coastal areas to villages and small towns in the Ampara District, Gonagolla for one, Kadawatha, Mirigama and Kelaniya in the Colombo District, Udiyala in Kurunegala, Punduluoya, Ramboda, Maskeliya, Rikiligaskanda in the Nuwara Eliya District and Pelmadulla in the Ratnapura District.

Norrie Peel Joan Barst in a paper dated December 2005 captioned ‘Lace Work in Sri Lanka’ wrote that renda (from the Portuguese word reinnda) refers to pillow lace or bobbin lace made on a renda kotte and that the bobbins around which the thread is wrapped known as beeralu or bilru in Portuguese. Different designs of the lace are referred to as beeralu mosthara which means designs.

Barst describes the beeralu kotte as a "pillow like structure mounted on a wooden base, raised on short pegs a few inches. One side of the pillow is about a foot high and the other side is about three inches hand stuffed with coir". It is completely and tightly covered with thick fabric nailed all round the base. Thus women operators can sit on low benches or even on the floor, if preferred, when at work in positions they are accustomed to such as when cooking in rural kitchens or spreading boiled paddy on mats or cemented floors for sun drying.

There are three main types of hand made lace in Sri Lanka - Pillow lace, Needle point lace and Crochet lace, the essential differences being the method of making. In the very recent past Belgian Lace which has been long known in Europe, highly priced and more intricate was introduced to Sri Lanka.


The bulk of the lace produced in the country is for the tourist market. That in the coastal areas are sold direct to foreign women while producers in the hinterland, more often than not, sell their products to middle men (or women?) who in turn supply small outlets or big stores in towns specializing in what tourists look for. There is a growing list of such women specially in and around Galle District who form their own groups of producers catering to specific needs and orders. While their objective, no doubt is profit, they provide an essential service to scattered producers with ready cash, raw materials and means for easy disposal of the lace.

Researches have declared that lace has been known in Europe as far back as the early 15th century while some claim evidence of it even in Roman times.

The market for hand made lace has had its ups and downs in Europe. In the 17th century it is said to have gone down to very low levels but had picked up in the next century as it was considered at the time a "symbol of goodness and purity". After the industrial revolution the demand for lace increased rapidly due to its affordability among the middle and low income earners with the installation of the first bobbin net machines in 1818 in France. Researchers have said that black lace became fashionable mourning attire for women after the death of Queen Victoria.

As long as women want decorative curtains, household linen for their dining tables, bed rooms, lingerie, wedding gowns, blouses, baby clothes etc. lace will continue to be in demand. After all the kaba kurutha, a cuffed long sleeved lace blouse which Gajaman Nona wore in early British times is still popular in the rural South of the country. Tourists will continue to boost sales and our discerning women themselves will seek it out. Hence, beeralu lace makers of today and surely those who follow will make good money in times to come provided a hand made product of high quality is on offer.


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