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Interview with Bistra Bulgarian Bobbin Lace Maker by Malgorzata Szpila


Where did you learn bobbin lace? Who inspired you to learn this technique?


The technique of bobbin lace came to me by chance – as part of a conversation about a course that was happening in Sofia in 1998. Until then, I had not heard about bobbin lace, I had not seen any samples, nor had I met any people who made it. I enrolled on the course out of curiosity.


Is there a tradition of lacemaking in your town/city?


Bobbin lace is not too widespread in Bulgaria; the technique was introduced as late as the beginning of the 20th century and is practiced only in few locations in the country. There used to be a lacemaking school in the town of Kalofer, which lasted for 23 years. I happened to be on the last course that my teacher Velichka Radulova organized; she is the only person who put an effort to promote bobbin lace outside the town of Kalofer. She trained people all over the country, but my course with her was just a ten-day foundation level, after which she had to travel abroad.


Using the basic ways of twisting and crossing the threads, I made my first lace items, but at the time I did not have any specialized books or magazines, I did not know people who made lace, there was no internet to help me communicate with lace makers from other countries. It was difficult for me to grow and develop.


Soon I had made all the patterns in my course book. What I was producing with them, however, was not satisfying or enough for me. The existing clothes with lace ornaments seemed to me too “retro,” while the home decorations were redundant and not practical at all. However, I was already under the spell of this technique created by the pleasure of touching the bobbins, the enchantment of the process of filling the empty space with fabric, and the creation of something beautiful and very personal. I began drawing my first pattern sketches while learning the movements of the new twists and crosses. My first independent work, far removed from the style of typical lace, was one called Winter Hut – inspired by a favorite Bulgarian song.


Where do you find inspiration for your work?

Nature is my favorite place where I relax, replenish my energy, and generate ideas. Over time, I started seeing lace in all my surroundings. The branches of trees, the curves of mountain ridges, the contrasting dark and glittery patches in water, the shapes of clouds – it was all lace. For my first landscapes, I used white only and was seeking the expressive differences in the texture of the filled-in areas, but gradually I discovered my own ways of combining colors to achieve a more realistic effect.


Do you do lace exhibitions? Which one was the most important for you?


The most important was that in 2010, in Valtopina, Italy, where I was invited by Maria Bissacco. It was then that I received acknowledgment and gained self-esteem as a contemporary author who interprets bobbin lace. So far, I have participated in over 30 exhibitions, festivals, and conferences in Russia, Spain, Portugal, Italy, France, Slovakia, Germany, Poland, Croatia. I also took part in the OIDFA congress in Lubljana, Slovenia. In Bulgaria, I have participated in more than ten exhibitions with SediankaTA – a group of people with whom we promote lacemaking and other handicrafts through demonstrations and training.


Do you have a personal method?


In the past 15 years, I have been working on my own patterns. I went through different periods – making portraits, landscapes, miniature flower clusters. My works are not different just because of the drawing or style, but because I seek and find new means of expression, based on the ones that already exist. The new technical solutions lead to new practical results, which require a different aesthetic disposition. A while ago, I chose to challenge myself with an idea a friend of mine, who is an artist, suggested – to transform the landscapes of French impressionist Paul Cezanne into lace. Following a brilliant yet foreign to the technique of bobbin lace, the idea is a challenge, which sometimes leads to technical discoveries. The transformation of traditional ways of lacemaking helps me achieve unexpected solutions that bring about interesting effects, all of which create something that no one has made of lace so far.

Are you teaching in Bulgaria?


Starting in 2012, for five years, I taught an MA course entitled Old Lace Making Techniques to students of Fashion at the National Academy of Arts in Sofia. This was a transformative period for me – it was then that I saw clothing as a new medium for lace. My interactions with my students were a two-way process of mutual change in which the question “Why not explore the possibility of rendering this item in lace?” became a central one.


This year, you have collaborated with a Spanish fashion designer. Do you think that in 2019, lace and Fashion go hand in hand?


Since 2015 I have been part of fashion shows in Peniche, Portugal, and Camariñas, Spain, displaying clothes with lace ornaments depicting stylized landscapes and trees. In the past few years, I am developing a project I call “The plants that feed us can be beautiful,” in which I entertain the audience’s imagination with 3D solutions. It was a spontaneous idea to combine the lace pumpkin flowers, stems, and leaves, which I created, with traditional Galician lace, in line with the imagination and skill of Spanish designer Jose Luis Luaces. In May 2019, his collection was part of a fashion show in Serra del-Rei, Portugal. More fashion shows are planned for Spain. I believe that lace is most suited for clothes, jewelry, and accessories – like it was in the past and will be in the future.


How do you teach your individual interpretation in lacemaking?


Over the past four years, I have been receiving an increasing number of invitations to teach people my way of working. I share my discoveries and achievements in free-style lace making with enthusiasm. What happens is that tutors and lace makers from Spain and France organize themselves so that they can learn and practice the new applications of the ancient technique over three or four intensive training days.


You are doing research on the processes of practicing lacemaking today?


I am part of the community of people who make lace, and also, as an anthropologist, I am interested in the diversity of the actual applications of lace making as a type of human activity. Over the past two years, I have been working on my Ph.D. thesis on Lace: Cultural Technologies and Social Practices at the University of Sofia. I collect and analyze conversations with lacemakers with whom I am able to communicate without an interpreter. I listen to the recordings and note down their stories, their original words about the unique characteristics of their ways of working, their preferences of applying the movements, the instruments, and the use and application of the completed items. I am interested in the special terms and the words they use to talk about lace. My goal is for more people to learn about lace and to be attracted to this form of art.


You can see more of Bistra’s lace work on her website

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