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Laced with history

SL_Book_pic_1SABA--It can be interesting how the embroidery of life weaves elements together over time from different parts of the world to express some of its most delicate creations. One such occurrence happened nearly two decades ago when Dr. Eric A. Eliason – then a young graduate student from the University of Texas – visited the island of Saba to do his graduate thesis on Saban nationalism.

Eliason's initial foray into the unique and diverse tapestry of Caribbean culture in the Dutch West Indies has woven its way back into his life once again as he recently returned to the island as an Associate Professor of folklore at Brigham Young University to research a second edition of his internationally noted book The Fruits of Her Hands: Saba Lace.

"The book is definitely something I'm working on," Eliason said at the Saba Lace ladies lacework exhibit held August 12 at Eugenius Johnson Centre in Windwardside. "It's a second or revised edition. It may be even a whole new book on Saba Lace. This is just my initial research trip and we are trying to get copies of all the different patterns. The last time I was here was 14 years ago, so I've been able to reconnect with people from when I was here before. That's always a lot of fun."

Making history

Saba Lace – an internationally acclaimed needle craftwork originally called "Spanish Work" – was initially brought to Saba from Venezuela by Mary Gertrude Hassell Johnson during the 1870s. With most of Saba's male inhabitants earning a living at sea and limited commercial and agricultural resources available because of the island's difficult terrain, the necessarily industrious women of Saba seized upon the new art form and soon parlayed the fruits of their labours into a considerable cottage industry for the local economy. Saba Lace soon earned a reputation as some of the finest lacework in the world thanks to a mail order business that shipped around US $15,000 worth of products – a considerable sum at that time – to the United States alone.

"Originally this art was known as Spanish Work, but as time has moved on and progressed also, it has become quite easy to refer to it as Saba Lacework," said Director of the Harry L. Johnson Museum Sandra Johnson. "Historically Saban women were always known to be hard workers within the families, and it was very normal when growing up, for mothers to teach their daughters how to make this lacework.

"Preserving this part of our cultural heritage is important because in many ways, Saban women have been defined by their abilities to produce and sell this lace all over the world. From a place known as the island of women, it's a testament to our ancestors that hard work combined with God-given talent can be an asset to our culture."

During his initial trips to Saba in 1993, Eliason became exposed to the cultural legacy Saba Lace had established on the island. He was soon persuaded by a local woman to put together a book on the craft. "When I got here, the lacework really grabbed me," Eliason said. "I met a lot of the ladies. I visited with them and talked to them about their lacework, and I could see how they really enjoyed that.

"It was actually Coleen Cornet's idea that I do this, but I said, 'Well I don't have any fancy photographic equipment to use.' She just pulled out a black piece of (carbon) paper and said, 'Well, you can make a photo copy. Just put this behind the lace.'" In the true spirit of the island, Eliason managed to put together his famous book on the proverbial shoe-string budget.

"The first edition was kind of done on the cheap," he said. "We went down to the government offices in The Bottom, and I asked if I could use their photocopy machine. I told them I was making a book for the bureau of tourism. So they said 'Sure, come on in.' I came back the second time in the summer of 95 to about 96 to work specifically on the book. I had that published that autumn and sent it back to Saba where they sold it in stores for a while."

Defying the tempest

Eliason came back to Saba in the summer of 1995 and the first edition was published in 1997. As fate would have it, Mother Nature sent one of her most destructive tempests to Saba later that year in the form of Hurricane Lenny. Lenny wrecked havoc on much of the island and Eliason's first edition was nearly one of the casualties. Many of those printings were destroyed. Copies that survived are rare.

"Once or twice a year, I'll get a call from somebody in the world that's interested in lacework," Eliason said. "That book has become the book that people turn to for Saba Lace. So when someone is interested in worldwide lace traditions, they'll hear about Saba, and they'll try to get a hold of my book.

"I've given away or sold most of the ones I have. I actually just got a call from a fellow who was the culture minister in the Canary Islands. He said they were doing a big exhibit on lacework there. It's also another big lacework place. He asked if I still had a copy of my book for a worldwide exhibit."

Second helpings

To accommodate that request, Eliason went back to one of his first contacts on the island, Tourism Director Glenn Holm. The Saba Tourist Bureau was able to provide a copy of the book but also provide Eliason's impetus in returning to Saba and Saba Lace.

"I e-mailed the tourist office here and there was Glenn who had helped me out when I first came. He told Angela (Johnson) about my question, and he asked when I was coming back to do a second edition of my book. I said, 'Well, why don't I do that?' I felt humbled and touched that they even remembered who I was. That was really neat, and I'm glad to be back here. Writing that book helped me get my job where I'm a professor of folklore at Brigham Young University. So, I feel very much indebted to Saba and its traditions. I'm honoured and humbled to be back."

Eliason attended last week's Saba Lace exhibition. He gathered samples and did a new round of research, but there are also plans for documentary and another trip to the island with a team of college students to help with the project.

"That's a possibility," Eliason said. "There was originally a documentary team that came in which was supposed to come this time, but it had to pull out. I don't know if it is still going to come next time. I hope so, and that's a possibility for the future. I'm thinking about having some students from the university come down with me the next time as part of an infield-learning experience. I can turn them loose to interviewing the ladies and collecting things like that. I'm still working on that piece of it, but it seems like a good idea."

Expanding lacework

Eliason hopes that between more extensive research and better equipment, the upcoming edition will turn out to be a worthy tribute to one of Saba's finest cultural traditions.

"(The original) is a nice book but it's kind of small," he said. "It's black and white. Some of the information is kind of dated, but the tradition is still growing and developing. There are new patterns that people are doing now that they didn't do in the past.

"We are hoping to do a bigger, copy-bound, coffee-table book with full-colour pictures – the kind of thing that will be really nice when tourists come by so they can take it home with them. We want to make new updates with better quality colour pictures. We have a full-colour scanner now and they are scanning the patterns in. I don't think I'll be able to do everything I need to do on this trip. Hopefully, I'll be able to get things started and then come back soon and finish it off."

Anyone interested in contributing to the second edition can contact Dr. Eliason at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or call 801-318-7133.

"I'd love to hear from people who have particularly older pieces of lacework – maybe something that was a wedding gift that was done here on the island. The lacework that is available for sale is easy for me to get. What's hard for me to get a hold of are old pieces that were passed on by the family or made for the church. If anybody has something like that and would like to see it in the book, then by all means, please get a hold of me."

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