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Maestra Melina at 100: A Lace Maker in Calabria, Italy

Maestra Melina at 100: A Lace Maker in Calabria, Italy

Joan L Saverino (January 29, 2018)
Photograph by author
Maestra Melina (right), her niece Maria Rosaria (center), and Sara (Maria Rosaria's mother)

This is the story of a Calabrian 100 year old lace maker of local renown, her social legacy as a teacher in a small village near Gioia Tauro, and her niece’s own lace making passion.


Maestra Melina is an expert lace maker of local renown. Maestra(o) is an honorific reference used for a person skilled in a particular art or trade. My friend Anna had urged me to visit Melina for over a year. There was a sense of urgency because as one of the extreme elderly (she was 100 on January 27) who knew how much longer she would be around?

                    Author (at left) with Sara, Melina, and Maria Rosaria

Anna made all the arrangements to meet Melina through her niece, Maria Rosaria, with whom she lived. Last July, my Cosentina cousin, Isabella, drove me south to the village of San Martino. Since we had no exact address, I phoned Maria Rosaria once we arrived at the edge of the small drab town. In spite of the exodus of much of their population and the high unemployment rate of the rest, these villages, some more picturesque than others, limp along. After a few more calls and wrong turns, we saw Maria Rosaria waving to us at the end of yet another sad looking street lined by modest facades where children were riding their bikes. 

Bomboniere at entry to living room

We were greeted by Maria Rosaria and her mother Sara in the ebullient way that Calabrians have of making one feel as if they have waited their entire lives to meet you. Maria Rosaria ushered us into her impeccably kept and beautifully appointed home. At the entry to the living room, intricate handmade lace bomboniere (favors made for special occasions such as weddings and baptisms) of various shapes and colors, graced a small table. Until merely a generation ago, nearly every woman achieved at least a minimal embroidery facility. What we would witness that afternoon, however, was a level of lacemaking expertise rare even in the South.


After a few minutes of pleasantries and the offer of refreshment, Maria Rosaria left to bring in her aunt, the Maestra. Melina entered only assisted by her cane. She was tiny and stooped with clear eyes and a sweet countenance. As soon as she sat down, she became quite animated and talkative, clearly excited by our visit and interest. We had been warned that her memory had begun to fail a bit in the last few months. Although she did repeat herself at times and is a bit deaf, she was clearly still very engaged in daily life.


When Melina forgot something, Maria Rosaria reminded her, who at age 39 had grown up with her. Maria Rosaria said her aunt still does everything for herself and insists on it. No doubt her tenacity helps her maintain her hold on life. 

The story that emerged is one of an intelligent woman who expressed her creativity through one of the only artistic methods available to southern Italian women in the past. Without articulating all the details, Melina had a hard life. She, like many girls, learned embroidery as a child from the Catholic sisters. The family moved around a lot. She never married and lived with her father until he died. After that, she moved in with her nephew, Maria Rosaria’s father. When she moved to San Martino she became depressed because it was such a small place. There she was offered a government job as a postal worker which would have meant an income and a pension. She turned it down saying that she preferred making lace. 


Melina also loved teaching children. She used her prodigious talent as a fulcrum to educate girls in the town over many decades. In fact, she still has one pupil, a woman in her thirties, who arrived halfway through our visit and proudly showed us a piece she was working on.

She taught young girls embroidery but she also schooled them in reading and writing. At times she had 50 pupils of varying ages at once. They brought their lunches and stayed the entire day. Rosaria said Melina was extremely patient; the result being that the children loved her. Most families couldn’t pay her in cash but used the traditional bartering system reimbursing her in foodstuffs such as olives and oil. Maria Rosaria said recompense didn’t matter to Melina because she toiled out of love. The importance of Melina’s dedication cannot be underscored enough given that, in the not too distant past, women’s education was not considered important by many. 

  Maestra Melina's desk in her office

Maria Rosaria offered to show us Melina’s three-room studio on the top floor where she still spends time. She commented that her father wanted to finish the rooms and she wanted to clean them but Melina forbade it. She didn’t want them bothering her materials and so, out of love and respect for her, the rooms remain in an unfinished state. The largest room was the schoolroom through which we passed to Melina’s office. At one end was her desk and along a wall lace journals were stacked in neat piles. Memorabilia from many decades covered its walls including things children made for her, religious pictures, and prayer cards. 


Through the office, we entered another work room which held all her lace and the patterns she’s created over the years. 

One of Melina's paper patterns

When Melina was younger she had no time during the school day to develop her own creations. She devised a routine in which she drank coffee all day and night to stay awake allowing her to work late into the night on projects and tracing patterns. 

Maria Rosaria learned lacemaking under her aunt’s tutelage from the time she was about three. She said that when she found the
l’uncinetto (crochet) difficult Melina made her stick with it telling her she had to learn well. Now, she said, lacemaking has become her passion too. 


Embroidered towel with lace

Maria Rosaria brought out the many boxes of lace to show us her own handiwork. 
In addition to embroidered lace, she crochets and makes bobbin lace.

She likes to go to flea markets where she hunts for antique lace which she attaches as fringe to her own pieces. There was a baby layette she made for her son, bomboniere, towels, and innumerable other white work examples.

Blue and pink bomboniere made by Maria Rosaria

She said they have to be washed and ironed by hand; therefore she uses them only occasionally. I have heard this same story over and over. Today, a dowry and the handmade white work linens that were once a mandatory part of it are not required. Many women, however, still cherish ones handed down or those they receive as gifts or make themselves. One middle-aged Calabrian woman told me that sometimes she goes into her bedroom, pulls out drawers, and just looks at hers.

 curtain maria rosaria

Curtain made by Maria Rosaria

Maria Rosaria escorted us to her bedroom, where a beautiful large embroidered linen curtain hung. On the stairs in the hallway leading up to Melina’s studio, hung the curtains that she made when she was little. She said her aunt told her to use whatever colored thread she liked. She commented wistfully that this tendency to use many colors is typical of children. She mentioned too that her mother wants her to throw them out because they are falling apart but she can’t part with them.

A bomboniera made by Maria Rosaria

As Maria Rosaria grew up, she helped her aunt teach the children. A few years ago, however, they stopped teaching. With changing mores, there were only a few who came. She said they couldn’t learn because they had no attention span. They only wanted to look at their phone constantly. There is no doubt that Maria Rosaria will carry on Melina’s legacy and one hopes that others might be so inspired. 


After a few hours, we had developed affection for one another and it was difficult to part. We took last pictures on the bench in front of their home and hugged warmly. 

Melina part announce

Announcement for Melina's 100th birthday party

Last week, I received an announcement via what’s app from Maria Rosaria. 

It was an announcement that the town along with the family was hosting a 
100th birthday party that was open to all. What a lovely tribute to acknowledge the many years of service Maestra Melina gave to the townspeople, especially its women, for so many years. This post is my love letter to an amazing woman and a life well lived. Brava Maestra, tanti complimenti e buon cent’anni!

Many thanks to the Speranza family for their generosity and for use of the old photographs.

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