If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it.
Johan Huizinga, 1872 – 1945
During a 2010 visit to Cyprus, I wanted to see Lefkara lace, so I made a quest to view the fabled traditional handiwork of Lefkara—lace so finely wrought that Leonardo da Vinci traveled here to purchase pieces to adorn Milan Cathedral.
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. 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 the handiwork door-to-door in England and 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.