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Voices Fall-Winter 2003:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read “The Queen of Mundillo: Rosa Elena Egipciaco” by Elena Martínez here.
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Volume 29

The Queen of Mundillo: Rosa Elena Egipciaco by Elena Martinez

In English it is known as bobbin lace. In Puerto Rico this delicate handwork, used to embellish collars and handkerchiefs, bridal veils and baby bonnets, is encaje de bolillos but more commonly known as mundillo—"little world," for the cylinder on which the lace maker weaves her intricate designs.

On September 19, 2003, Rosa Elena Egipciaco of New York City was honored for her mundillo. She is one of sixteen artists to receive National Heritage Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts. The fellowships are the country’s highest honor in the folk and traditional arts. The awardees, chosen their artistic excellence, authenticity, and contributions to their field, each receive a one-time award of $20,000.

"We are proud to honor these master artists whose compelling work demonstrates the extraordinary diversity and depth of our nation’s cultural wealth," said Dana Gioia, chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts. "These talented individuals are not only renowned practitioners of their art forms but also teachers and preservers of artistic heritages, passing on their skills and passions to future generations."
Photo of Rosa Elena Egipciaco demonstrating mundillo
Rosa Elena Egipciaco demonstrates mundillo at the Centro Civico festival in Amsterdam, New York. Photo: Elena Martínez.
The importance of teaching traditional arts is apparent in the case of Rose Elena Egipciaco, who started learning mundillo at the age of four from her mother, Doña Salud, in Puerto Rico, and has taught and promoted the art in New York since 1986. In Puerto Rico, the towns of Moca, Isabela, and Aguadilla, all in the northwestern part of the island, are famous for mundillo. Moca, Egipciaco’s hometown, is considered la cuna (the cradle) of mundillo. When Egipciaco was a little girl playing house with her friends on the patio, she would design patterns on leaves, using thorns from a bush as needles. As she grew older, she would gather with friends on the balcony of one of their homes to talk, watch the boys pass by, and make mundillo.

When she was president of the Cultural Center in Moca (which she cofounded), Egipciaco traveled throughout the island, giving lectures on mundillo at festivals, universities, and colleges. She is a certified artisan through the Instituto de Cultura Puertorriqueña, the principal arts and cultural agency on the island, and has displayed her work at their festivals. In 1986 she moved to New York City and has taught lacemaking , as well as exhibited and displayed her work at New York University, Columbia University, the American Museum of Natural History, Casita Maria, El Museo del Barrio, Marymount College, Brentwood International Ladies Garment Union, the Office of the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, and La Casa de la Herencia Cultural Puertorriqueña. She is currently a professor at Boricua College in Brooklyn, and an apprenticeship grant funded by the New York State Council on the Arts Apprenticeship Program enables her to continue teaching privately in Manhattan.

Origins of the Art

There are two types of lace: point, which is made using a needle, and bobbin, or pillow lace. Bobbin lace was first made in the Middle Ages in Flanders (the northern region of Belgium), where it was known as kant ("border" or "edge"), since the original function of lace was to protect the edges of fine materials from fraying, as well as to create a decorative border. The art of making bobbin lace may have reached Spain through Flanders or Italy. Some researchers believe that point lace was introduced to Spain from Italy and from there was brought to Flanders, which in the sixteenth century was one of Spain’s dominions. Bobbin lace, like the art of making it, was then exported to Spain and later to Puerto Rico.

Since making lace by hand is time consuming, it was very expensive and regarded as a luxury item. The Church was the principal consumer for lace for the veils and cloths used during services, as well as for the robes that adorned the statues of saints. During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, clothes with lace decoration came into fashion for both men and women of the European nobility. In Spain bobbin lace was made by master lace makers for major commercial markets; lace making was also a cottage industry in places like Mugía in Galicia, Almagro in Castilla, and Arenys de Mar in Catalonia.

In addition to its use as edging and borders on clothing and handkerchiefs and collars for shirts, mundillo is also used to decorate items for special occasions, such as wedding dresses, baptismal gowns, and the cloths used to adorn religious icons. Once it was common for lovers to exchange mundillo lace with romantic inscriptions.

A lace collar made by Rosa Elena Egipciaco
A collar made by Egipciaco illustrates the claro ("open"), brusela, and margarita ("daisy") stitches. Claro is a basic stitch, done by twisting and pinning the thread. It is a foundation for the more complicated stitches like margaritas, whose petals are created by pulling and easing up on threads as they are woven around each other. Photo: Martha Cooper.
Making the Lace

In bobbin lace a pillow is used as a loom to hold the pattern and bobbins, forming a work surface for the tejedora (lace maker). At one time some lace makers used a round or oval board placed on the knees, instead of a pillow. Egipciaco uses a wooden box with a revolving cylindrical pillow. In Spain cylindrical pillows emerged because the Spanish style of making bobbin lace did not require the bobbins to remain flat on the pattern. Egipciaco remembers her mother saying that although she used this cylindrical pillow, her own grandmother had used the flat pillow.

The wooden bobbins, about the diameter of a pencil, are wound with thread, which the tejedora twists and crosses into stitches that form a pattern. Each stitch requires at least two pairs of bobbins, which are held in place by pins when not in use. The pattern is traced on graph paper, often by the tejedora herself. Depending on the pattern, as few as two dozen bobbins or as many as several hundred may be used.
Egipciaco teaches her students and apprentices in a three-step process. First the basic stitches of claro, brusela, and surcido are learned. Intermediate students are taught more complicated stitches, like araña, mosca, margarita, and almagro. These stitches require more than just twisting and crossing the threads because the lace maker has to pull and manipulate the threads to form a shape; and the almagro stitch takes four pairs of bobbins to make instead of two. Advanced students start using these stitches in patterns to make handkerchiefs, collars, and baby booties.Photo of a small loom used in lace making
On this small loom, pins hold the graph paper pattern in place. The stitch being worked, here by one of Egipciaco’s apprentices, is called brusela ("Brussels"). Photo: Elena Martínez.

Once all the stitches have been mastered, Egipciaco emphasizes the creative aspect of the work. Although one can buy books of patterns, she makes her own designs, employing a sense of geometry and artistic sensitivity to create balanced and aesthetically pleasing patterns. In her own words, "For me mundillo is an art, because like the painter, who has in his imagination what he wants to create on the canvas, so it is for us: we create, invent, and design what we want to make in lace."

Last November, Egipciaco was presented with a People’s Hall of Fame Award by City Lore for her work in promoting mundillo in New York and tirelessly upholding this tradition. Her beautiful lace and her educational efforts inspired Puerto Rican rovador Eddie Rosa to write a song about her in décima, a verse form composed of ten lines, each line having eight syllables in a particular rhyme scheme, set to the tune of seis, a traditional musical form in Puerto Rico. What more fitting way to honor this master traditional artist than with the words of another traditional artist?
Mi décima improvisada
es para ti Rosa Elena
en honor a tu faena
artesanal depurada
Y puntada tras puntada
con el hilo de bolillos
logras encajes de brillo
del buen vestir de una dama
Y hoy Nueva York te proclama
la gran reina del mundillo
My improvised décima
is for you, Rosa Elena,
in honor of your pure labor
in this craft.
And stitch after stitch
with the string of the bobbins
making shining laces
for dressing a lady in fashion.
And today New York proclaims you
the great queen of mundillo.


Elena Martínez is a folklorist and student of Rosa Elena Egipciaco’s.

“For me mundillo is an art, because like the painter who has in his imagination what he wants to create on the canvas, so it is for us: we create, invent, and design what we want to make in lace.”
—Rosa Elena Egipciaco

For further reading

Lauriks, Wim. 1999. The Birthplace of Lace Making. International Lace Magazine 49.

Palliser, Bury. 1984. History of Lace. New York: Dover.

Rivera, Nory W. 1981. El Mundillo: Vivencia Puertorriqueña: Entrevista con la Sra. Rosa Elena Egipciaco. No Es Una Más 9(July-August): 31.

Anon. Lace Pillow Shapes. 1999. International Lace Magazine 50: 13.

This article appeared in Voices Vol. 29, Fall-Winter 2003. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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