Beeralu lace weaving, also known as bobbin lace or at times pillow lace, is an age-old Sri Lankan cottage industry practised predominantly on the southern coast of the island. Although a legacy of Portuguese and the Dutch colonisation, it is now part of our own culture and has a history of over 600 years.
However, it is also a dying industry and the number of practitioners weaving beeralu lace lessens as the years go on. This has resulted in a concentrated effort by the National Crafts Council to encourage the preservation of this beeralu craft by offering beeralu lace makers numerous incentives and setting up craft spaces where they seek out current practitioners and have them share their knowledge.
We met with K.B. Leela Seeli, a resident of Weligama who has been practising the beeralu craft for over 50 years, who shared with us the current status of the beeralu lace craft in the island and how it is practised. Better known as “Auntie Leela” in the Weligama town, she is a beloved member of the community and a recipient of the Presidential Award in 2018 at the Shilpa Abhimani handcrafts competition and exhibition organised by the National Crafts Council. She has also won multiple awards over the years for her contribution towards keeping traditional crafts alive.
Auntie Leela shared with us a little bit of history about the craft, stating that the 16th Century was when the craft was first introduced courtesy of the Portuguese invasion. Later on, the Dutch had also contributed to developing the industry, which was when this lace became most popular. However, Auntie Leela shared that the Malays who arrived in Sri Lanka from Indonesian islands and the Malay region are considered to be the first to introduce the craft to us. She said that in the past, weaving beeralu was a way of showing skill, a hobby, and an extra earning for village women.
We were lucky enough to visit Auntie Leela just as she was beginning a new lace, and she took us through the process, which to our laypersons’ eyes looked extremely intricate. She said that watching beeralu lace being made is one of the tourist activities that exist Down South, adding that in addition to purchasing the lace, this performance aspect has been a great tourist attraction for those who practice the craft.
Auntie Leela shared that when you weave the lace, to get started, the weaver must first hand-draw the pattern of the lace on graph paper, after which the pattern is marked with pins and wrapped around a lace pillow, which is known as the “kotta boley”. Then, several lengths of thread are woven or braided with the help of wooden bobbins to create a finished piece of lace. She said that beginners would start off with only four wooden bobbins and can then move up to as many as they can handle.
Watching the lace being woven was certainly an experience, with Auntie Leela’s hands flying across the pillow as she switched from bobbin to bobbin. Seeing the lace come to life was beautiful, and it is evident that while the process takes up much more effort when compared to machine-cut lace products that can be produced in bulk and on-demand, the authenticity and quality of beeralu lace is unparalleled. The lace has a delicate charm about it with its intricate detailing, and the fact that it is purely handmade elevates its value.
She said the time required to complete a single piece is dependent on the complexity of the pattern, adding that ideally, using a medium-level difficulty pattern in order to complete a 50-square-inch piece of lace would take about two to three days of work. Often the way patterns are combined is by having several weavers work on each independent pattern and then combining them on the final cut.
The high labour cost makes it so that beeralu lace is relatively expensive. However, its unique properties and high quality has ensured that it continues to have great market value and remains in demand amongst those who have an interest and eye for intricate detailing. Auntie Leela shared that it is not as difficult to learn as it may seem, if you are keen, adding that one year of focused effort is sufficient to pick up the skill and, much like any other skill, your improvement from that point on will depend on how often you practice.
Auntie Leela went on to share that while she was lucky enough to have learned the craft from her grandmother, the knowledge is not so widespread, also noting that there was a time when there was a serious decline in people who had the knowledge and skill to do beeralu lace. However, thanks to the National Crafts Council, the practice has had a chance to come up. She said she is extremely thankful for the exposure and opportunities the Council has provided, stating that the Council’s concentrated efforts to revive the practice, offering up numerous incentives, has resulted in an increased interest in picking up the practice by the youth, especially in Weligama.
“The Shilpa Sabawa (the Council) has put up several classes in Galle, Matara, Weligama, and even Dikwella, and for these classes they seek out teachers like me and we get compensated for contributions to keeping the craft alive,” she said, adding that she wishes to encourage youngsters to pick up the craft as there are many benefits to knowing traditional crafts like this, including the many opportunities you get from the Government to travel to foreign countries and be a part of the cultural exchange, as well as various cash incentives as well.
She said that beyond the career benefits, the skill is also very useful to keep you sharp; even in her old age, she said her mind has remained sharp because she engages in an activity which utilises a lot of motor functions, and this has kept her mind healthy and active.
We also spoke to National Crafts Council Assistant Director Dhammika Samarasinghe who shared with us that beeralu is one of the major crafts they are focusing on when it comes to conserving traditional crafts, and the southern coast is where nearly 90% of the practitioners come from, as the coast is where the practice was preserved.
Samarasinghe shared that due to the Covid-19 pandemic and its effects, despite their best efforts for most of the traditional craftsmen, their major revenue streams have dried up, particularly their sales via Laksala, and the shutdown of tourism activities too has made it impossible for many beeralu lace practitioners to continue with their craft. Therefore, he said they would like to encourage people to look into traditional crafts around the island and do their part in promoting and helping them stay alive as it is part of our country’s heritage which we must not allow to go extinct.