My visit to Lefkara in Cyprus was inspired by no less than Leonardo da Vinci, who traveled to the village to purchase pieces of lace created here for use in adorning Milan Cathedral. I wanted to see for myself lace so finely-wrought that it had been legendary for centuries.
Known as the birthplace of Aphrodite, Cyprus is a treasure trove of historic artifacts and ruins. On my first day of exploration, by lunchtime I had done some serious time traveling, having visited Limassol Castle, where Richard the Lionhearted wed Princess Berengaria of Navarre in 1191, and toured the ruins of the Neolithic settlement Tenta.
These ancient sites were a prelude to my primary mission to witness a prized but endangered tradition, one safeguarded by a long line of elderly matrons stationed along the narrow, maze-like lanes of Lefkara. The fabled craft of Lefkara lace entrusted to their care was first brought to Cyprus by Venetian courtiers in the 15th century. Recently, these villagers have faced invisible but insidious threats in protecting their legacy. Now, they have a powerful ally and new hope that their ancestral tradition will endure.
My husband and I turned off the highway just before Stavrovouni monastery, which was founded in 327 A.D. by St. Helena, mother of Constantine the Great. Driving high into white limestone hills, we paused at a crest in the road to look down at the jewel-like tones of the picturesque town that was our destination. In the valley below, the gleaming spire of Lefkara’s 16th century church was encircled by amber terracotta tiled roofs and emerald carob trees, creating a fairy tale tableau.
The indigenous art of Lefkara lace is as charming as its setting. Employing the ancient Greek and Byzantine geometric patterns that are carved in marble and mosaics elsewhere in Cyprus, Lefkara’s prized virtuosity takes a more delicate form: intricate, exquisitely-crafted hand-made lace. While the ravages of time and the greed of looters are the nemesis of archaeologists who preserve the stone monuments of Limassol and Tenta, the enemies that Lefkara lace’s guardians confront are more subtle—progress and benign neglect.
Lace-making is both an art and a custom for the women of Lefkara, a powerful strand that intertwines their identity, economics and social life. Creating heirloom tablecloths while sitting together in the winding streets is still the principal occupation of many women in the village. Young girls study the craft from masters—their mother and grandmothers. After learning the stitches, they can embroider the designs they’ve been taught with elements of their own imagination to produce pieces traditional and distinctive.
As we emerged from our car, Maria Loizou called out a welcome from the steps of her family’s shop where she sat with needlework in hand. Her little dog at her side, she told me that she learned the craft from her mother when she was 12 years old. She said families in the past made their living through the needle, working day and night, by lamp light in the evening as there was no electricity. The husbands used to travel abroad with suitcases full of lace, selling Lefkara lace door-to-door in England, Sweden and other European countries.
Maria showed me the different patterns used, and pointed out that the Margarita design was featured on the face of the Cypriot one pound note. A doily in that pattern takes about ten weeks to create; a large table cloth requires about a year. Embroidering a placemat in the pattern named for Da Vinci takes about three weeks; a runner takes five weeks.
From Maria’s shop, I meandered up Lefkara’s crooked main street, along which gray-haired women sat in Lilliputian chairs, bent over the works of art in their laps. My head swiveled left and right to take in the open-air exhibit of finely-decorated linens hung from the peeling facades of the centuries-old buildings. Each shop was still and quiet, with layers upon layers of lace blanketing every surface and muffling the sound of customers’ voices. The elderly women proprietors proudly stood amidst the hundreds of embroidered pieces sheathing every surface, surrounded by the stitch work that told the story of their lives.
“Now many people want everything that is ‘ready,’ ” said Stella Thevoulo, 27, who with her mother Christinia runs T & C Handicrafts at the other side of Lefkara. “Some people—Germans and Americans— want to see work that is original and not made in China. They know the time and patience it takes.”
Stella enjoys sitting outside, meeting people from different countries and showing them what has made her village famous, but most of her friends have moved to Nicosia.
“The young generation now studies, they don’t depend on lace,” said Stella. “It is a dying industry, for sure. No job, no life here for people. The world is changing, Madam, you cannot stay with the needle.”
In 2006, Lefkara's mayor at the time, Andreas Shoseilos, agreed that the future of the Lefkara lace-making art was in crisis, with most of the young women leaving to pursue an education or work in Nicosia or other bigger cities. But Shoseilos and the tiny village of Lefkara had a global alliance on their side in the fight to keep the tradition alive.
Shoseilos was informed that Lefkara could apply to UNESCO for the village's traditional lace-making to be designated as an item of endangered cultural heritage. The Cyprus Ministry of Education and Culture financed a study by consultants to research and document the history of the Lefkara lace-making and how it influenced the local society. After the study was completed, the formal application was made. The petition was accepted, and the recognition was received and an action plan was developed.
According to UNESCO, cultural heritage does not end at monuments and collections of objects. It also includes traditions or living expressions inherited from ancestors and passed on to descendants, such as oral traditions, performing arts, social practices, rituals, festive events, knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe or the knowledge and skills to produce traditional crafts. The organization believes the importance of intangible cultural heritage is not the cultural manifestation itself but rather the wealth of knowledge and skills that is transmitted through it from one generation to the next.
Lefkara is ensuring preservation of its lace-making tradition for generations to come with the Lefkara Handicraft Centre, which teaches the craft, along with the village's other art of filigree silver. Pictures of the tradition being carried out were collected and interviews were conducted--many of the practitioners were quite elderly.
The Centre is housed in a building that belonged to the committee of the village’s main church – the Holy Cross - and was donated to Lefkara Municipality. The church committee also contributed financially to the project, which additionally received EU funding following a pilot scheme by the Cyprus National Commission of UNESCO – the body that cooperates with UNESCO to implement and promote projects and activities in various areas, including culture.
As we took our leave of Lefkara, I felt both a sense of gratitude at having met masters of this age-old art, and sadness that such a piece of Cypriot’s cultural fabric might be relegated as museum relics. But then I remembered Stella’s parting words and took heart that whether or not Lefkara’s lace-making tradition endures as an economic force, it will live on.
“Every mother teaches her daughter,” Stella said. “Mine will learn--she has to. Even if she doesn’t want to continue with it, all the young ladies must know how to do it. “
I understood Stella’s observation that maintaining the tradition is not an option but an imperative—although I could not necessarily have made that claim a few years ago.
Flaunting tradition is in fact a time-honored hallmark of youth, a rite of passage central to the human experience. If the urge to assert independence is suppressed, it will only surface later, likely coming out sideways in expressions that can be more painful and less understood than the awkward angst of adolescent rebellion.
A pattern equally familiar to those who have stitched together some Life experience is the universal desire to feel connected, even while maintaining one’s own distinct identity.
It is hard for me to imagine a tradition that better embodies this evolution than Lefkara lace, with designs that are created through not only interwoven threads but also the spaces between them.