Italian handcrafts: Valsesian Puncetto Lace
- WTI Magazine #91 May 14, 2017
The oldest existing record of Valsesian Puncetto needlelace is a notarial deed from 1685, a writ of dowry that includes a large white handkerchief described as being adorned with “ponchietto”. It can therefore be assumed that the technique was an established part of the traditional handicraft culture at that time and was already well developed and defined. Further evidence can also be seen in 17th century iconographic works, such as the statue of the Madonna in chapel no. 4 of the Sacred Mountain of Varallo (a Unesco World Heritage site since 2003, together with the other sacred mountains in Piedmont and Lombardy).
Puncetto artefacts of ancient origin (early 1800s) that still survive include domestic linen, and particularly women’s blouses and aprons, which are still an item of traditional dress.
For centuries, the technique for making “Valsesian Puncetto” was only passed down orally and jealously guarded in family circles or small communities. It even assumed an identifying role, as an indication of marital status, and was an essential ornament for both Sunday dress and working clothes.
Puncetto enjoyed a period of international renown in the late nineteenth century, partly due to the initiative of the Court of Margaret of Savoy. The Queen visited the valley and Monte Rosa, making it more widely known, as did some British travellers, pioneers in Alpine mountaineering, who described its particular features in their diaries. The two oldest publications describing it are, in fact, in English.
After World War II, interest in puncetto faded, as with all similar artefacts, despite some attempts at marketing it.
In the 1980s, realising that Valsesian Puncetto, which was only found in the valley, was in danger of eventually disappearing, the local authorities promoted the establishment of schools.
In collaboration with the Vercelli Chamber of Commerce, the registration of the “Puncetto Valsesiano” trademark was promoted, together with a “Scuola di Puncetto Valsesiano” trademark and a register of certified Puncetto instructors.
Special courses in Valsesian Puncetto were organised and open to all. A specific procedure was also laid down for issuing certificates of guarantee for authentically executed work.
The use of the trademarks, the appointment of instructors, the organisation of courses and issuing of certificates of guarantee were then entrusted to the Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso di Varallo, which thereby became the managing body and point of reference for puncetto.
Each year the Società Operaia di Mutuo Soccorso organises courses, demonstrations and workshops to meet the various needs of those beginning and mastering the technique. A fundamental learning aid was the graphic encoding of every work, hence reducing even the most elaborate artefacts to a combination of individual modules, each with varying degrees of difficulty.
The identity of the first person to make puncetto needlelace is not known, nor when it occurred. The only certain fact is that this art was developed by the women of Valsesia a long time ago. These women, despite the efforts and hard work of their daily life, were able to create masterpieces of precision and patience.
Puncetto has been handed down for centuries and is made using only a needle and thread, linking together thousands of small knots with a succession of solid areas and empty spaces that create the exquisite embroideries that are used to adorn clothing, furniture and windows. It is said that the designs were inspired by observation of the surrounding environment, such as the ice crystals that form snowflakes.
The Bottega Artigiana di Varallo and various permanent and temporary exhibitions provide opportunities to admire these simple yet sublime artefacts. Above all, however, puncetto is a part of everyday life rather than exhibition piece, and so the houses in the valley, each with their own family heirlooms and net curtains, are also like little museums.
The Local Area
The origins of puncetto are still the subject of study, but what is clear is that the fundamental stages in its history took place in Valsesia and particularly in Val Vogna. It is also found in other areas of the Alpine arc and it is now widely believed that it originated as a joining stitch used to sew the edges of hemp cloth together.
Valsesia (in the Province of Vercelli – Piedmont) includes the mountainous stretch of the Sesia river basin and is bounded by Monte Rosa to the north.
Valmastallone, to one side, formed by a tributary of the Sesia, had a particularly active Valsesian Puncetto production, featuring coloured puncetto work (i.e. with various strands of different colours), while the Riva Valdobbia area, in the Vogna Valley at the foot of Monte Rosa, was the first place to attempt to market it, in the late 19th century.
The needlelace technique was, however, unknown in the neighbouring valleys of Val d’Aosta, Swiss Valais and Verbano-Ossola (with the exception in the latter of a small enclave formed by the village of Campello Monti, founded by Valsesians and therefore an integral part of Valsesian territory and culture for centuries)..
By Camera di Commercio di Vercelli