Milan lace originates at the end of the 17th century, and was highly influential in shaping the styles of other Italian cities. Made with rather thin yarn, it is typified by free and sinuous designs, whose decorative motifs are worked separately and combined at the end of the process. The most ancient examples of Milan lace have no grounds, and consist of one continuous motif. There are also torchon grounds, double torchon grounds, and grounds with square, round, or honeycomb mesh. Certain types of Milan lace closely recall Flemish lace.
In Lombardy, the manufacturing of bobbin lace has been an important economic activity for centuries, especially in the Cantù area.
Traditionally, although Cantù lace was made in countless different homes, the finished product was gathered in a single place. Cantù lace includes a number of different types, each with a precise combination of element: continuous thread lace, ancient Milan stitching, Venice stitching (also known as classic Cantù lace), mimosa stitching, Rosalin stitching, and ornate stitching.
Lace manufacturing began in Cantù in the 17th century, when the Benedictine nuns from the Santa Maria monastery (who were affiliated with the nuns of the Cluny monastery in France) taught a group of local young women how to operate the spindles of a bobbin. The women began to make lace and barter it for essential goods. Back then, lace was mostly used to adorn the vestments of clergymen; later on they were also used in clothing and linen for aristocratic women. By that point, schools that taught bobbin lace were established throughout the town. A specialized school for lace and other artisanal activities, the Regia scuola d’arte applicata all’industria locale, was founded in 1882. Its intent was to train students in both artisanry and business. The items that earned Cantù lace its worldwide fame mostly date from the first half of the 20th century, and include curtains, tablecloths, and vestments. The style of Cantù lace fit in quite well with the luxury market, which prized artisanal items whose distinctiveness became a guarantee of high quality.
In 1959 the school was turned into a state institute for the arts, and on that occasion courses in lacework were widely revived. Several schools and associations are currently operating in the Cantù area, and they organize frequent exhibitions, traineeships, and courses for the revival of the ancient practice of Cantù lace.
Since 1993 the Committee for the Promotion of Cantù Lace has promoted an International Biennial of Cantù Lace.
Cantù lace is a candidate for the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage List.