By Paul Lambis
There is a rumour that the women in the village of Lefkara think they are rather special, some even classifying themselves as originally Italian, rather than Greek. The fact remains that in some instances, they would not be far from wrong. First and foremost, Lefkara is famous almost the world over for its lace, and the crux of the matter of the ‘Italian Women’ is that the origins of this delicate art form are in fact Venetian and even Leonardo da Vinci came and took some of the lace for his cathedral in Italy.
History tells us that the specific embroideries, or Lefkaritika, date back to 1191, during the time of Venetian occupation of Cyprus; apparently the Venetian women were quite partial to the village of Lefkara, which is quite high in the mountains surrounding Nicosia and as such was extremely popular with the wealthy Venetians as a summer retreat.
There are two theories regarding how this form of lace-making, which was more commonly associated with the Italian world at the time, managed to become so very much a part of traditional Cypriot culture. Firstly, it has been said that the Venetian women graciously shared their skills with the local women; the second, and possibly more feasible explanation is that the local women, in their capacity as cleaners and servants, would have come into close contact with the household linen of the wealthy holidaymakers. Described as having keen minds and eyes, the local women had managed to copy the style of this original Venetian lacework. Leonardi da Vinci was so impressed with their adaptation, that he took a piece of the work, with an original ‘Cypriot’ design called Potamos to dress the altar of the cathedral in Milan.
Today, Lefkara lace is synonymous with unbelievably fine and detailed work. As is the case with most work of this nature, the tradition is becoming quite rare, as the already dwindling number of young women of the village are not really interested in learning what has been an art form passed down from mother to daughter through many generations. In times of old, the men of the village would have embarked on great voyages both throughout Cyprus and beyond, travelling as far as France, England, Turkey, Spain, Greece, Germany and other countries to sell their wives’ famous products. Now, it is even difficult to find any form of Lefkaritika throughout Cyprus with the village itself being the main source for this centuries-old lace-art.
As a specific form of art, the lace features unique characteristics which can help potential buyers and collectors identify original Lefkaritika. First and foremost, the lace will always have a neutral colour, with both sides of the cloth looking the same. The specific designs, of which there are about ten, mostly reflect aspects of nature, create light and shadow and are both geometric and can be interchanged. Single thread is always used and even the kind and quality of the thread is planned down to the last detail – French DMC cotton perlé and only ever in white, brown and ecru.
Making lace seems to have really inspired some of the ladies in Lefkara; one of them even went to Alexandria in Egypt to sell the many samples of the lace she gathered from her fellow inhabitants. In 1896, a lady called Theofila Hadjiandoni tried to sell the wares to the wealthy Greek ladies of Alexandria and while her first attempt was deemed unsuccessful, she came back from her trip armed with the knowledge of what the ladies wanted. The second time she went back with her husband, this time armed with what she knew would sell and was so successful that not only did others from the village start selling their produce, but the Egyptian market, usually flooded with its own superior quality cotton products, was overtaken by these beautiful works of art from a little village in the small island of Cyprus.