As Katarina Spiteri went about her daily chores in early 20th-century Malta, little did she imagine that two of the garments she frequently wore would one day become an important part of the country’s National Textiles Collection. One woven from silk, the other from cotton, those garments now weave a patch in the fabric of Malta’s history, treasured by Heritage Malta as a rare find and the very first left-handed għenienel in its collection.

Sitting in Heritage Malta’s textiles laboratory – a silent sanctuary naturally soundproofed by the copious drapery inside it – I learn all about this exciting acquisition from Annamaria Gatt, Heritage Malta’s curator for costumes and textiles, and Claire Bonavia, Heritage Malta’s principal conservator for paper and textiles.

But first I receive a general overview about the Maltese għonnella (għenienel in the plural) – that black headgear with a stiffly arched hood worn for centuries by many of our adult female ancestors, now banished from our wardrobes and seen only in old photos, paintings, postcards, re-enactments and small temporary exhibitions.

The <em>għonnella </em>was a black headgear with a stiffly arched hood worn for centuries by many&nbsp; adult females in Malta and Gozo.The għonnella was a black headgear with a stiffly arched hood worn for centuries by many  adult females in Malta and Gozo.

Though the għonnella was probably the result of the influence of foreign fashion trends when originally introduced here, the way its shape evolved locally is purely Maltese. Local women never left their house without it. It was so widely used that several seamstresses specialised solely in designing, cutting and sewing għenienel.

Until now, no evidence – written or pictorial – has emerged that points towards any colour other than black being used for the garment’s fabric. Most women owned two għenienel – one made of cotton for everyday wear (sometimes referred to as stamina) and one made of silk for Sundays and special occasions.

Being left-handed in those bygone years was a bit of a taboo

One għonnella would typically require about 2.5 metres of imported fabric. In order to keep the għonnella closed, its wearer would clasp one side of it in her hand. This is where being right-handed or left-handed came in. Most għenienel were right-handed, like their owners, but – as Heritage Malta’s two recent acquisitions confirm – there were instances when they were made purposely to accommodate left-handed clients.

As Bonavia explains: “Being left-handed in those bygone years was a bit of a taboo, so much so that many children showing the earliest signs of a tendency to be left-handed would be forced to become right-handed instead.

“In all my research about the għonnella, I have never come across any documented evidence about the existence of left-handed għenienel, although old photos and postcards do bear some examples of such garments. In a career spanning 30 years or so, this is the first time that I have actually laid my eyes and hands on a left-handed għonnella.”

Gatt recalls it was about a year ago that she received a call from Pauline Abela, who expressed her wish to donate some items of clothing to the National Textiles Collection, housed at the Inquisitor’s Palace. The clothes, which used to belong to her maternal grandmother, Katarina Spiteri (1900-1992) from Żejtun, included the two left-handed għenienel. Katarina was, in fact, left-handed.

The two <em>għenienel </em>were donated by the family of Katarina Spiteri (1900-1992) from Żejtun.The two għenienel were donated by the family of Katarina Spiteri (1900-1992) from Żejtun.

“Pauline’s donation introduced the first two left-handed għenienel to our collection,” says Gatt, eyes glinting with excitement. “We were pleased to note that, despite years of use, both garments were in fairly good condition.”

Nevertheless, Bonavia set to work on both għenienel as per standard procedure – checking for any insects, examining the type of material and its present condition and carrying out conservation interventions such as cleaning with soft brushes and low suction and following with other conservation interventions. She stresses that, with għenienel, the most important thing is the correct manner of storing them.

“It is vital to keep the hood’s boning intact. My advice to anyone who still has an old għonnella at home is to pack well the entire concave area of the hood, to safeguard its shape as much as possible,” she says.

The donation of the left-handed għenienel has undoubtedly filled a gap in Heritage Malta’s National Textiles Collection and shed more light on the attire of our female predecessors. Such donations, where members of the public entrust their private heirlooms to Heritage Malta’s expert care, ensure that priceless parts of our patrimony are well looked after for the knowledge and enjoyment of generations to come.

Daniela Attard Bezzina is principal officer, communications, Heritage Malta.

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